Shirakawa-go (白川郷 – しらかわごう) is a quiet and scenic mountain village nestled at the foot of Mount Haku (白山 – はくさん) – one of Japan’s “Sanreizan” (三霊山 – さん れいざん “Three Holy Mountains”) – located in the Japanese Alps (日本アルプス). The area was originally opened in the 8th century AD as a place for religious mountain worship.
The most popular destination of Shirakawa-go is the community of Ogimachi, famous for its 117 famous gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り – がっしょう づくり “prayer-hands construction”) farmhouses, some of which are nearly 300 years old. The unique architectural style is defined by the combination of an impressive thatching system and steep, sloped roof. The design allows the houses to withstand the harsh winter snowfall as well as provide an open space for the local yōsan industry (養蚕 – ようさん sericulture/silk farming). The roofs are also built to face in a north-to-south direction, providing cool air to pass in the summertime as well as making the winters warmer due to the direction of the wind and amount of sunlight.
Many of the houses are now minshuku (民宿 – みんしゅく Japanese family inn) where visitors can stay overnight. When staying at a minshuku, visitors can expect to be served a traditional multi-course kaiseki (懐石 – かいせき) dinner featuring regional and seasonal specialties. In several of the Shirakawa-go farmhouses, dinner will be cooked on an open fireplace or irori (囲炉裏 – いろり). Depending on the time of year, some dishes you may be served include yama-udo (山うど – やま うど an asparagus-like indigenous plant), sansai tempura (山菜天ぷら – さんさい mountain vegetables fried in batter), koshihikari (コシヒカリ a type of rice), kawauo (川魚塩焼 – かわうお salt grilled river fish), houbamiso (朴葉味噌 – ほおばみそ miso dish grilled on a magnolia leaf), mikan (蜜柑 – みかん mandarin orange) and the exquisite regional favorite, hida beef (飛騨牛 – ひだぎゅう).
While visiting a gassho-zukuri farmhouse, you will likely stay in a nihonma (日本間 – にほんま Japanese style room) with traditional interior features such as a tatami (畳 – たたみ flooring made of rice straw), fusuma (襖 – ふすま sliding vertical door panels), shoji (障子 – しょうじ window or door with translucent paper), and a kotatsu (炬燵 – こたつ low wooden table covered by a heavy blanket with a heat source underneath). You may even bathe in a furo (風呂 – ふろ a steep-sided wooden bathtub). In some houses, the nakai (仲居 – なかい a woman who serves as a waitress at a Japanese inn) will ready your futon (布団 – ふとん traditional Japanese bedding) while you are out exploring the village. Often, you are given a yukata (浴衣 – ゆかた Japanese garment made of cotton or synthetic fiber) to wear for the night as well as uwabaki (上履き – うわばき slippers for indoor wear) for use while inside the house.
A picturesque view can be seen from the Ogimachi Castle observatory (荻町城跡展望台 – おぎまち じょうせき てんぼうだい) of the entire village, bringing many tourists every year to enjoy and photograph. The village also boasts two Buddhist temples (Myozen-ji and Honkaku-ji) as well as restaurants and an onsen (温泉 – おんせん hot springs baths). There are also plenty of omiyage (お土産 – お みやげ souvenir) to purchase, some being exclusive to the region – even Pokémon (ポケモン) and Hello Kitty (ハローキティ) items!
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the use of new materials in rigorously controlled to maintain authenticity in form, design, materials and substance. When a gasshō structure needs to be repaired, the village comes together and mutual cooperation is key between neighboring households. Some of the largest houses can require up to 500 people and several days of work. The old agricultural community system of “yui” calls for families to donate their labor, knowing the favor will be returned in the future. This ensures the village will be preserved for many years to come for all to enjoy!
My experience in Shirakawa
The moment I saw an image of Shirakawa-go online I instantly fell in love. Above all of the places on my list to visit in Japan, Shirakawa immediately became number one. For me – a native Floridian – this place was unlike anything I had ever experienced in my life. Particularly stunning in winter, I knew I had to take advantage of the time I was visiting (February thru March) to see the puffs of shimmering snow atop the perfectly thatched roofs. Coming from Florida I hadn’t seen snow since the previous year I visited Japan so although I was a little nervous about the cold, I was so excited to have an overnight stay at one of the traditional and oldest buildings in the area – Hisamatsu.
The morning of my scheduled stay, I left my hotel in Tokyo around 7:00am, thinking I would have enough time to make the roughly 5-hour trip to Shirakawa. Looking back now, I would probably have left even earlier – more around 5:00 or 6:00am. Everything went perfectly as far as trains and the bus connection in Takayama, however I arrived just before dusk. This was actually quite lovely as most of the other tourists had left already but I would have enjoyed being able to walk around just a little more before going to the minshuku. I ended up getting lost even though the map I was given was incredibly simple and the town is so small, but all of the snow and my over thinking almost lead me over a cliff! Its a funny memory now, but at the time I was getting scared that I would never find my destination until thankfully two very nice foreigners were able to read the kanji at the door and confirmed that the building I had wandered by countless times was indeed my inn.
I was greeted by the woman whose family owned and operated the minshuku and after leaving my shoes at the door, she lead me to my room. I happened to have the very first room which is directly across from where dinner was going to be served. As I waited for dinner I settled in to my room quietly, enjoying the green tea the nakai had left on the table. It was extremely quiet during the entire duration of my stay with only the soft murmur of other guest’s footsteps being heard.
Dinner was served at 7:00pm and I had small talk with the other guests. Everyone was extremely nice and welcoming. We all enjoyed our meal, which far exceeded my expectations. The hida beef was spectacular! Still to this day I have yet to eat meat even a fraction as delicious and tender as the regional specialty. The vegetable tempura was also incredible as was the rice, everything made locally.
Once dinner was over I didn’t know what to do next. I wanted to go to the hot springs but was too weary to venture out in the darkness alone. Thankfully one of the other guests had driven there so he offered to bring me with him to the onsen. You get a discount ticket for the hot springs when you stay overnight so once we received it and our yukata, off we went.
The onsen was so absolutely amazing! This was my first and only time at one and it was one of my favorite memories from my entire trip in Japan. There is in indoor section, and outdoor area (the brisk air mixed with the warm water was awesome) and a sauna. The Japanese women that were bathing were so nice, they even offered me their towel to dry off because I didn’t have one.
After thoroughly enjoying myself at the onsen, we returned back to Hisamatsu for bed time. I can’t remember exactly what time lights went out but it was fairly early. I’d like to say 8:00 or 9:00pm. I’ll admit that the most difficult part of the whole stay was sleeping. I kept having to turn the heater on (which is not supposed to be on all night because it can cause carbon dioxide poisoning) and the pillow was a little hard (only by Western standards, really). This was my first time experiencing a kotatsu table and I didn’t stick my legs entirely underneath because I didn’t understand where the heat was coming from, so I was nervous and only left my feet under the blanket. I was envious of my neighbor guest as they were very comfortable and snoring loudly! Overall, I got a few hours of sleep and felt just fine in the morning. I was pretty exhausted though and all of my clothes smelled of smoke from the hearth (that was my fault for only bringing one pair of clothes!)
I left early in the morning so I could wander the village. Very few people were out at that time so it was really cool and a bit eerie to walk around. There is a small sense that you are disturbing the peace of the area so I tried to be as quiet and careful as to where I ventured. I made my way through and up to the famous viewpoint. It was everything I had imagined it would be!
After leaving Shirakawa-go I thought to myself “once is enough” but now that time has passed I feel myself craving another stay. Summer time looks to be like an interesting time to visit with fireflies and rice fields to check out. Only time will tell but for now I highly recommend a winter stay here!
You can view the Shirakawa-go official account on Facebook to get daily updates about weather. This was very helpful to me in the days leading up to my trip because I had an rough understanding of how much snow had fallen.
You can watch my adventure to Shirakawa-go on my video starting at 5:01!