Tour buses in droves stop at Shirakawago Village. We’re all here. We, the fortunate. Italians. Americans. French. Singaporeans. Chinese. I can’t blame the tour operators or those packed into the coaches for being here. After all, I hopped off one of those buses myself.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is on Japan’s tourist circuit for a reason. Just a couple of hours from the hub of Takayama, the thatched roof, A-frame homes of Shirakawago are the main attraction. When seen from the mountainous overlooks surrounding the valley, the tiny enclave is an idyllic view into Japan’s cultural past, the very glimpse that most tourists hope to see.
Natural and traditional beauty aside, our hosts in Shirakawago seem jaded, put off by the influx of visitors. If their faces and curt responses are indicators, the residents of Shirakawago are already “over it.”
I don’t know what the residents of Shirakawago think about the tourism boom. I don’t bother to ask if my assumptions about the clear Catch 22 are correct. I worry that my clarifying questions will only serve as salt in an open wound. I choose to withhold my queries and simply wonder if those who live here would rather see their home overrun with umbrella-pumping-tour-guides or if they would choose the more solitary, less economically prosperous existence of days gone.
I continue through the village as a voyeur, stopping by a pond to take a photograph of a Shiragkawago home. A million others before me have taken this photo and I, again, realize that I am not creating anything special or unique. Even though I am producing the photos for a travel photography client, I am just like every other tourist here. I am a spectator. I take, take, take and give nothing back save the tiny sprinkle on the local economy.
I worry about this special village and hope that Shirakawago has peace with the decisions it makes about its future.