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Shirakawa-go Butterfly

Feb 01, 2008 In 1995 UNESCO designated the village of Shirakawa-go a World Heritage Site. Shirakawa-go, located in the mountainous region of Gifu Prefecture, Japan was deemed important because of the traditional gassho-zukuri style farm houses. The steeply pitched, thick layered thatched roofs are designed to protect against heavy snowfall; while designed primarily for functionality, these roofs are elegant resembling 'hands folded in prayer' which is translated from gassho-zukuri. The isolation the mountains brought the region allowed the village to develop a unique culture with the gassho-zukuri style farm houses at the center.

From Takayama to Shirakawa-go - From quaint modern city of 100,000 to World Heritage village population 600 - is about a 2 hour bus ride. The ride takes me wide eyed through scenes of pine forested mountains, rivers cutting through alluvial plains, and farmland with Japanese farmhouses simple and elegant in their design; however, getting my first glimpse of the steep pitched roofs of Shirakawa-go leaves me feeling as if I've gone back in time. Even my planned accommodations at a minshuku gassho-zukuri farm house is a throw back to culture and times past. The minshuku are Japanese versions of a bed and breakfast. As with most minshuku, the bed and breakfast is family run, allowing visitors to experience Shirakawa-go hospitality and lifestyle firsthand. Unlike the hotel in Takayama, there are no locks on the individual rooms, of course with doors made of traditional rice paper what would be the point. The bed was a futon on a tatami floor, the bath a traditional Japanese community style.

As someone who likes to travel independently when possible, I've become aware of culture differences and the problems that can result without the buffer of a local guide. As a traveler that is American, I'm also aware of certain stereotypes attributed to American tourist being indifferent to cultures - usually the stereotypes are unwarranted. Usually. Did I ever tell you about the loud-mouth American wearing a red flower print shirt... well that is another story. As a Japanese-American I was aware of American versus Japanese cultural differences.

Now at this point I must own up to slightly misleading you, you being the reader of this. And if you are reading this far, I would like to thank you*. If you have been paying attention then Shirakawa-go with its small village atmosphere, its traditional minshuku accommodations would be the perfect place for some American versus Japanese culture shock; not to mention my devoting two paragraphs in describing Shirakwa-go then doing a segue into culture differences. In retrospect the small village atmosphere and its traditional minshuku accommodations put me on guard against making a cultural faux pas; at the same time Shirakawa-go having experience with tourists is on guard against putting foreign tourist in a potential cultural faux pas situation. The irony being that my culture shock story happened in the more modern city of Takayama a few days before coming to Shirakawa-go.**

I had been hiking the mountainous regions near Takayama when I injured my ankle. After two days of increased swelling I decided I had better come down and rest. My main requirement in finding a hotel was that it had an ice machine, so I would be able to ice down my now swollen ankle. The first thing I saw when exiting the main train station in Takayama was a familiar American hotel chain. So I limped in the lobby carrying my backpack looking a bit ragged. The familiarity of the American hotel chain extended to the lobby, with its decor and its English signs. In pain, tired, and in need of a shower I limped up to the desk under the sign that announced Front Desk/Check-In, the conversation went something like this:

How much would a single room be?

Well, the desk clerk started in perfect English, it depends on the time of year, in winter it is considered high season because of the skiing nearby, in spring the rates go down, but during summer the rates go back up because of the hiking, but also a consideration are the weekends...

What about tonight? cutting her off, my patience getting the better of me. With just the slightest pause and turn of her head she recovered from my rudeness to inform me it would be something like $40.00US, I do not recall exactly.

Eager to get my ankle under ice I said: I'll take the room.

Oh we don't have single rooms at this hotel, was her unblinking answer.

It was right around this point when I realized what was happening. Having slipped back into my American ways I was expecting direct answers to my questions; the hotel clerk trying to be as polite as possible was answering me indirectly. In Japan directness is considered rude and speaking indirect indicates politeness. In retrospect I believe that the American hotel ambiance along with being tired put me at ease against my cultural sensitivity. So taking a deep breath, I started over, taking a step back from the situation:

I just came from the mountains. While hiking I injured my ankle, I thought it would be prudent to come down and find a nice hotel, such as this one, where I could soak my ankle in ice to reduce the swelling. Is there a possibility that I can stay in a room for two nights, starting tonight?

Now as I write this it sounds a little sarcastic, you'll have to trust me when I say that my tone and demeanor were not sarcastic; by stepping back from the situation I had pictured myself and got the giggles. So while choking back the giggles I tried to speak in a tone and tempo that was slow, calm and polite as possible. The result was that I think the clerk thought I was a freaking lunatic. Later, after I showered, soaked my ankle, and put on some fresh clothes I had a nice relaxed conversation with her, mending some cultural perceptions on both sides.


*Thank you!

**If you have read either of the two Allan Weisbecker's memoirs then the style in this paragraph might sound familiar, not to mention the footnoting. If you haven't read Weisbecker then never mind... although I would recommend reading 'In Search of Captain Zero' and if you enjoy it, move on to 'Can't You Get Along With Anyone?'... then you can come back to read this footnote at which time it will probably make more sense to you, you being the reader. The point being to you, you being the reader that has already read Weisbecker, is last night or actually early this morning I was battling a bout of insomnia (which writing seems to exasperate) and was reading his words. The upshot is that I'm writing this article with less than 2 hours of sleep while still laughing internally, after laughing out loud early this morning, right before I tried to get some sleep. So if you got a laugh out of this paragraph then I am giving the credit to Weisbecker and if you thought badly of the paragraph then I'm putting the blame on Weisbecker.

'Cosmic Banditos' is Weisbecker's first book (being fiction and not the memoir variety - in the strict sense) and is worth a read. (This footnote has become quiet complicated, but I'm resisting the urge to footnote the footnote.)

 Tips, Techniques & Tools Utilized
  EF 17-35mm F/2.8L  


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