Covering an area of only 68 hectares is one of Japan’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Site called Shirakawa-go. Located in the Chubu Region of Gifu and Toyama in Central Japan, this is one of the ultimate must-visit place in Japan for just about any traveler.
Shirakawa-go is rich in landscapes due to the historical village being set at the foot of a mountain valley. One of the plus points of visiting here anytime of the year is that the scenery provides incredible and different experiences during any of the four seasons.
The highlights of Shirakawa-go are no other than the unique Japanese farm houses with strange high roofs that are known as the Gassho-Zukuri. It is also said that the best time to visit this place is during the winter, when snow covers all of the thatched roofs of the houses here.
Shirakawa’s amazing Japanese Gassho-Zukuri Farmhouses
What is Shirakawa-go?
While many refer to this place as Shirakawa-go, the entire place consists of three main villages called Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura. All three villages are surrounded by a mountain range and has been around since the 11th century.
Originally, due to the remoteness and difficulty to get to this place, it was cut off from the world until the place was classified as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.
Deal Bridge over the Sho River where you enter the village
Today this UNESCO World Heritage Site is as important as the Japanese National Treasures, and remains as one of the top tourist places to visit in Japan.
Currently, the main village of Ogimachi is the star of Shirakawa-go, as this is also the most photographed village that you see being promoted all over the world.
Visitors come in all ways, mainly via tour companies that shuttle you here via buses or vans. Other younger generation tourist would explore by taking a bus or train from other cities to get here. And the most fun way, is to rent a car and drive here, exploring the traditional Japanese outskirts.
Public and tour buses stop at a commercial tourist stop area, where you will start to see the traditional Gassho houses. This will be your starting point of your walk into the village. Snacks, souvenirs, vending machines and toilets are available here.
From the start point, you will first need to cross the famous Deal Bridge, a hanging bridge that goes over the Shokawa River. From here, you will enter into the main Shirakawa-go village area.
The main street of Shirakawa-go
Exploring Shirakawa-go Village
Cars are not allowed into the village, therefore you will be walking around the entire village, so do wear comfortable walking shoes. There is an option where you can rent a bicycle from one of the houses here.
Inside Shirakawa-go, there are about 72 traditional Gassho type houses to see. Most of them are private homes and a number of them are open to the public. So you cannot simply enter any home you like.
There are also different buildings like museums, shrines, temples and traditional homes. There are also homestays available for those wanting to stay here for the unique experience. One of the homestays also offers a traditional Japanese ‘Onsen’ or hot spring.
A total of 19 traditional homes provide guest house facilities, where they are simple and basic. Most of them provide a room for up to four persons, but you need to check with them, if you are traveling in a group.
To enter most of the display homes, museums and temples, there is a entry fee applicable. The fees is prices at around 300 Yen to 500 Yen per person and the collection goes to the preservation of these buildings.
Outside the Wada House
Wada House at Shirakawa-go
One of the most popular places to visit in Shirakawa-go is the Wada House, where you will get to see what life is inside a traditional Gassho farmhouse. A tour on the lower floor of the house shows the common area or living hall, and a kitchen. The bedroom is off limits.
You will get to see traditional ways of how the Japanese lived and cooked inside these houses. The upper floor of the house is your next stop. Here, you will see the traditional way of Japanese silk weaving, how they rare the silkworms and equipment used to make silk.
The Japanese silkworm in a cocoon inside the Wada House
The highlight of the Gassho house is also displayed up here where they will show you how the entire house is bound together with ropes and timber. No nails are used for the incredible structure, which is an amazing feat.
The Wada House is also one of the largest Gassho type houses in the village and is owned by the wealthiest family in the valley here. The price to enter this home is 300 Yen, and well worth it.
In total, there are three main houses open for visitors, they are the Wada-ke House, Nagase-ke House and Kanda-ke House. The opening times are from 9.00 AM to 5.00 PM, and each is 300 Yen entrance fees.
One of the beautiful Gassho Farmhouses covered in snow
Museums, Temples and Shrines of Shirakawa-go
There are a total of six museums in Shirakawa-go, which are all in the Gassho styles houses. Each one offers a different perspective of the individual home, with traditional items on display. So, if your interest is in history and culture, then you will have a great time moving from museum to museum here.
There are a total of five shrines and temples located throughout the village worth visiting. At the popular Myozenji Temple, the owner speaks English and is very happy to share the house and temple information in English to visitors.
A sign showing the various places in Shirakawa-go
This is the famous viewpoint where people take the beautiful landscape photos of Shirakawa-go. From the village area, there is a hiking trail up to the viewpoint, which may close in the winter. However, there is a shuttle bus that takes visitors up and down the viewpoint.
Visitors to Shirakawa-go should not miss this opportunity to go up here for that amazing photo of this magnificent village. During my visit here, it was in the winter, hence the beautiful photos seen in this article.
Inside the roof of the Gassho Farmhouse
Best Times To Visit Shirakawa-go
Many people tend to tell me that the winter is one of the best times to visit Shirakawa-go, due to the thick white snow covering the roofs of the houses here. However, you should know that during the winter, not every house or shop is open, and it can get really cold.
The crowds are also less in the winter, hence more peace and quiet. But in the summer, Shirakawa-go can get a little over crowded with local and international tourist. Another good time is to come here in Autumn, when the various foliage colours start to show.
Shirakawa-go is located in the north, between Tokyo and Osaka, therefore if you are planning to visit both places, you can actually slot in a day or two to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A map showing the different routes to Shirakawa-go from other parts of Japan
How To Go To Shirakawa-go
For those planning to take a bus, you can connect from the city of Kanazawa (1 hour journey) and Takayama (50 minutes journey) with direct buses to here. From Nagoya (3 hours journey), the direct bus operates from April to November.
From Osaka, it takes about 5 hours via train to get here, and from Tokyo it takes about 4.2 hours as well. It also depends on the type of train you take, there are slow trains and fast trains. The Shinkansen Bullet Train takes about 3 hours from Tokyo Station to the Toyama Station, where you connect another train to Shirakawa-go.
The closest international airport is also the Nagoya Airport, but only selected airlines fly here. The closest airport to Shirakawa-go is also the Toyama Airport, where local airlines fly here. You can then drive 1.5 hours to Shirakawa-go if you rent a car, or a 2.5 hour train ride directly from the airport.
What Else To Do Around Shirakawa-go?
Most people who visit Shirakawa-go will also visit Takayama Old Town, one of the traditional Japanese towns. The journey here is only 45 minutes by car or 70 minutes by train.
Here in Takayama, old style Japan is seen in the the main old town area where well known Japanese Sake is made. You can also find the very traditional Japanese dishes and snacks here, like the Barbecued Japanese Rice Cake. Others include the local green tea and local shabu-shabu or Japanese steamboat.
Another place worth visiting is the town of Hida, which is an hours drive away. This place is well known for the world famous Hida Beef, so if you want to experience fresh Hida beef, this I where you should be headed.
The places mentioned above can be done in one day or best done in two days, and this is one of those off the beaten path places. If you seek something not so commercial, you can find it here in the Gifu Prefecture of the Chubu Region in central Japan.
A multiple award-winning travel writer, blogger and social media enthusiast. He has been traveling to Japan since 1990 and all over the world for his work. His work has been featured on CNN Travel, Yahoo Travel, Lonely Planet and many other publications. David writes at: http://malaysia-asia.my and is on social media platforms as @MalaysiaAsia