Transport yourself to the enchanting world of Shirakawa-go (白川郷), a UNESCO World Heritage site steeped in history. We’ll take you on a journey to the picturesque village, where we uncover the secrets behind the breathtaking thatched roofs and the Gassho-Zukuri (prayer-hand construction) houses.
Have you ever marveled at images capturing the charm of Japanese villages blanketed in snow, seemingly plucked from the pages of an ancient folktale? It was a dream come true when my family made a trip to Shirakawa-go (白川郷), a UNESCO World Heritage site, to witness the timeless beauty of the otherworldly farmhouses. Nestled in the Japanese Alps, Shirakawa-go is a sought-after haven for global travelers and a cherished gem for locals in Japan alike.
Table of Contents
- Access to Shirakawa-go
- When is the Best Time to Visit Shirakawa-go
- Exploring Shirakawa-go: Japan’s Folktale-like Village
- Myozenji Temple Museum
- Kanda House Tour
- Shirakawa-go Village
- Staying in Shirakawa-go
Access to Shirakawa-go
The trip from Takayama to Shirakawa-go is just a short 1-hour bus ride via the Tokai Hokuriku Expressway. On our journey from Takayama, we enjoyed scenic views of the Japanese countryside, passed by a Hida Beef farm, and traversed numerous long tunnels, including Japan’s second-longest tunnel.
If you are coming from Kanazawa, you can ride the Nohi Bus (2,600 yen one-way in 2023) from Kanazawa Station West Exit Platform 4, which takes around one hour and 15 minutes. From Toyama Station, you can ride the same bus (2,400 yen one-way in 2023), which will take approximately one hour and 20 minutes.
If you are coming from Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, we recommend traveling to one of the cities mentioned above and then taking the appropriate bus.
When is the Best Time to Visit Shirakawa-go
We chose to travel at the end of June to enjoy the summer scenery. However, arguably, the best time to visit is during the winter season, from December to March, when you can experience the snowy landscapes. Additionally, in January and February, you can partake in light-up events and winter illuminations. Another great time to go is between September and November, as the village glows in vibrant autumn foliage.
If your aim is to see cherry blossoms, we would not recommend Shirakawa-go, as there aren’t too many cherry blossom trees.
Exploring Shirakawa-go: Japan’s Folktale-like Village
Upon our arrival at Shirakawa-go, the bus took us to the observation deck at the top of the hill, where a viewpoint welcomed us with stunning views of the village. After reveling the beauty of the landscape, the bus descended toward the village.
(see the map of the village)
Once the bus arrived at the parking lot, we crossed the Shokawa River on a suspension bridge to step into the magical Shirakawa-go.
Enveloped in a mountainous region surrounded by forests, the air around is so clean, and the crystal-clear river beneath the bridge adds to the tranquil ambiance, a stark contrast to Tokyo and Yokohama.
Gassho-Zukuri Houses in Shirakawa-go
What makes Shirakawa-go unique and special? It’s the collection of gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) roofs atop the houses in the village! You’re probably wondering about the meaning of gassho-zukuri.
Gassho refers to the shape of the hands in a praying position with the palms facing each other (prayer-hands construction).
This one-of-a-kind thatched roof design is not only beautiful but also highly functional, capable of withstanding the weight of heavy snowfall during the winter. The steeply angled roofs shed the snow easily while creating a spacious interior for various purposes during the harsh winter months, such as the traditional industry of silkworm farming.
Our guide informed us that the roofs last about 20-30 years, but replacement is both expensive and labor-intensive. Each side of the roof costs about USD 100k, and replacing both sides would incur a $200k expense. Apart from the cost, approximately 150 workers are required to construct a new 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 some of the roofs were changed before the UNESCO recognition in 1995. Now, the Japanese government prohibits owners from changing their thatched roof to a modern one.
Myozenji Temple Museum
As you stroll through the village, you’ll come across Myozenji Temple Museum (明善寺郷土館). The temple, built about 230 years ago, features the famous thatched roof that we recommend checking out.
Kanda House Tour
One thing you will notice right away is that these Gassho houses are surprisingly big. Contrary to expectations, they are quite tall, with multiple levels and an incredibly spacious interior.
Among the Gassho houses open for tours, our guide recommends the Kanda House (神田家). During our visit, the Kanda family still resided in the house but in a separate wing. Here, they serve wild herb tea to their guests during the visit, creating a pleasant pit stop along your Shirakawa-go travels. The entrance fee is 400 yen (as of 2023).
The Kanda house was built by Wada Yaemon (the 2nd son of Wada House), who later changed his name to Kanda. The structure was built over 10 years around 1800 AD. In addition to raising silkworms, the Kanda family business also manufactured gunpowder.
Upon entering the house, we paid Mr. Kanda the entrance fee, which granted us access to freely explore the building.
Kanda House – First Floor
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, rooms for Buddhist monks, and an altar.
Here is our 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.
Each room and corner of the Kanda house showcased a variety of artifacts, offering glimpses into both business and home life.
Kanda House – Second Floor
Moving to the second floor, we found equipment used for working in the snow as well as for making sake.
Here is the section where they explained the secret behind the strength of the gassho-style roof, which can withstand strong wind and snow.
There was a picture taken of the Kanda house when it was having its roof re-thatched. In the photo, you can see the large number of people required to work together for the job. Can you guess how many? It was 184 people!
Kanda House – Third Floor
Reaching the third floor, the width of the room becomes significantly narrower, though still plenty of space to walk upright.
Here we saw the equipment for making silk, including pans for raising silkworms, a silk weaving machine, and a silk spinster.
Kanda House – Top Floor
Lastly, on 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 gets very smoky as you go higher in the building. Your clothes will likely smell of smoke after the tour!
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 the Nagase House and Wada House. Wada house is the largest Gassho-style house (picture below).
Strolling through the village, you’ll come across various restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops, and craft stores. These establishments offer sake, Hida Beef Korokke (croquette), and Kushiyaki (skewers).
During our walk on the main road (while it was sprinkling), we noticed some trout in the river raised by local farmers, adding to the village’s charm.
If you wish to extend your experience in this ethereal village, you can stay overnight at some of these houses that have been converted to Minshuku (Japanese Bed & Breakfast 民宿).
Staying in Shirakawa-go
The Minshuku below is Koemon (幸ヱ門), which was built during the Edo Period, offering a super-traditional Japanese experience. Just note that the guest rooms do not have their private baths or toilets so you will need to share with others. 😉
We hope you enjoyed visiting Takayama with us. We had a wonderful three 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(the north-western part of Japan) including Kanazawa, Toyama, Kurobe Gorge, Tateyama Alpine Route, and Takayama, please start reading from this post.