Shirakawago is one of several historic mountain villages in Japan. It is located in the village of Shirakawa (白川村), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県) in the center of Japan.
The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are registered as part of UNESCO World Heritage Site since December 1995. The name refers to three separate villages in Japan. Shirakawa Village Ogimachi in Gifu Prefecture, Taira Village Ainokura and Kamitaira Village Suganuma in Toyama Prefecture.
The villages are located in mountainous region and was cut off from the rest of the world. Up to 2008, it takes around 3 hours drive to reach Shirakawa-go from the nearby city of Takayama. With the opening of Hida Tunnel, part of the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway, the travel time is now reduced to only 50 minutes. The one discussed in this post is exclusively Shirakawa Village Ogimachi.
Whats so special about Shirakawa-go
Gassho-Zukuri (合掌造り) is an architectural style commonly found in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture. It’s called a Gassho as the thatched roofs resembles two hands in a prayer. Its designed to handle the immense weight and shedding of snow as the region is known for its heavy snowfall. 2 to 3 meters of snow falls between December and March with the record high being 4.5m. The houses faces north and south to minimize the wind resistance also optimizing received sunlight to keep the house cool during summer and warm during winter.
According to our tour guide, in the old days, the roof’s life span could go up to 70 years while nowadays, it’s life span is reduced to only 30 years. This was because in the past, people used traditional heating by burning wood inside the house, which strengthens the thatches.
The cost of replacing the roofs of Gassho-zukuri houses is very expensive. It could go up to ¥20,000,000 or $200,000. However, due to the UNESCO world heritage status, the Japanese government cover 90% of the cost. When a roof needs to be replaced, the whole village will join in and help in the process.
Several of these houses are now used as museum, showing authentic insides of the houses. We tried the Kanda house.
Other houses serves as ryokan, so you can experience sleeping in a Gassho-Zukuri house. We never had the chance to do so, but I read that the cost starts from ¥8,000/night and usually includes breakfast and dinner.
Winter light up
Shirakawa-go is known for its beautiful winter light up that is held yearly for four nights. The event is quite famous so access is quite limited as bus or tour reservations always sold out in a flash. We tried to get a tour reservation that includes dinner earlier this year, the quota filled up within 5 minutes.
Other stuffs about Shirakawago
There’s a view point to the north of the village called Shiroyama View Point where we can see the whole village from a higher elevation. It’s accessible via a walking trail (15 minutes walk) or there’s a shuttle bus that could take you up the view point. The walking trail is not accessible in winter due to snow.
The historic village is small enough that you could cover the whole village in a few hours.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, the snow can get very thick. If you’re planning to visit in winter, I recommend that you wear your winter/waterproof boots. It’s also very slippery. Watch your steps.
There’s one gift shop that stuck to our mind in the middle of the village (the others are located on the main road). It’s because their potato croquette is very delicious, and they cool their drinks in a log filled with water.
The public parking lot for visitors and the village is separated by Shogawa (庄川) river and connected by a simple suspension bridge. If you happen to be afraid of heights, you might want to consider this as our tour guide told us of one visitor that had to stay behind in the parking lot as he couldn’t cross the bridge.
Not all of Shirakawago is made of Gassho-zukuri houses. Most part of the village are actually made of modern buildings.
School in Shirakawa-go is only up to middle school. High school students and higher will need to go to nearby cities to study.
How to get there
Shirakawago is not served by any train lines/station so you’ll need to take a bus.
My favorite way to get to Shirakawago is via Takayama. Reason is I really love the small city and I also love to take a ride on the JR Hida limited express train. From Tokyo, you could either go to Nagoya or Toyama, then take the JR Hida train. There are also some JR Hida services that departs from Osaka – Kyoto, so you don’t have to stop at Nagoya.
From Takayama Station:
Go to the Nouhi Bus Center just beside the station, behind the police station. The Shirakawago bus ticket is ¥2,470 one way or ¥4,420 for the round trip. The ride will take around 50 minutes. Recommend that you check the link below for the schedule. Also some of the buses will need to be reserved in advance.
Nouhibus also serves the Toyama/Kanazawa – Shirakawago route. You could take the Shinkansen to Toyama or Kanazawa and take the bus to Shirakawago. The bus ride will take around 1 hour and 20 minutes from Toyama
The Gifu bus serves a Nagoya-Shirakawago route for ¥3,900 one way or ¥7,000 return trip. The ride will take around two and a half hours from Nagoya
There are several tours available. I went on J-Hoppers’ Shirakawago half day tour for both of my trips. The tour departs from Takayama Station at 8:10 for the morning tour and 13:20 for the evening tour. The trip will take 50 minutes (or 1 hour in winter) one way and we get to explore the village for 2 hours. The charge is ¥4,400 for adults and ¥4,000 for children. There’s also a ¥500 discount for those staying in J-Hoppers Takayama
There are more than 40 options for acommodation in Shirakawa-go. Some are listed in the link below.