New Year’s Day! The first day of the year consisted of us making our way up to the picturesque Shirakawa-go village!
The Shirakawa-go village, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, is home to the traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses that you’ve probably seen on postcards. What’s cool about these houses is the way they’re able to withstand the heavy snowfall during the winter season. The snow will pile up and you end up seeing a sea of white on the roof of all the village houses. It really makes you feel like you’re in a winter wonderland.
We took the Nohi bus, which was included as a benefit in our Takayama-Hokuriku JR pass. To get to the village, you can take the bus from either Takayama or Kanazawa. My initial concerns with the bus ride was the fact that we weren’t able to reserve our seats for the bus ride home, meaning if we didn’t get on a bus at the right time, we’d probably be stranded in the village. Coupled with the fact that it was New Year’s day, I assumed the buses wouldn’t be as frequent too. We decided to make a mental note to leave by 4.50pm ish. My worries would then be quashed by the sheer level of service the Japanese bus conductors offer, which I will get to in a bit.
Right here we have the Shirakawa-go bus station. When we first got off and went in to ask the information counter on places of interest, I immediately saw a sign that said:
“To accommodate the number of tourists, there will be extra buses making their way to the Shirakawa-go bus stop…” or something along those lines.
I couldn’t really imagine having to work extra hard on New Year’s day, as it was such an important day for the locals to take the day off to visit the temples for their New Year prayers. But the fact that they took into consideration the influx of tourists to the village, was really commendable.
We went to the counter, and rented some snow boots for about (¥)800 per pair. The lady at the counter gave us a map, then told us the path we should take to explore the entire village. The snow was pretty crazy early in the morning so we decided to put our bags in a locker. (which you have to pay for but I can’t remember how much)
We decided to head to the observation deck first. Starting from 9am, a shuttle bus comes every 20 minutes to ferry tourists from the base stop up to the observation deck where you can see all the houses in all its pretty white glory. The fee is (¥)200. You can actually walk to the observatory in 20 mins from the bus terminal but that’s not allowed during winter.
Yeah so the morning wasn’t exactly the best time for viewing. The snow was really heavy and we could barely get the scenery on camera. At night, the houses are lit up. As I don’t have a photo of what Shirakawa-go looks like at night, here is a photo I shamelessly stole from Google as reference.
We lined up to take a group photo with the scenery in the background, but again there wasn’t much to be ‘scene’ due to the weather.
The snow really began to pile up as we waited for the shuttle bus to bring us back down.
While we were waiting for the bus, Brandon decided to attempt to evolve into a human snowman by standing absolutely still, crossing his arms to collect the snowfall with his big puffy body.
The shuttle bus came, so we helped Brandon dust off his excess snow. Much to the amusement of an old Japanese couple in front of us, we continued dusting Brandon even when there wasn’t anymore snow because we just wanted to hit him.
Then, it was time to walk around the village!
After a bit of walking and souvenir shopping, we were really hungry. We couldn’t really find much food around the village (possibly due to New Year’s Day) so we settled for some croquettes. Eating hot croquettes on a snowy day just makes the experience so much better.
We continued walking and eventually came to one of the big village houses, the Wada House!
The Wada House, built in 1800 is the largest gassho style house in Shirakawa-go. It is home to the Wada family, who were involved in the explosives and raw silk trade. The house contains many of the traditional artifacts and items used in their everyday life. On the first floor you’ll see plenty of old artifacts and on the second floor you’ll see things related to the silkworm trade. The view from the second floor is great too!
We took a look outside and we finally saw a really pretty view. The snowfall had subsided and we could actually get stuff on camera now!
Seeing this, we brisked through the other artifacts in the house and headed outside!
Everywhere we looked, we saw a mixture of the white snow together with the trees in their winter state. Just being able to see/feel the stark contrast of nature in the village compared to back home in Malaysia was surreal. It was a lot to take in and pictures really don’t do the place justice.
These farmhouses were designed to withstand the harsh conditions of winter. I never expected a straw house could be so sturdy.
We came across a shrine. Kenneth and I went in to check it out while Brandon and Derek stayed out because they wanted to play with snow.
When we were finished with the shrine, we went outside and we were greeted with a bit of sun!
We continued to pamper our eyes with the beautiful scenery, as we noticed a queue for a snack shop. They sold Hida beef buns and I was feeling hungry, so I decided to queue up to buy one. The beef aroma grew stronger as I approached the counter. I could resist no more as I took out my wallet and proceeded to purchase..
So as you can see, in my right hand, I hold an ice-cream. The ice-cream was made with Hida milk, which I grew fond of after trying out the delicacies in Takayama. What you might not be able to see was the matcha powder that was dusted onto the ice-cream. It tasted really good and I ate it simultaneously with my Hida beef bun, which also tasted very nice. I’m an advocate for eating ice-cream during winter time. If you don’t eat ice-cream during the winter you’re not enjoying winter right.
We saw this random pond as I was busy gobbling my ice-cream. The fish were swimming really slowly, probably due to the winter season.
As the snow on the ground was melting, the road became a bit more difficult to walk on. The snow boots we rented were a lifesaver for stepping into deep snow and having a solid grip on the road. We saw people wearing regular sport shoes slipping occasionally. At least I know I did.
Normally I would bring a pet to a park. I found out that day you can bring your pet to a snowy village too.
As usual, the dogs drew squeals of delight from other tourists, mainly girls, who couldn’t resist going up close and saying hi.
This is a very long bridge suspended over the river. It was challenging to walk across due to the frozen snow on the bridge making the path slippery. Coupled with the insane number of people who cross the bridge to get over to the other side of the village, one would ask why bother? Well…
…and if that’s not enough, when you make it pass the bridge, you get a pretty good vantage point of the village and the mountains.
Funny enough, crossing over to the other side led us to the supposed ‘entrance’ of the Shirakawa-go village. Whereas we started from inside the village.
The sky was getting dark again, so we decided to head back to our starting point, but before we left, we had to stop by the village onsen!
Yeah, no photos allowed in an onsen. We don’t take nudes either.
But it was a pretty good onsen as it was open air. We got to see the snowfall as we soaked our tired bodies in the water! Only event I could remember here was when Kenneth almost got scolded as he dipped his towel into the onsen water, much to the chagrin of this angry looking Japanese dude.
The onsen was a fitting end to an eventful day at what I consider one of the best places I’ve ever visited.
And that’s it!
Closing thoughts for this place:
I can’t praise Shirakawa-go enough. It definitely lived up to the hype of a prime tourist destination spot for the winter season. We didn’t visit all the gassho houses due to time constraints (and also varied interests amongst ourselves) but the views and scenery left us more than satisfied. My only regret was we didn’t get to spend the night due to amateur planning on my part, but I’ll be going again next year during Autumn so maybe I’ll get a chance to snap photos of Shirakawa-go at night!
Kyoto is up next!
Maybe if I stop procrastinating I might actually finish my Japan blogs before December.
One of the main goals for this trip was to see snow in Japan. Takayama definitely had plenty of that.
On average, temperature in late December- early January was:
Day: -5 to 5 degrees Celcius
Night: -10 to -2 degrees Celcius
Disclaimer: Numbers based on a very foggy memory of me checking weather forecasts.
Continuing from the previous blog, we arrived at Takayama late in the evening. Worn out from the travelling time, we proceeded to walk to our Airbnb accommodation.
We stayed with our Airbnb host, Masanori-san, who was there to greet us when we arrived. He had a small quaint house, filled with the most basic amenities. After showing us around, we unpacked and immediately asked the world’s most difficult question:
“What’s for dinner?”
Masanori-san was kind enough to recommend a local diner to us, and we had our first Japanese Tempura Udon experience…
We were not able to take photos of our food (or rather, we forgot) but if you ever visit Takayama please visit this small shop if you wish to try really good Tempura Udon.
After what was a very satisfactory meal, we decided to walk around to look for a convenience store.
We eventually found the convenience store, bought ice-cream, a few snacks, then headed back to our accommodation. Yes, you read that right. Ice-cream during a winter’s night is the best in Japan.
Masanori-san gave us a bunch of coupons for us to use at a nearby sento(communal bathhouse). We had a bit of time left before the bathhouse closed, so we decided to rush to get our shower before a good night’s rest!
Upon reaching the sento, we handed the coupons to the attendant and we proceeded to the changing room. There, we were greeted with a crapton of naked dudes wiping themselves down/getting ready for their bath.
Public baths usually have amazing shampoos, but I remember this particular one had none. You had to bring your own washing liquids. Which was perfectly fine since Masanori-san had already prepared 4 baskets filled with shampoo and shower gel for us. (shoutout to him he was a pretty good host)
So the idea was to wash ourselves off, then get a dip in the hot baths. We came out feeling incredibly refreshed, while suddenly gaining resistance to the cold weather that initially plagued us when we first arrived!
We headed back to our accommodation, but not before stopping by a random vending machine to get some awesome drinks. Japanese vending machines are great.
We woke up the next day, ready to head out to explore more of Takayama. The moment we stepped outside, we were greeted with dainty snowfall! Seeing actual snowfall for the first time was so exciting, the inner kid in me tried not to go crazy. We layered up and headed to the first stop of the day!
This market, situated beside the Miyagawa river, is visited by locals and tourists alike. The market has people selling groceries and food and there are 3 main things you have to try:
This was the first stall we visited in the market. Together with her daughter, this nice lady prepares uber-hot takoyaki that’s best enjoyed on a cold winter day. There’s just something about eating hot things during the winter that makes it extra special.
I put the first ball in my mouth, and i burned my tongue. This stuff is extremely hot, so best to let it cool for a bit before actually attempting to ingest it. The texture and flavours of the Takoyaki were incredible. Being in Malaysia, I’ve always felt that no Takoyaki stall could get the consistency of the ball right, as it always ends up super starchy. The octopus inside was soft, not rubbery, and a great filling accompaniment. At (¥)700 for 12 balls, you’d be crazy to skip this.
Takayama is one of the few places in Japan where Hida beef is accessible. Hida beef, unique to the Hida region, is the specific name given to beef from black-haired Japanese cattle that have been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. Hida Beef must be confirmed and certified as Yield Score of Grade A or B by the Hida Beef Brand Promotion Conference, and have a Firmness and Texture Grade of 5, 4 or 3, as per the Japan Meat Grading Association’s grading system. (info stolen from http://hidagyujapan.jp/index.php?lang=#About)
In the market, we found many stalls selling Hida beef in steamed buns, skewers and croquettes. The beef had a very unique taste,
If you are a beef lover, you must must must must try at least one Hida beef delicacy. If you are like us, you’d try them all. If you’re rich, go to a Hida Beef Wagyu restaurant and eat a steak cut, it’ll probably change your life.
This shopkeeper had the funniest stoner face I’d ever seen, but he makes beef skewers from heaven. I didn’t want to chew the beef in my mouth because I wanted the taste to stay on my tongue forever.
This NOIX de COCO is pudding in a jar. You can have this hot, but I liked the pudding cold. It tastes great and for about (¥)500 or so, definitely worth trying!
Other notable delicacies to try:
We stumbled across a big souvenir shop. We went in.
It’s worth noting that Hida milk snacks are also available at most souvenir shops in the Hida region. They’re great souvenirs for friends/family!
The only thing that we discovered wasn’t worth its price tag was some Hida Beef Curry that Derek and Brandon bought. There was no beef in it. Only curry. And it costs (¥)1600. Yeah. Don’t get that stuff.
The Miyagawa river complimented our the morning market stroll. Pictures don’t do it justice, but I need to make this blog post interesting so here:
After a very good morning market visit, it was time to head on to another attraction!
When Kimi no Nawa (Your Name) was released in 2016, there were many picturesque landmarks depicted that were adapted from their real-life counterparts in Japan. This shrine was where where Mitsuha performs a Japanese traditional dance with her little sister in the movie. The walk up to the shrine was filled with sights of snowy trees and snowy pavements.
Snow was abundant. So Derek decided to stop every few minutes or so to collect snow, to build a massive snowball. He would do this for the remainder of the day.
Yeap. So this is the shrine where the dance occurred in the movie. Then we walked up.
These wooden plaques you see are called ema(picture horse). People write wishes on these plaques to be conveyed to the Gods. It’s a cool tradition and many of the wishes on the ema we saw here had cute drawings on them.
I gave up on the snowball contest, but I wanted to try a camera trick I saw a while back, so I got myself some snow and hey, presto! this was the result:
After having a ton of fun with snow, we headed on to our next stop, Nakabashi Bridge!
We walked for about 15 mins, finally arriving at a very touristy spot. There were many people taking photos at the bridge because the view was crazy. The bridge itself is complimented by all 4 seasons, and is said to be even prettier at night.
Like food, Japan’s got a ton of spots with great scenery. This place was definitely one of them.
..and it was only just the beginning, as we went to other various spots that would leave us utterly speechless with how pretty they were.
We decided to walk further around the area, and eventually came across a very interesting alley.
Kami Sannomachi is a cultural conservation district where you can see what a merchant town looks like from the Edo period to the Meiji era (stolen from https://www.japanhoppers.com/). It’s a long street that is home to many sake breweries and food shops! It’s great to visit this place in the winter because breweries open up sake/wine tasting sessions for locals and tourists. We came across a brewery that was conducting a sake tasting session, but decided to find a place to eat first as drinking sake on an empty stomach is a very bad idea.
If you ever visit Japan close to the New Years, you’ll find most shops closed as, well, most of them have gone to prepare for New Years celebrations. Thankfully, we found this homey restaurant that served Sukiyaki, so we stopped there for lunch.
The pricing for this place was a bit on the high side, about (¥)1000+ per person. Nevertheless, it got the job done and our stomachs were full. So, off to the sake brewery!
To try the sake, we paid (¥)700 yen and the shopkeeper gave us a cup (which was a great souvenir too!) for us to pour each of the sake in. I could only manage to sample 4 before my head turned into a helium balloon. I never really cared much for the taste of strong alcohol but the aftertaste of the sakes were intriguing enough for me to try more.
This store also sold Hida Beef Jerky. I bought a box for (¥)1000. It was one of the more expensive souvenirs but the beef jerky was well worth it!
After the sake sampling, we spent a while more walking through the streets before we making our way towards another section of town.
This place was a bit of a letdown, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and say we didn’t really know what to look for. I really wanted to do a museum and we found one, so I went in with Kenneth.
If you’re a fan of glassware and modern art, definitely give this place a go. Otherwise, explore the Hida folk village which probably has more to offer. Unfortunately, since it was getting late, we decided to call it a day and head back.
We picked up food from another nearby Lawson convenience store. Convenience store food is a great way to save on food, as you pay less but get really good meals. Over the course of the trip, we sampled everything convenience stores had to offer, but I can safely say that all of us enjoyed the Karaage (fried chicken) available at all convenience stores. Mainly Brandon and Derek. I believe Brandon spent close to (¥)10,000 on fried chicken alone.
We spent the rest of the night chilling in our room, tired after a long day of walking, while admiring the souvenirs we bought. Our first actual day of travelling gave us many laughable moments, like Derek’s snowball and my scarf being a snow magnet. We discussed our plans for the next day then called it a night, as we had to start the next day early in the morning.
Next part will be on Shirakawa-go, a mandatory destination for all who love winter!
man these blogs are getting harder and harder.
I’m actually having trouble trying to remember everything that happened 6 months ago
Getting to Takayama from the Kansai Airport was a huge ordeal for us, mainly because we wanted to save money by using the benefits we get from the Takayama-Hokuriku JR pass. Based on the recommendation we got from a lady at the JR office, we were supposed to follow this pathing:
KIX > Shin-Osaka > Kanazawa > Toyama > Takayama
We woke up early at around 5.30am to ensure we would not miss our train from the airport to Shin-Osaka.
I was seated next to this quiet Japanese dude wearing a face mask. The journey from the Shin-Osaka station was long, so naturally I fell asleep because I’m a sleep glutton. After a while, the person next to me got off the train at one of the stops. It was then Kenneth told me I fell asleep on this poor Japanese dude’s shoulder, who could’ve just nudged me to gtfo but didn’t. What a nice guy.
So we stopped by Kanazawa to wait for a train to Toyama, and we decided we might as well walk around since we had a couple of hours to kill.
When travelling across the various states in Japan, the storage facilities near train stations are great for temporarily keeping your luggage while you waltz around and enjoy the activities a place has to offer. There is no joy in walking around whilst having to lug your big heavy luggage bag. The lockers cost around (¥)300 to (¥)500, and you can store your luggage inside for as long as you want, one-time use.
We were hungry so we decided to grab lunch.
Our first ramen experience in Japan was meh. We had better ramen later on. The gyoza was pretty tasty though.
Picking places to eat in Japan, in itself, is as tricky as picking sightseeing spots. Personally, I wouldn’t fuss too much over where to eat in Japan, since I’m more inclined to spend my money on visiting nice sightseeing spots. Food in Japan generally tastes great everywhere, and the ones that don’t taste that great aren’t downright garbage.
In a nutshell, if you don’t know what’s good, just find the restaurant with the longest queue. Japanese and Malaysians are similar in a sense that we will queue for food if it’s good. Well… maybe not all of us.
So after a great deal of window shopping, we made our way back to the station to catch our train to Toyama…
..and then we realised we messed up our time. We missed our train to Toyama. (phuck)
This meant we had to catch another train, which ended up delaying our journey by 2 hours.
It sucked that we made such a blunder, but we still found ways to keep our spirits up. As shown below..
Being in a cold country means being able to see your breath. So, like cavemen discovering fire for the first time, we spent a great deal of time blowing amongst each other while waiting for the train. Yes, we looked like absolute tools doing this nonsensical crap. Thankfully we were the only ones on the station platform.
The snow got progressively heavier the closer we got to Takayama. It was surreal seeing snow for the first time (for me at least) in such a pretty form. Japan’s snow is like powder, all fluffy and nice to touch.
After a long journey that started from 5.30am, we finally reached the Takayama station at 4.45pm, which meant close to 12 hours of travelling. All because we wanted to utilise our JR pass to the fullest. Definitely could’ve planned the route better but train rides allowed us to really see some nice views.
Next part will be on Takayama!
P.s No more procrastinating Japan blog pls
The purpose of this series of blog posts, is to primarily indulge my personal collection of travel memories. My mom has always been asking me to write more since she thinks I’m pretty good at it, so this is also me being a good, filial son, listening to my mother. I hope that by reading this, you might get some form of a travel bug for Japan, a destination I highly recommend for avid travellers. It really was a fantastic trip with fantastic people, and so I’m documenting it through this blog, which will allow me to engrave the best moments I remember from the trip onto my personal web space. In this trip, we covered Takayama – Shirakawa-Go – Kanazawa – Kyoto – Osaka!
As a kid, I grew up watching a ton of anime. It was my gateway to learning more about the Japanese culture. There’s a saying that goes something like, “whatever you experience when you’re young will shape you.” Being exposed to anime like Digimon, Rurouni Kenshin, and many more, made me want to learn more about the places which inspired various settings in these shows. Naturally, as a kid getting Rm10 for pocket money each week, the idea of saving up for a trip to Japan seemed ridiculous. Fast forward to my early adolescence now, having part-time jobs made the idea a lot more achievable.
When this promotion came out around June 2017, I had no idea myself and 3 other friends would buy flight tickets to Japan on impulse. Going to Japan has always been a personal dream of mine, so when the opportunity to get cheap tickets presented itself, it was really hard to say no. At around RM700 for a return-flight ticket from KL to Kansai International Airport (including additional luggage), the ticket was a steal. We decided to travel to Japan from 29th December 2017 – 12th January 2018, celebrating New Year’s in Japan. As 4 young dudes, most of us being students, we really had to juggle our responsibilities. The 6 months we had leading up to the trip included us penny-pinching, planning and proactively doing whatever we could to ensure our trip to Japan would go on without a hitch.
A lot of our planning was made easier thanks to this amazing Facebook group. Many members of the group were veteran travelers with an abundance of knowledge on Japan, which helped out with recommendations.
The day finally came, we went the airport and soon enough there were four of us bidding goodbye to my parents who decided to send us off.
(Important note: For the purpose of storytelling, my friends names are Kenneth, Derek and Brandon. I am Jerry)
As we approached the security checkpoint, we were joking about how Brandon constantly loses his stuff. So with my incredible genius mind, I suggested whoever forgot/misplaced anything during our travelling time would have to buy a Pablo cheese tart for everyone else to share. Everyone agreed.
…and with my incredible genius mind, I left my backpack at the security checkpoint while we walked towards our boarding gate, realising halfway.
With 1 hour to kill, as we waited to board our plane, we made fun of my genius, took a couple of photos to let the whole world know we were going to Japan, and made fun of Derek’s amazing spelling as he posted a photo to his Facebook wall.
Then we boarded the plane leaving Kuala Lumpur (KLIA2)… (2.45pm local time)
…and after a 6-hour flight, we landed at the Kansai International Airport (KIX)! (9.45pm local time)
The first order of business was to find the JR office to obtain our JR Takayama-Hokuriku pass, which I’ll talk about in the next update. What was interesting was how the man at the Japanese information counter we approached spoke fluent Chinese! We found out where we needed to go and made our way to the JR office, where a lady helped us redeem our JR passes. She also spoke fluent Chinese, conversing with her colleague in the language as well. She helped us make a few train reservations and we went on our way to find a place to eat our very late dinner.
Thanks to this very packed directory, we ended up at a diner that served Beef don. I ordered a big bowl with a mug of Asahi beer and it only cost (¥)700. It was simple but tasted really good! The Japanese are known for their attention to the umami flavours of food after all. No photos of that unfortunately as we were way too hungry.
We then proceeded to rest at our ‘camp’ of benches. We had a long day the next day, so we decided to try and get some sleep. That was at 12:00am. At 12:15am I realised I was not going to be sleeping anytime soon because I could hear a constant annoying ‘ding’ chime that resounded through the entire airport thanks to their loud playback speakers. I gave up trying to fall asleep and decided to take a walk around.
I went to the nearby Lawson convenience store, thinking I could get some water and batteries. I needed the batteries for my handheld sound recorder, a gadget I borrowed from my university to bring to Japan, as I intended to make sound recordings of nature during my travels. Finding the water was no issue, but I noticed there were no batteries displayed. The cashier only spoke Japanese, so before I went to pay, I tried Google Translating the word ‘battery’ and I got ‘denchi’. I proceeded to ask:
“Hi do you sell batteries here?”
The cashier then charged me for just my water and gave me back my change, so I assumed either they didn’t have it or I butchered the pronunciation of the Japanese word really badly so he just completely ignored my question.
I still couldn’t sleep after my little walk around the airport, so I made sure to walk really loudly when returning to ‘camp’. Everyone ended up waking up at around 2:45am and we just started playing cards.
We managed to pass time playing a couple of Cardfight!! Vanguard games. It’s the Japanese card game that allowed us to get to know each other. 🙂 After exhausting our brain cells, we finally decided to get a bit more sleep.
When we woke up, it was time to make our way to Takayama!
…to be continued