Shirakawa-go destination guide
Shirakawago destination travel guide - What to do, see and experience in Shirakawago
Table of contents:
Introduction to Shirakawa-go
Shirakawago is a tiny, traditional Japanese village nestled in the mountainous Gifu region. A stark contrast from the size and pace of Tokyo, a visit to the picturesque Shirakawago is like stepping into a fairytale. With thatched roof houses, hot springs and fantastic food, escape the crowds and head here for a truly authentic Japanese experience.
Nestled in the Gifu Region, Shirakawago has earned the nickname the ‘Heartland of Japan’. Shirakawago, quite simply, is perfection. The charming Japanese village is set high in the forested mountain countryside. Once stepping foot in the village, you will breathe in the fresh mountain air and feel as if you have taken a step back in time. Known mostly for its ancient Gassho houses and picturesque scenery, a Shirakawago visit is a completely unique experience that will stick in your memory forever. This unforgettable rustic village offers a total break from the bright lights of other major cities.
Shirakawago is a UNESCO World Heritage SIte which looks like it has been hand-drawn for a picture-perfect fairytale. The serene historical village sits in a beautiful river valley and has been developed independently from Japanese society, resulting in a unique culture and lifestyle. The sense of community here is obvious. There is a distinct, welcoming mentality where everyone helps everyone out. The villagers work together to uphold their community and their village, and this is telling from the warm welcome travellers receive. Our Shirakawago guide will ensure that you make the most out of your trip to this incredible village.
Shirakawa-go Travel Tips
Sleep in a Gassho House
Ogimachi village in Shirakawago has the largest concentration of gassho-zukuri buildings in Japan, with over 110 fine houses, some of which are over 250 years old and have been famously made of wood without using a single nail. The roof is characterized by a steep slanting thatch roof with praying hands construction style. As a result, its unique design is exceptionally strong to withstand the heavy snowfall and wind. The art of the gassho-zukuri construction is sadly dying out, and most of the remaining houses of this architecture style have been moved to folk villages like Ogimachi.
Every October, Shirakawago hosts the Doburoku Festival. Across most of Japan, home-brewed alcohol is banned, however the locals of Shirakawago have special permission to produce an unrefined type of sake. Unlike refined sake that you might find elsewhere in Japan, doburoku is white colored, thick, and very sweet. During the festival the home-brew is offered to the gods as a sign of gratitude for their protection. However, there is always lots of brew leftover which is shared around the village, resulting in a super fun festival!
Local speciality foods
The most famous Japanese beef comes from the Shirakawa-go and Hida region. It is known worldwide for its delicacy, softness and texture which melts in the mouth. Hida’s natural environment and excellent nurturing made it possible to produce the delicious beef possible.
Gohei Mochi is a rice dumpling skewer. The rice is cooked until it is half soft, then miso or walnut sauce is added. The roasted aroma of the sauce and chewy feel of the rice are a feast for the senses. It’s not uncommon to find lines of people waiting around the corner, queuing for the best Gohei Mochi around.
Soba (buckwheat noodles) are popular in mountainous regions as buckwheat is hardy, because they can grow in the harsh weather conditions, where other crops can’t. Home-grown soba is grinded with a stone mill and boiled to give it its superb taste and great aroma.
Shirakawago's Ishi (stone) tofu uses twice as many soybeans to make as regular tofu. This makes the tofu hard, condensed and less likely to break when cooked. Slicing it, dipping in a wasabi soy sauce, and eating it as "sashimi tofu" is the Shirakawago way to eat it. The end result is a texture which is hard, yet smooth, almost like a pudding.
You can also try river-fish, freshly caught from the local mountain rivers that very day. Because they are so fresh, you can eat Iwana(rockfish), Anago(conger eel) and Nijimasu (rainbow trout) as sashimi.
Shirakawa-go no Yu onsen
After a long day of exploring, take some time for yourself with a soothing, healing onsen. Shirakawago no Yu is the only ryokan with hot spring baths in Shirakawago. From your room you can enjoy views of the mountains or river and indulge in fresh, seasonal vegetables, beef, river fish served from their restaurant.
Myozenji Temple Museum
Myozen-ji is a temple of the Buddhist Jodo School or "Pure Land school", founded in 1744, it is now a museum and one of the highlights of Shirakawago tourism. The impressive monks’ residence Kuri, built two hundred years ago by the area’s carpenters, is a five-story construction whose floors’ size get smaller with height. The structure was built without using nails or screws, but with cypress and zelkova pillars carefully selected for their reliability. Today you will find local arts and crafts along with teachings of Buddhism and local culture.
Light- Up Event
During chosen Sundays and Mondays throughout January and February, Gassho house roofs are illuminated in an epic light up event. People come from all over the world to experience the beauty of what this looks like, so it's best to book a tour to guarantee access to the village or stay in accommodation overnight to enjoy the show.
What to do in Shirakawago
Ogimachi Village is considered the largest village in Shirakawago. With 152 Gassho houses, the Ogimachi Village became a UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1995, to preserve the tradition of these houses. This is the central hub of Shirakawago and where most travellers begin their exploration of the area.
Constructed in around 1800, this is the largest gassho style house in Shirakawago, and is a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. Wada House remains one of the most important buildings in the village and is a Shirakawago highlight.
The Kanda house is a stately old-fashioned house with 160 years of history behind it that was used in the sericulture and brewing industries. The Kanda family house is located in the same district as the Wada house, so you can easily visit both during the morning. In addition to the main building’s four stories, there is also a mortar hut, and a hasagura which give you a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture and history.
Shirakawa Kaido Street
The main street Shirakawa Kaido Street runs through the village and is made up of many souvenir shops, snack stalls and shopping options. Spend an hour or two strolling through the stalls whilst soaking up the local atmosphere.
Ogimachi-jo Castle Ruins Observatory
Ogi-machi Castle Ruin Observation Area is the best place for overlooking Shirakawago village below. There are hardly any remains of the castle but it does offer a fantastic vantage point which is great for taking photos of the stunning scenery.
What better way to soak in everything that Shirakawago sightseeing has to offer than a panoramic view? For a sweeping overhead view of the village, a short climb or shuttle bus ride takes you to the viewpoint for the perfect Instagram-worthy shot. From here you can take in the full beauty of the village and mountainous backdrop, with scenery that you will tell friends of for years to come.
Side Visits from Shirakawa-go
Depending on how much time you are able to spend in Shirakawago, a visit here can be done with a tour in a day. However, if you’re able to spend at least one night in the village, you will really have the chance to soak up the charming vibe that it has to offer. Alternatively you could base yourself from a nearby city like Takayama and visit during day trips.
Gokayama is the only other village in Japan known for its unique gassho-zukuri houses and its scenic location in a mountain valley. The quaint village is lesser known and often much less busy than the more popular Shirakawago. It is here you will find Murakami House, one of the oldest gassho-zukuri in Japan, was built in 1578.
Seki-City, The City of The Samurai Knives. Gifu-Prefecture is a small town located in the middle of Japan,and is famous worldwide for its production of fine knives like Solingen in Germany. The art of greatest swordsmiths has been inherited through 780 years till now.
Takayama is a small city near the northern Japan Alps of Gifu prefecture of significant historical importance. For those interested in Edo-period architecture, the perfectly preserved old-town will be an absolute treat. Along with an abundance of quality onsen, top-quality food and friendly locals, Takayama makes for a great side visit.
Kanazawa is affectionately known as “little Kyoto”. It’s packed with first-rate sights, including one of the country’s best gardens, well-preserved Edo-era districts, art museums and regional handicrafts. The city is relatively compact and super easy to explore. It makes for a great place to base yourself from in Ishikawa Prefecture.
Mt Haku, a dormant volcano, is located on the borders of Gifu, Fukui and Ishikawa prefectures in Japan. It is one of the three sacred mountains of Japan and is 2702m high. Hiking Hakusan in the Japanese Alps is a regular pilgrimage of people living in Kanazawa and a climb to the summit is no light trek. However if you love hiking, this is absolutely one to add to your bucket list.
Shirakawago is the best little village that you probably have never heard of. Dwarfed by the mega-cities in Japan, a visit here offers a complete escape from the modern world. The pace of life is slower, the locals are extremely welcoming and the scenery is simply breathtaking. If you can only visit as a side trip, this is absolutely worth it in itself. But you will definitely not regret putting a few days aside to step back in time and wake up each morning in a fairytale land.
How to get there:
Getting to Shirakawago can be a little tricky, but this only adds to the adventure of finally arriving. The only way to access Shirakawago is by bus or car. This is telling of the remoteness and serenity that you will find in Shirakawago. Direct buses leave from Takayama, Kanazawa and Toyama and serve both Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.
Take the Hakutaka Shinkansen or a Shinkansen Kagayaki to Kanazawa, both of these are covered by your JR pass and take under three hours. From here, you will need to take a bus to Shirakawa-Go, the journey will be around an hour and 25 minutes. Afternoon seats book up quickly, so make sure to book your tickets well in advance.
Take the Limited Express Thunderbird train to Kanazawa, which is also covered under your JR pass, before switching to the bus journey to Shirakawago. A one way bus ticket costs ¥1,700, a return ¥3,060.
It takes about 50 minutes by bus from Takayama Nohi Bus Center to Shirakawago. Take the comfortable and accessible Nohi Bus, there are around 16 services per day.
The easiest way to access Shirakawago from Kanazawa is by bus. The service takes between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 1 hour and 25 minutes depending on which bus you choose.
One of the advantages of adding Shirakawago as a must-see destination to your Japan itinerary is because no matter what time of year you visit, it is absolutely beautiful. Each season offers a different natural spectacle to witness, whatever the weather.
In spring, the mild weather melts away the harsh winter cold and snow. This is the time of year to witness sakura, or cherry blossom season. Rice is being planted in the fields at this time of year and experiencing lush green paddy fields is guaranteed in late spring. Picture snow-capped mountains scattered with a quaint village sprinkled with cherry blossoms, and that is what awaits you during the spring period.
By summer time, the cherry blossoms will be replaced by bright, blooming flowers of all colours. The rice fields turn a shade of electric green, contrasted by colourful hydrangeas and sunflowers.
By the time Autumn rolls around, farmers start harvesting and the surrounding mountain slopes change their colors. As the leaves change their colours and locals prepare themselves for winter, a Shirakawago visit at this time of year will dance with orange, yellow and soft brown hues. It will begin to get a bit colder, so make sure you bring warm clothes with you.
And finally, the winter wonderland that is Shirakawago is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s the coldest, but potentially the most spectacular time of year to visit. The Gassho houses become thickly painted in white snow, which are made to withstand and sustain locals through the icy cold winters.
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