A Love Letter to Shirakawa-Go and Takayama

Isabella Madruga headshot
Isabella Madruga
November 14, 2023
A picture displaying Takayama at sunset with clouds in the background.

I did not do much research before going on the IES Abroad field trip to Shirakawa-Go and Takayama. I usually like to leave things as a surprise on IES Abroad field trips and only read the itinerary to get a sense of what I'm doing, and I leave the rest up to our helpful program director. I sure am glad I did that on this field trip because everything I saw was an absolute shock.

Shirakawa-Go is a World Heritage site, something that seems to be extremely common in Japan as I've already been to several World Heritage sites thanks to a combination of personal and IES Abroad trips. The trip there was a scenic 3-hour drive that gave us a small taste of what we were about to see in Shirakawa. We saw small towns, gushing rivers, and mountains golden with orange and yellow leaves. The weather that day certainly helped set the brooding and aesthetic mood. 

A view of the thatched roof houses at Shirakawa-go.

The mountains seemed as if they were volcanoes from the wispy fog that looked as if it was coming off the range. The rain was neither heavy or light, just the right amount to create ASMR-worthy sounds on my umbrella, and the weather was just right where you could wear a nice sweater and feel perfectly fine. Sure, it was annoying that I had to carry an umbrella around, but I wouldn't change the weather for anything. Seeing the famous thatched roofs in action was amazing as only the last few inches of the straw in the roof is exposed, so the water just slides off, keeping the rest of the roof dry. It was absolutely gorgeous, and while there were a lot of tourists, the place was big and wide enough so that it didn't feel like I was in a sardine tin. There were numerous omiyage shops (where I bought my first tote bag after wanting one of the whole trip!), and the highlight of the trip: hida beef sticks. I highly recommend getting one or two sticks of hide beef at one of the shops--they do not disappoint.

A picture of me in front of the mountains in Shirakawa.

I kept on having to repeat to myself that yes, this is real, that I am in Japan, and that this is not some CGI background. I felt like I was straight out of a Ghibli movie, which is something I cringe at when people say 'this feels like an anime!', but it really did feel as if Totoro could pop out at any second. The weather, the scenery, the food, everything was just so beautiful and foreign. I truly felt as if I was in a different country, which I sometimes forget when I fall into routine. IES Abroad trips allow that break in routine and remind you that you are, in fact, studying abroad. One of the things that certainly surprised me was the fact that there were fish in the gutters! I had seen that before on TikTok but had forgotten the location, so when I saw the fish swimming in the gutters/storm drains, it's safe to say I was flabbergasted. 

After admiring the view for a while longer, we explored a museum and learned more about the architecure of the houses. Finally, we wrapped up and headed to our next activity, but I still cannot get Shirakawa-Go out of my head. It was absolutely gorgeous, and I would honestly go back on a foggy and chilly day with a thick sweater, a journal, and a book. I could have stared at those mountains, fog, and houses for hours, and it felt like the weather had been chosen to present Shirakawa in its best state that day. For anybody doing the IES Abroad Nagoya trip—or simply is planning on going to Japan—please prepare for a trip here. 

A view of Hida Village at sunset.

However, the trip did not end there. Shirakawa is often paired with Takayama, a more modern town that still had picturesque views. Before heading to the hotel on Saturday after Shirakawa, we stopped by Hida Village in Takayama and made beckoning cats. This village offered yet another beautiful view, except this time the weather had cleared up just enough for us to see a pink and purple sunset over a beautiful lake and the rest of the park. By this time it was a little uncomfortably cold, so for reference, be sure to pack a warm jacket and bring it with you on this part of the trip. There was an endless amount of orange, brown, and yellow leaves, finally marking the transition from the insufferable Nagoya summer heat to a nice and mild autumn season.

I certainly wish I had more time at Takayama to explore the different museums, so when you come here with IES Abroad, make sure to do some research beforehand on the specific shops and museums they have to maximize your time.  After that, we had a traditional Japanese dinner, which I wasn't a huge fan of, but I felt adventurous trying so many new things and built a new appreciation for the different ingredients used in my cooking versus Japanese traditional cuisine. It was interesting trying so many new things, so if you're an adventurous foodie, definitely look forward to this.

A picture of my friends and I at the Takayama Jinja.

The next day was all about Takayama. We visited the Takayama Jinja, which used to be an old city hall for the most elite of the elite. It was strange walking around this enormous complex, peeking into rooms only high-level politicians had access to as a lowly American foreigner like myself. We walked around the Takayama shopping districts, took pictures by the riverbed, and had lunch at a local abura soba place where I highly considered dropping $50 on hida beef abura soba. I didn't end up doing it (I ordered two hida beef sticks instead) but perhaps if you're an intense foodie, that $50 would be worth it. 

At 2, we all met up again and started our 3-hour bus ride back home (is it just me who loves long bus/train rides?). However, I quickly realized that these places have become one of my favorite places I've visited in Japan, if not my first favorite, even though the trip was quite short. I simply cannot shake the feeling of nostalgia for something unknown, a certain wistfulness that left me wanting to lay down on the gravel and let the rain hit me. If I had been listening to Mitski or Sufjan Stevens that day, I would have simply fled to the woods to start my new life as a forest nymph in the Japanese countryside. 

All of this to say, if you're a fan of looking off yearningly into the distance, dancing in the rain, sitting and pondering, and beautiful sunsets, you will certainly enjoy your IES Abroad trip to these places if you study abroad in the fall. If you're studying abroad in the spring or are simply doing another program and want to travel to these places, I definitely recommend putting this place on your bucket list. I will never stop talking about how much I love these places, and if I had continued to attempt to put it into words, I would have ended up writing an entire literary descriptive novel. Shirakawa-Go and Takayama will always have my heart, and I cannot wait to visit again in the future. 

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Isabella Madruga headshot

Isabella Madruga

I am a senior at Johns Hopkins University studying Writing Seminars (a fancy way of saying creative writing) and Sociology. My main goal in life is to be an author, so when I'm not scrolling on TikTok, I'm writing stories, reading, and daydreaming.

2023 Fall
Home University:
Johns Hopkins University
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