The idyllic town of Shirakawa-go in Japan was a place I really didn’t want to miss when visiting the country in winter. Like most people, I’d seen the perfect picture of those old timbered houses with the high, arched rooftops covered by metres of snow, and had a hard time accepting that it was a real photograph and not say, a painting of a Christmas scene adorning a box of very up-market mince pies. Lucky us (well at least I thought at the time) we’d planned our trip on time for the annual Shirakawa-Go Illumination festival. Happening for 4 days per year (4 individual days spread out over a month or so), we’d arranged for our visit to coincide with it. I was so excited, hoping for the prettiest photos and, if luck would have it, time to spend in a lovely home-stay. That plan went out of the window very quickly, most festivals in Japan are very, very popular, and visitor numbers are strictly limited. Even tickets for the bus and entrance proved difficult to obtain, they go on sale at 9am local time two months before the event, and are generally sold out completely by 9:30. A frantic half hour of hitting the redial button on two separate mobile phones ensued before we finally got through to the sales line and learned, to our immense joy, that we’d just snagged the last two tickets! A homestay however, was out of the question, most are already allocated to locals or family members, and those few available to tourists are generally booked up a long time in advance.
And I do mean a long time. If you’re hoping to stay in Shirakawa-go during next year’s illumination festival, then your best hope of success is to slip some fresh plutonium in the DeLorean and make your reservation some time in the autumn of 1768.
Close to cancellation, the danger of winter in Japan :
As was the case during our trip to Jigokudani, we came, again, pretty close to the cancellation of our visit. Once in Takayama the snow kept on falling, and concerns started emerging regarding the safety of the festival due to strong snow storms in the village of Shirakawa-go. Several metres of snow had fallen, and the blizzard was still ongoing, roads were barely cleared and many didn’t seem to think it would be possible to drive there.
Luckily enough, Nohi buses seem to be ready for anything and, after some deliberation and with snow chains fitted and heaters set to max, the expedition was underway. The only problem being that due to the conditions, our bus arrived at Shirakawa-go well behind schedule, and the return trip would not be delayed to compensate. Thus, by the time we were actually deposited on-site amidst the snow drifts, we would have less than two hours to see the town and return to the bus. Insufficient time, for sure, but immeasurably preferable to an all-out cancellation.
Want to go to the viewpoint ? Come early or run.
Sadly for me I’m a gambler and I thought even with the delay and the tight schedule, it was worth trying to make the bus heading up the mountain to the famous viewpoint, to get that perfect picture of Shirakawa-go. I rushed my other half through the crowds, slipped a few times clinging dearly on my ice-encrusted camera, and got in the queue… a massive queue that did not seem to end.
Said queue was moving quickly initially, but then, all of a sudden like a spell broken, the queue dispersed and everyone went back to meandering off in different directions. This is Japan people, if the sign says it closes at 18.30, it closes at 18.30, regardless of whether there are 500 tourists or the Emperor of Japan waiting outside in the cold. “Sorry your Majesty, it’s 18:32. Better luck next year!”
I’d had us to waste a good half hour queuing for something we would not get to see. Frozen and disappointed we headed back to the village to see the individual houses which, alone, proved to be well worth making the trip in the first place.
Various viewpoints are set up around the village for people to photograph Shirakawa-go in all it’s splendor, but after the first half dozen, my camera succumbed to the bitter cold, refusing to take pictures and instead displaying a variety of incomprehensible error messages.
“Good!” pronounced my other half. “You’ve got pictures already, now we can actually enjoy the views without rushing around panicking about angles and lighting, or battling to erect tripod gear in wait-deep snowdrifts. We’re on our honeymoon after all, not making a documentary on the mating habits of the arctic walrus!”
And, with the fairy-tale scene laid out before us, with the stars twinkling in the night sky and the snowflakes swirling around, just this once, I’d be tempted to acknowledge, he might have had a point.
A home stay during the Shirakawa-go illumination is not an option.
But here is the thing… Unless you plan your trip years in advance, unless you’ve already stayed in Shirakawa-go in the past and have the private number of a local home stay in the farmhouses, your chances are extremely low.
As this might have been a big problem in 2017, the local tourism office has prepared a page where you can request accommodation. If you are indeed planning to be there in January-February 2018 please fill their form out NOW! (note that this post date from October 2017!)
If you do get lucky and are able to stay the night then… I envy you… Oh and make sure you do get a bus to go and come back from the town. Because of the bookings you will want to do this probably at the same time as your home stay reservation. Now go on lucky reader, don’t be shy, if through some fortune, bribery, old-boy network connections, or good old fashioned racketeering you have got your name on the booking list, feel free to gloat a little in the comments, I’ll only be mad a little (and probably beg you for your address!)
Plan your trip very early to enjoy the Shirakawa-go Illumination festival.
As I did mention before, you will want to plan your trip early. Winter in the Japanese Alps is popular and everything gets filled up quickly. A popular spot like Shirakawa-go is no exception. 6 months in advance is a good amount of time.
Dates for 2018 are now out and are the following:
January 21, 2018
January 28, 2018
February 4, 2018
February 12, 2018
Make sure to plan accordingly already and to give yourself plenty of time to find a fall back if you cannot execute your first plan.
Note that you can also drive there yourself, but the parking on that day will most likely be filled up just as quickly as the bus tickets, and you need to feel comfortable driving in that much snow. If that’s not the case then, once again, the bus is your only option.
Photography tips (and others) for the Shirakawa-go illumination festival.
Please do not forget that it gets incredibly cold in town, it’s winter after all, so cover yourself as much as possible!
If you are planning on taking photos of the event then a tripod is highly recommended. Just get a light one that’s easy to navigate as you might now want to constantly put it back in the bag and out.
I’ve I mentioned that it’s really really cold? Yes? Good, then don’t forget extra batteries for your camera and also remember to put the camera back in your bag as often as possible so it won’t freeze.
If you need to know more you will find here the official website of the illumination with information in English. It’s worth reading.
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