A visit to Shirakawa-Go is a must-do in my opinion for anybody visiting Japan. It is a little bit off the beaten track and the bus there and back isn’t covered by the Japan Rail Pass but is still without a doubt worth the extra effort and money. The glorious day I spent wandering around this picturesque village is one of my favourite memories from my time in Japan.
Shirakawa-go, a remote mountain village in the Shogawa River Valley filled with lots of gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 200 years old.
Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer", as the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The style of these roofs has developed over many generations and are designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter.
Shirakawa-Go along with its neighbour Gokayama were cut off from the world for a long time and survived on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The gassho-zukuri farmhouses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. A walk around Shirakawa-Go is like stepping back into history. In 1995 both sites were declared a UNESCO world heritage site.
How to get there
Due to Shirakawa-Go’s remote location, it is not serviced by trains or the Japan Rail Pass. The easiest way to visit Shirakawa-Go, assuming that you have a JR pass is to get a train to either Kanazawa or Takayama. Getting to Shirakawa-Go from either is then pretty straightforward. Head over to the Nohi Bus website and book your buses for your chosen date. Booking in advance, especially during peak season is recommended.
How long to spend there
There is plenty to see and do when you arrive at Shirakawa-Go and if you don’t want to be in a rush I would recommend taking one of the early morning buses into Shirakawa-Go and taking one of the last buses back. The last bus departs to Takayama at 17:20 and to Kanazawa at 17:30. This will give you approximately 8 hours to explore the area.
If you are planning on travelling onto a new destination that evening there are storage areas at the bus stop in Shirakawa-Go to drop off your bags for the day.
If time is of the essence and you are up for a unique experience you can spend the night in one of the gassho-zukuri guesthouses. They can be booked here http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/
When to go
There really isn’t a bad time to visit Shirakawa-Go. When I visited I was welcomed by some of the most amazing autumn colours I have ever witnessed. During the winter it will be covered in a blanket of snow and look like a magical wonderland. Springtime brings the cherry blossoms and during the summer you’ll be rewarded with lush greenery and fireflies.
What to do
On entry to Shirakawa-Go, you will be given a map showing you all the attractions, places to eat etc. While you can wander for hours and just dip in and out of places you should try to check out some of the following attractions while you’re there.
Visit the Gassho-zukuri Minka-en Museum
An open-air museum showcasing 26 buildings, 9 of which are listed as important cultural assets of the Gifu Prefecture. You will find a watermill, a shrine, and a temple’s main hall that are preserved to their original state. In addition, a temple, coal house and horse paddock which have been built to recreate the old historical village.
Visit Ainokura Traditional Crafts Museum
Take a visit to the Ainokura Traditional crafts museum to see traditions from several centuries.
Visit Wada House
This is the largest gassho style house in Shirakawa-go which was built around 1800. The second floor and part of the first floor are open to the public to visit. The surroundings of the house including the garden, hedge and waterways are preserved in their traditional state. The main house, storehouse and outhouse are all noted as important cultures of Shirakawa-Go.
Visit Kanda House
Visit the Kanda family’s beautifully finished 160-year-old gassho style house.
Visit the Myozenji Temple and Myozenji Museum
Come visit the monk’s residence, bell tower gate, and the main hall which were constructed around 1800.
The Soba Dojo
Enjoy lunch at the Soba Dojo. The Soba Dojo is an airy restaurant where you can enjoy hand-made soba.
Shokawa River and Suspension Bridge
Enjoy a beautiful crossing on the Shokawa suspension bridge.
Go up to the Shiroyama Observation Deck
After spending time wandering around the village why not see it from a viewpoint. If you can make it for sunset it will be extra special!
Spend a night in a minshuku lodgings
Unfortunately, I wasn’t organised enough and missed my chance to spend the night in Shirakawa-Go. It’s top of my to-do list for my next visit here!
If you are staying the night or visiting at a time of the year when the sun sets early aim to get to the observation deck for sunset and hang around for the daylight to dwindle and enjoy night views of Shirakawa-Go.
Shirakawa-Go is truly one of Japan’s hidden gems. A trip here will leave you with memories for a lifetime and a longing to come back and experience it during another season.