We left Kyoto early in the morning to travel to Takayama. As always I already did research on how to get there. It said to take the Tokaido shinkansen from Kyoto to Nagoya (35-45 minutes travel time) then the JR Hida limited express to Takayama (140 minutes travel time). That was the plan, but it didn’t happen.
Originally I didn’t plan on going to Takayama. My destination was Shirakawa-go, but there are no trains that go to Shirakawa-go. There are buses to Shirakawa-go from Kanazawa or Takayama, both places are accessible by trains. However, almost all buses are fully booked, and there was no way we could get to Shirakawa-go without getting stranded there, and accommodations in Shirakawa-go are all fully booked. But I couldn’t give up on Shirakawa-go because it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and it looked like a winter wonderland from the pictures online. So I looked for tour options. Between Takayama and Kanazawa I chose Takayama because it looked really beautiful and ancient from the pictures. Good thing I was able to find a half-day tour to Shirakawa-go for ¥4400. Note that the bus fare is around ¥1800, so it wasn’t a bad deal. I was able to book a reservation online for an afternoon tour without paying anything, since payment will be made at the bus during the tour. This option turned out to be a good thing.
We were in a hurry that morning because of the tour that we have to catch up at 1:20 PM, and we only have one night in Takayama. We got to Nagoya at around 9 AM, then we were told by employees at the train station that all trains to Takayama are cancelled for the day due to heavy snow. Our hearts sank, and our first thought was to give up the Shirakawa-go tour and look for a place to stay in Nagoya for that night. I thought hard and fast, and thankfully my problem solving skills worked better under pressure (a trait I gained from studying Engineering). I was able to find an alternative route, which is to take a bus from Gifu station to Takayama. And so we took our chances and got on a train to Gifu. It was almost 10 AM when we arrived in Gifu and we had to look for the bus stop. A kind Japanese woman gladly guided us to the bus ticketing office.
Thankfully there were buses that travel to Takayama that day. It seemed we were meant to go to Takayama and Shirakawa-go after all. The next bus was at 10:30 and there were available slots, the buses after that were fully booked. It’s a two-hour trip so we could still catch our Shirakawa-go tour. And so we got on the 10:30 bus and gladly paid ¥2400 for the fare.
The bus ride to Takayama was unforgettable, over hills and valleys and underneath huge mountains through countless large and small tunnels. The views are breathtaking, especially around halfway through the trip and snow started falling. I got so excited at the first sight of snow, having never seen snow my whole life in a tropical country. Later on the snow fell heavier and heavier, and the roads and surroundings became covered in snow which got much thicker as we moved along. My excitement turned to worry when the surroundings became almost invisible due to very heavy snow and the bus was running much slower. When suddenly a truck was plowing snow ahead of us and some roads became impassable, I thought to myself that this was the price to pay for making things happen against all odds.
The trip seemed to take forever, and we finally gave up the idea of going to the hotel and leaving our things before joining the tour. It was already 1 PM when we arrived in Takayama bus terminal, which is very near the JR station. Good thing the tour pick up spot was just outside the train station, and we just walked a little to the bus, which was waiting just for us. We were not late, we were just the last ones to arrive.
The bus left as soon as we arrived and the tour guide started talking. He was the only perky Japanese person I met during the entire trip. He told us that trains to Takayama don’t always get cancelled, just about one day in a year when there is extremely heavy snow. And we visited Takayama on that one lucky day this year.
The trip to Shirakawa-go took about an hour, and it was then I saw the longest tunnel I’ve ever seen, which took about 10 minutes travel time between entering and leaving the tunnel. The heritage village of Shirakawa-go lay outside the long tunnel, then we got out of the bus and started our tour of Japan’s winter wonderland.
The village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, a UNESCO world heritage site, is among the places with the heaviest snowfall in Japan, and we came on one of its coldest days. We had two hours to tour the entire village, unfortunately we couldn’t go to the observatory deck because the heavy snow would prevent us from seeing anything. So we just strolled around the village. Its numerous wooden gassho-style houses that have been around for centuries are truly majestic, a testament to the amazing resourcefulness and resilience of the Japanese people. “Gassho” means prayer and the thatched roofs of the houses are designed that way to easily shed snow.
In spite of the beautiful scenery, it was not a pleasant tour due to the raging snow blowing from every direction. At times we could hardly see anything, and I couldn’t even take any pictures because my bare hands don’t stand a chance against the freezing cold even for a few seconds. The pictures above were taken by my friends. At one point we had to enter a cafe and had a cup of hot chocolate in order to take a break from the raging snow.
We went back to the bus after taking a few more pictures. It was a good thing we took the tour because we didn’t have to walk very far to the bus stop and we could go back to the bus and get warm if ever we get too cold. We got to the bus 15 minutes early, and yet we were the last ones to arrive.
We had a quiet trip back to Takayama. Then we walked all the way to our hotel under heavy snow, carrying all our luggage. Our hotel room was a lovely Japanese-style room, and we were so pleased to be able to sleep on futons.
That night we went out and strolled the streets of Takayama. It was snowing hard, and we seemed to be the only ones roaming around and trying hard to take pictures of the snow-clad streets and traditional wooden houses. To top it all off, we drank sake (rice wine) before going to sleep.
Due to the very cold weather, we didn’t start the morning early on the following day. It was almost noon when we went to Hida Folk Village, around 3km away from our hotel. We walked all the way, but the beautiful scenery made the very long walk very pleasant. The weather was much better than the previous day, with only a slight snowfall. It was indeed a walk in the winter wonderland, an ancient wooden winter wonderland.
HIDA FOLK VILLAGE
Hida Folk Village is Takayama’s treasure. It’s an open air museum filled with ancient traditional wooden houses that have been relocated from nearby areas. Not all houses are accessible during winter, but some of the houses are open for viewing. It’s like a little Shirakawa-go, but perfect with the sunny weather. And guess who I found? It’s Totoro!
And here are some of the houses.
I got lost in wonder and amazement that I lost track of time. I spent almost two hours inside the village, and my phone crashed due to the cold. It was something that never happened to me before and I was worried. Then I found out later on that batteries crash at extremely cold temperatures because of no chemical reaction. You just have to expose them to higher temperatures to revive them.
We walked back to the hotel to pick up our things and headed for the train station. The weather was much better so the trains were running again and we didn’t have to worry about getting stranded that day. And then we were off to our final destination for this trip, one of the world’s most advanced cities, Tokyo.