The term Shirakawa-go is used to designate a large village surface nestled in the heart of the Japanese Alps, yet the region’s geography is slightly more complicated:
- Shirakawa is itself an area made up of three villages: Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura;
- it is compared, with reason, to Gokayama, located a few kilometers away in the North, longing Shogawa River.
Surrounded by high mountains, rice fields and never-ending woods, designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, these hamlets only reachable by road are famous for their 合掌造り gasshô-zukuri architecture: typical local secular houses, with steeply thatched roofs able to support heavy snow falls during winters.
In these historical homes, entire families lived on several floors, heated by fireplaces located in the center of the ground floor (both to spread the heat and to limit the risk of fires). On the top floor, under the rafters, the family used to do silkworm rearing. The covering straw on the roofs must be changed every twenty years, therefore it is possible to see craftsmen work on them.
Our own visit is focused on Ogimachi: well maintained, "complete" and very popular (nearly a million and a half visitors every year), it is also less confidential. With about sixty gassho houses, it is the most furnished and most of them are now restaurants, minshuku (there are twenty-five guesthouses) and ryokan (fourteen traditional hotels).
A very pleasant stroll starts from the bus exit North of the village. It is fully possible to walk all along paths, but some bus shuttles also operate from the city center. The day usually starts from Shiroyama Observation Deck, located on the ruins of Ogimachi Castle, which offers that famous "postcard" panoramic view (see photo above).
Visiting some of Shirakawa-go's traditional houses allows you to learn more about their specific architecture, as well as the historical lifestyle of its inhabitants thanks to period objects and testimonies. We can mention Wada or Nagase, but the one you should pay attention to is rather Myozen-ji, for its magnificent (but very narrow) temple next to it. Further, Minka-en is presented as a real open-air museum of about twenty gassho-zukuri houses, expressly moved there to avoid their demolition.
For amateurs of Japanese movies, missing the seichi junrei pilgrimage, Ogimachi possesses here and there references to the Higurashi no naku koro ni anime which happens in the fictional haunted village of Hinamizawa, largely inspired by Shirakawa-go.
Finally, there is an impressive winter light-up, only some Sundays and Mondays at the beginning of the year: gorgeous night lighting which accentuates the heavy snowfall and their white coat, both on houses and on the ground. More and more renowned each year, it became too populated for the municipality, which decided to reduce from 2019 the access to the village. Those willing to go there at this time will have to book in advance. Then, a lottery system will allow the happy few ones to stay overnight or/and to admire Shiroyama's night view.
How to get to Shirakawa-go
By bus (Nouhi company, several departures per day, English booking available up to 1~2 months in advance):
- From Takayama: 50 minutes
- From Kanazawa: 1h15
Not possible by train!
Location unreachable with the JR Pass
Get there with a rental car
Bus: about ~US$ 26.30 à ~US$ 43.90 round trip
City visit: free
- adults: ¥300 (~US$ 2.60)
- children: ¥150 (~US$ 1.30)
Minka-en museum: ¥600 (~US$ 5.30)
Houses usually opened from 9am to 5pm with various closing days
How long / when to visit
Count one full day from Takayama or Kanazawa
It is possible to stay overnight
白川郷 (Shirakawagô, literally "the village with white river")