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Wednesday, September 20, 2017

When I set Shirakawa-go, the village in the Gifu prefecture declared World Heritage by Unesco, as the first destination in my long trip, I was searching for a "true Japanese spirit", if such a thing can ever exist (Japan has been a set of shifting regions perpetually in war against each other since the beginning of time).

I must admit I think I found it, but it's a bit different from what I expected.

But first thing first, before going, I wanted to see if I was able to find some substitute for my glasses. My friend Yoshi helped me out, and tried some pre-made glasses, but I have a peculiar view problem which isn't particularly heavy, but is hard to correct. For example, I could actually drive without glasses, but it would be a nuisance for me rather than a danger for others.

The "Megane Plaza" (megane means "glasses") seemed a good place to find something better, and the guy at the counter analyzed my old glasses and told me a new copy could be readied in 30 minutes. I couldn't believe it, but he did even more; since I told him those glasses were old and I wanted to change them already, he suggested me a fast check, and we discovered that I actually needed a different correction. The complete visit was free with the glasses, and it took about 10 minutes. All in all, in less than an hour I had my new glasses, much better than the old ones both in their look and in their functionality -- actually the old ones could have been damaging my sight. Also, I spent about 140 pounds, which is a relevant amount of money, but significantly less than what I could have spent for the same service in England -- and which I was in need of anyhow. It looks like the "daikichi" I was bestowed with at the Atsuta Shrine is working quite well!

null Reaching Shirakawa has become easier since an highway connecting the north part of the Tokai region to Nagoya has been built (or I should say, is being built, as most of it is still under construction). Indeed, the first thing I learned going to Shirakawa is that Japaneses have a heavy feet when they lay it on the gas pedal: the highway is all limited to 80, 70 or even 50 km/h, depending on the degree of completion of the infrastructure, but none of the car I met respected any of those speed limits. In many cases, the slowest car was about 30-40 km/h above the limit (usually it was a heavy truck), while the vast majority of the traffic was speeding at above the double of the limit.

The second thing I learned is that Japanese highways are impossibly expensive. The 150 km trip costed something like 4,200 yen (33 pounds, 40 dollars). Just consider that I spent less than 10 dollars in gas for that trip.

And then, I learned why the highway was made to pass right besides this village: Shirakawa-go is a money making machine.
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The village has the structure of a "commercial center" similar to "Osu" in Nagoya, but specialized in souvenirs of the village itself, of the Hida region and of the Gifu prefecture. Tourist reception, as the onsen I am staying for two nights, religious festivals, restaurants, kyosks offering local food at inflated prices and micro museums complete the offer.
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This is a typical house in Shirakawa. Few of them are not a souvenir shop, or a "tea house", or a hostel, or a "museum", or a commercial activity of some sort.

Surprisingly, there's also much agriculture going on. The straw they use as covers for the roof comes from their rice paddies:
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However, the amount of tourist in a mid-week day is impressing, as this view of the bridge between the town and the main parking shows:
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The fact that even a Chinese school has organized a trip in this place is particularly signifying:
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However, the village is not just a souvenir-specialized commercial center. The Hachiman Jingu is a very interesting example of the total synchretism between Buddhism and the ancestral cult of the kamis:
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This that is today a Shinto shrine, was originally a temple in which a local kami was "residing". It was run directly by the buddhist monks living in the village "monastery", the smaller Myouzenji (Temple of the Good Light):
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The two temples served different needs, and had different functions and rites, but the Buddhist monks assumed the role of mediating between the Kamis and the village community, enriching the "basic" Buddhist religion with local details.

This is one piece of the puzzle, but it's the mini-museum in the house attached to the temple, serving the monks, that shows e the true Japanese spirit in is bare form, as if a zen enlightenment suddenly stroke me.

This advanced tools were used to build rice paper and other products derived from the rice straw.
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This village had never lived on the poor mountain agriculture only: it has always been an advanced "industrial" district, and being placed on an important connection road between the two coasts of Japan, it was also serving the transiting voyagers, traders and pilgrims, offering the services of the small but important Hachiman shrines as protection on the dangerous roads.

This village has never been an idyllic pristine community: it had always been a touristic attraction, and a souvenir selling commercial center. Doing things that work and that someone wants to have, at your own pace and in your own house, and charging the things you do with meaning and care, in exchange of a more than adequate price; this is the true Japanese spirit, and Shirakawa, in its souvenir shops selling plastic dolls portraying the Hida region mascotte "Sarubaba", and PET-bottled Shirakawa spring water, is the perfect incarnation of this spirit.


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