Woodblock printing: Shirakawa

Woodblock printing: Shirakawa

Added In: Articles › Japanese crafts

David Stones

It took years to create the fourth print for the Shirakawa set. Not because it was complex work but because I couldn’t make a winter sketching trip; there’s no railway station and it was once a tough, five-hour drive from Nagoya. Visiting is easier now (see elsewhere in this edition) yet the winter cold is no less intimidating.

In recent issues of Avenues I’ve covered Nagoya’s “Gassho” house and here I report on near where that house came from, the home of many steep roofs where the snow that falls most nights is viewed resignedly as tomorrow’s first job, as for every tomorrow in winter. If you’re a late riser, the roar of snow shovels and trucks at 6.30 a.m. won’t be appreciated but the skill displayed when navigating the unmarked lanes after a night’s snowfall is a sight to see.

Anyway, after leaving the car in Okazaki and taking the Meitetsu to ShinGifu, I took a bus for Shiratori from Gifu’s JR station. Then changed to another “city bus” – one only slightly modified so that the heaters work better. The driver proved very different from his city cousin though, and took on his long, convoluted route at a pace that ignored the icy slush and falling snow. A few lurches here and there as we barreled into blocks of ice dropped from the underside of vehicles ahead were the only distractions while I stared through the condensation running down the windows. Higher we went, round long curves, then through the “snow tunnels” that arch many roads skirting hills or mountains. Sooner than expected, Gassho houses came into view, then the rock-filled dam that created a flooded valley (forcing that Higashiyama Gassho to leave for Nagoya)...

Then snow-covered Shirakawa, which looked strangely familiar even though I’d never been there in mid-winter. Guess I’ve seen so many pictures of it – including a huge poster on a glass door in the heat and humidity of Singapore. Expressways now take traffic off Shirakawa’s two-lane road and visitor cars are reduced by the park-and-ride service, so I walked from the bus stop to a warm welcome from not-often-met Japanese family at their ryokan. On the way, passing rows of souvenir shops that seemingly all had the same items, I wondered how many of those who buy the miniature pairs of straw snow boots can imagine wearing real ones. First-hand memories say this line in footwear was constantly wet, freezing cold for the bare feet inside, and resulted in a lifetime of winter chilblains. Uncomfortable history past, thanks to woollen socks and modern boots (so don’t take shoes for your trip).

On my first evening I roamed the floodlit sections of the village - finding photographers everywhere (plus deep snow drains that no guidebook mentions). Sketching in the dark was not an option and as I never draw from photographs, the second floor of a hazagoya the next afternoon became a studio. Many houses, like this one in the print, seem to have no ground/first floor as yukigakoi (snow fences) are built to prevent the snow that falls or is shoveled off the roof from piling up against the walls. Inside these darkened houses it seems like you’re underground, yet life goes on quite normally otherwise. In my vantage point, a barn designed to dry and store rice sheaves, the temperature was below zero with a cold draft through the open window soon freezing my fingers. Drawing of even the outlines took time. So much so that someone called the ryokan in alarm, as they’d noted bootprints in the deep snow going in but saw no evidence of any coming out. Over four hours had passed, and it was getting dark with the upstairs lights of my subject house already on.
Who kindly called I don’t know but a good drop of doburoku (unrefined sake, still with malted rice in it) was waiting when I returned. This local home-brew has an acquired taste, is legally-produced, and the local shrine offers one and all copious supplies during the October festival. I’ve acquired the taste quite well over the years, plus had some nice times too.

Woodblock print. 19 blocks hand-carved and printed
David Stones, Woodblock Printer, Okazaki. Website:

Woodblock printing: Shirakawa
Shirakawa Gassho