January of 2009 was my friend, Trisha's, last month in Japan. My time in Japan could easily be broken into three phases: before I knew Trisha, when Trisha and I travelled around everywhere together and after Trisha went back to the US. Needless to say, for her last weekend in town we had to take in some last bits of sightseeing together.
We spent an awesome day on Saturday in Takayama visiting a street festival and some sake breweries. That evening we met up with some friends who were skiing nearby to spend an amazing night at a beautiful ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn which is like a cross between a bed and breakfast and a spa). On Sunday after saying good-bye to our friends, who were heading out skiing again, Trisha and I set off to the little village of Shirakawa-go. I had been there in the fall and it was lovely so I was eager to see it again during the winter.
We chose to take the scenic way for a slightly longer drive and were rewarded with some amazing views of the mountains and the rivers that flowed through the valleys. We pulled over to the side of the road a few times to grab a picture. Incredible!
After a little over an hour, we finally arrived. Shirakawa-go is a small traditional village located in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture in Japan. A world heritage site, it is famous for the architectural style of its buildings known as gassho-zukuri (literally hands together style). This is in reference to the steeply pitched roofs of the houses which are designed to keep snow from accumulating on them in the winter. The village is comprised of over 100 historic gassho-zukuri homes some of which are still inhabited and some which have turned into museums.
We parked on the outskirts of the little village not too far from Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine so we made that our first stop. The shrine is known for the sake that it makes and its festival, Doburoku Matsuri, which is held in October. On the shrine's grounds is the Doburoku Matsuri Festival Hall which shares the history of the festival and offers free samples of Doburoku sake. The festival hall is closed from November through March so Trisha and I didn't have a chance to visit. The peaceful atmosphere of the shrine among the towering cedar trees still made a visit wandering around the shrine grounds more than worthwhile.
Trisha and I proceeded to walk around town enjoying all the beautiful sights and admiring the architecture of the gassho-zukuri construction. Three of the homes (Wada-ke, Kanda-ke and Nagase-ke) have been turned into museums and for a small fee (each one is ¥300 for an adult, ¥150 for a child) you can go in to see what life was like in these traditional homes. I didn't take any indoor pictures on this trip since I had already been inside on my previous trip so I'll have to share them in another post. If you find yourself visiting Shirakawa-go I would definitely recommend going inside at least one of the homes.
With the huge snowdrifts built up everywhere, someone had dug one out in the middle of town to create a cave with Shirakawa-go (白川郷) written along each side of the entrance. All the Japanese tourists were using it as a photo op and I figured I should play along.
Not all homes in Shirakawa-go are built in the gassho-zukuri style with the steep roofs. Snow accumulation on those flatter roofs could be a problem and we saw a man actually shoveling his roof.
Each of the old homes was surrounded by small plots of land for farming. The reflections of the buildings in some of the exposed rice paddies was really lovely.
After wandering around town Trisha and I decided to head up to Shirayama Viewpoint. The short, steep walk up to the lookout was definitely worth it to see the views of the valley below. It seemed like it was straight out of a fairytale.
Naturally, with that gorgeous view we would be remiss not to get a few shots of ourselves. It is so surreal looking that it almost looks like we are standing in front of a fake photography backdrop.
No place in Japan is complete without the obligatory warning signs about impending doom and disaster and the viewpoint was no exception so I had to snap a picture before we headed back down into town.
As we headed back to the car we grabbed a few more photos as we walked through town savouring all of the magnificent views of the snowy roofs.
At this point is where a normal story would end, but this is not a normal story, this is a Trisha and Lisa story. When we got back to the car I went to put in our destination and the Navi remote was missing. Yes, that's right, I said the Navi remote. What? You have never heard of such a thing? I never had before, either.
Let me back up and explain a little bit about my car and roads in Japan. First, Japan's address system is totally different from Western countries. Instead of a building having a number on a street, towns are divided into neighborhoods, blocks within a neighborhood are assigned a number and the buildings within the block are then numbered. The numbering of the buildings, however, doesn't typically correlate with where on the block it is, but instead when it was built. Only major roads have names, and with the Japanese address system it is virtually impossible to drive someplace you are not familiar with unless you have a Navigation system.
Second, because I am cheap, I decided to lease the most inexpensive vehicle I could when I was living in Japan which turned out to be a used 2002 Toyota Funcargo. The Navi that had been put in the car was quite old and you input the destination through a remote. I've never seen a remote controlled Navi before and I've never seen one since. On the plus side, since the place that I leased my vehicle through specialized in leasing to ex-pats my Navi remote was in English.
Anyway, back to the story, Trisha and I were really stuck. Without the Navi remote we couldn't put in an address and we were pretty sure we would get lost going back. We searched all around the car to see if it had fallen out nearby with no luck. We definitely had the remote when we left Takayama, because we had input the directions to Shirakawa-go. Although we had stopped a few times along our route to take photos, because of the cold we mostly just rolled down the window to take our shots and only got out of the car one time. That spot had to be where we lost the remote. Luckily, Trisha remembered that there was an orange construction crane for some reason near the place we had stopped.
We back tracked our way out of town keeping our eyes peeled for the orange crane. After over half an hour of scanning the roadside we finally spotted it and pulled over. We did a bit of searching and there it was, half buried in the snow.
I was so relieved to have found it that the momentous recovery had to be documented with a photo holding the remote in front of the crane. To be honest we were really lucky and I have no idea how we would have found that same exact spot if it hadn't been for the crane. I'm also super lucky that Trisha remembered that the crane was where we got out of the car. Miss Trish is awesome like that!
We used the remote to put in our destination and we were on the road again. Of course, we made a few stops along the way for more pictures, but after our little incident we prudently made sure to check that the remote was in the car at all times.
If you are interested, check out some more of my travel misadventures with Trisha here: Overnight to the Rice Fields of Banaue, Getting a Ride to the Beijing Opera, The Great ATM Debacle, Japanese Pottery Fun in Seto