Shirakawa-go is a historic UNESCO site with marvelous Gassho-Zukuri (prayer-hand construction) houses. Find out the secret behind these thatched roofs.
By Tsuda from Tsushima, Aichi, Japan (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Have you seen photos of Japanese villages covered in snow similar to the above photo before? This picturesque village looks like it belongs in a Japanese folktale from long ago, and we had the chance to visit this unique UNESCO World Heritage site, Shirakawa-go (白川郷) as our excursion from Takayama.
This is the part 4 of my visit to Takayama. If you haven’t had a chance to read this series, please start with part 1.
The trip from Takayama to Shirakawa-go used to take over 3 hours. Since 2008 the trip has been shorted to 1 hour with the completion of Tokai Hokuriku Expressway. On the way there from Takayama, we saw views of the Japanese country side and a Hida Beef farm and passed through many long tunnels including Japan’s second longest.
We booked our Shirakawa-go English tour with J-Hoppers in Takayama (¥4,000 for Adults and ¥3,500 for children), and our family ended up being the only ones on the bus tour that afternoon. Our Japanese guide was very informative and super friendly, and our children absolutely adored him and his humor.
When we arrived at Shirakawa-go, the bus goes to the observation deck at the top of the hill first so we could take in the panoramic view of the village. After taking in the beautiful view, the bus then heads down towards the village.
(see the map of the village)
Once the bus parks at the parking lot, you will cross the Shokawa River on a suspension bridge to stroll into the village.
As you take a look at the scenery around you, you can see that Shirakawa-go is located in a mountainous region surrounded by forests. The air was very clean and the river flowing below the bridge was super clear. This area is a complete opposite of large cities like Tokyo and Yokohama.
Gassho-Zukuri in Shirakawa-go
So, what so makes Shirakwa-go unique and special? It’s the collection of gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) roof on top of the houses in the village! You probably wonder what’s the meaning of gassho-zukuri?
Gassho means the shape of the hands as you’re praying with the palm facing each other (prayer-hands construction).
This one-of-a kind thatched roof design is very strong and allows it to handle the weight from heavy snowfall during the winter time. The roof with its sharp angle sheds the snow easily as well as create a large interior spaces to use for work during the harsh winter (traditional industry was raising silkworms).
Our guide told us that the roofs last about 20-30 years but it’s very expensive and labor-intensive to replace. Each side of the roof costs about $100k USD and it would cost $200k to replace both sides. Besides the cost, it requires a lot of workers (like 150 people!) to make the roof as you’ll see in a picture later.
There are a total of 114 thatched-roof buildings in Shirakawa-go. Among them, you may notice that some of the houses in the village have a modern roof. Why?
It’s because the roof was changed prior to the UNESCO recognition in 1995. After 1995, the Japanese government does not allow the owners to change their thatched roof to modern roof.
As you stroll through the village, you’ll pass by Myozenji Temple Museum (明善寺郷土館). The temple was built about 230 years ago and also has the famous thatched roof.
One thing you will notice right away is that these Gassho houses are actually not small. In fact they are quite tall with multiple levels and the interior is extremely spacious.
There are a few large Gassho house you can tour, and our guide recommend the Kanda House (神田家) as they serve wild herb tea to their guests during the visit. Like many other families in the area, the Kanda family still lives in the house today but in a separate wing.
The Kanda house was built by Wada Yaemon (2nd son of Wada house) who had changed his name to Kanda. The structure was built over 10 years around 1800 AD. Besides raising silkworms, the Kanda family business also made gunpowder.
As you enter the house, you pay Mr. Kanda the entrance fee, ¥300 for Adults and ¥150 for children still in elementary school. Then they allow you to freely explore the building.
The first floor is a large open space (family room) with a live fire and hearth in the middle of the room. Connected to the family room are guest rooms, bedrooms, and rooms for buddhist monk and alter.
Here is my son waving to us from the “fire watch” window below. As the entire house is made out of wood, this small window allows monitoring of the fireplace from the second floor. There are also fire hydrants all over the town to make sure these national treasures are safely protected from fire.
There are many artifacts in various rooms and around the building, including items used for business and home.
On the second floor, there are equipments for working in the snow as well as for making sake.
Here is the section where they explain the secret behind the strength of gassho style roof, which is able to withstand strong wind and snow.
There was a picture taken of the Kanda house when it was having its roof re-thatched. You can see the large number of people it requires to work together for the job. Can you guess how many? It was 184 people!
As you go up to the third floor, the width of the room becomes significantly narrower, though still plenty of space to walk upright.
Here you see the equipment for making silk, including pans for raising silkworms, silk weaving machine, and silk spinster.
Here at the very top floor, you can see the underside of the roof. One interesting note, as there is a fire burning on the first floor, it get very smoky as you go higher and higher in the building. You clothes will likely smell of smoke after touring.
Are you surprised by how large the interior space was? The house has no columns taking up space in the middle of the structure.
Besides the Kanda house, other well known Gassho houses include Nagase House and Wada House. Wada house is the largest Gassho style house (picture above).
As you stroll in the village, you’ll see restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and craft stores.
This store sells sake, Hida Beef Korokke (croquette) and Kushiyaki (skewers).
As we walk on the main road (and it was sprinkling), there were some trouts in the river that’s raised by the local farmer.
So besides looking at these traditional Gassho style buildings, what else can you do in Shirakawa-go? You can actually stay overnight as some of these houses have been converted to Minshuku (Japanese Bed & Breakfast 民宿).
The Minshuku above is Koemon (幸ヱ門) which was built during the Edo Period. If you want to experience Japan in a SUPER traditional way, you can stay overnight in the house. Just note that the guest rooms do not have their own private baths or toilets so you have to share with others. 😉
We hope you enjoyed visiting Takayama with us. We had a wonderful 3 days there and highly recommend it if you want to experience a different side of Japan from Tokyo and other large cities.
If you haven’t read my travel posts about our one week in Hokuriku 北陸地方(north western par of Japan) including Kanazawa, Toyama, Kurobe Gorge, Tateyama Alpine Route, and Takayama, please start reading from this post.
If you enjoy this post, please check out my other travel blog posts! I’ve shared my travel experiences in Sapporo, Asakusa, Kyoto, and other places in Japan. I hope my travel and eating guide are helpful for you when you visit Japan.
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