If you’re looking for a getaway from the chaos of urban life, Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture just might be the place for you. A World Heritage site, this quaint little village nestled in the Japan Alps has charmed many tourists with the way it has preserved most of its traditional way of life, with its gassho-zukuri houses—houses built with triangular thatched roofs resembling hands clasped in prayer, and with an attic suited for raising silkworms—as the most conspicuous evidence. Whether it’s during cherry blossom season in spring, or during winter, when certain houses are illuminated in January for a light-up event, Shirakawago is lovely and fairytale-like all year round.
Getting to Shirakawago
To get to Shirakawago, take a Nouhi Bus from Tokyo or Osaka to Takayama, which takes 5 hours and 30 minutes; then take another bus to Shirakawago for an hour. Alternatively, you can jump on a guided bus tour from Takayama that takes you around both Shirakawa-go and Ainokura for 6,690yen. While a trip from Tokyo or Osaka to Takayama was more expensive in the past, prices seem to vary seasonally now, and as of March 2015, a ride from Shinjuku to Takayama costs 5,040-6,690 yen, while it costs 2,800-4,700 yen from Osaka or Kyoto to Takayama. Meanwhile, the ride from Takayama to Shirakawago costs 2,470 yen one-way, but buying round-trip tickets is slightly cheaper at 4,420 yen. Bus rides from Nagoya to Takayama are also available. Check Japan Bus Online for up to date prices and schedules.
A train ride from Tokyo to Takayama will be about an hour shorter than a bus ride, but is significantly more expensive, so this isn’t really an option for cheapos unless you’re on a JR pass. From Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya, though, you can take the Wide View Hida, a limited express, directly to Takayama for 8,500 yen, 7,850 yen, and 6,230 yen respectively. Nagoya being quite close to Shirakawago, the ride only takes a little less than 2.5 hours, but it takes about 3.5-more than 4 hours from Osaka and Kyoto. And of course, you’ll still have to take the bus to Shirakawago, as that’s the only mode of public transportation that takes you to the village.
Ogimachi is Shirakawago’s largest and principal village, and the most accessible (as this is where the bus drops you off). For your reference, the attractions mentioned in this article are all in Ogimachi. Gokayama, another village making up Shirakawago, is also beautiful, but is more difficult to access on your own, so people tend to join tours to see it.
Spending the night
While there are tourists who just spend a day in Shirakawago (usually just as a day trip or detour from Takayama), why not spend the night in a gassho-zukuri house? It’s certainly a unique experience that you can only get in Shirakawago and Takayama, as that style of architecture is unique to this area. The price per night is similar for most houses, as there seems to be an agreed-upon price among the houses: currently, with the 8% consumption tax, it’s 8800 yen a night, inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Additional charges may apply for single occupancy and heating during the harsh winter months, as Shirakawago gets buried in snow and is thus extremely cold in winter. A night at a gassho-zukuri is a great chance to experience Japanese hospitality, as the owners might strike up a conversation with you, and/or the dining room may have an irori, a traditional Japanese hearth. The meals are made with the freshest regional ingredients: the fish are caught from the river, the vegetables are locally grown, and the owners will almost always include hoba miso (miso grilled on a magnolia leaf) and Hida beef, which may not be as famous as Kobe beef, but is still one of the top kinds of wagyu (Japanese beef). Some recommended gassho-zukuri to spend the night in are Magoemon and Shimizu Inn. Also, if you’re still not convinced to stay in a gassho-zukuri house, most owners give guests a discount to the onsen at Shirakawago no Yu, a ryokan with the only hot springs in the village. Convinced already? Do note that not all owners can speak English, so those who can’t speak Nihongo can book with the help of Japanese Guest Houses.
What to see and do
Life in Shirakawago is slow-paced, so take it easy and stroll around to see the beauty of nature. The entirety of Ogimachi can be explored on foot. If you want to support Shirakawago’s local businesses, drop by their shops and take home their iconic souvenir: a good-luck charm called the sarubobo, a faceless doll that’s supposed to be a baby monkey. Different colors have different meanings. Other souvenirs include gassho-zukuri memorabilia, hoba miso, and doburoku, or unrefined sake that’s thick and sweet. You can also buy doburoku-flavored ice cream in the village.
So what are Shirakawago’s famous sights? For starters, the entire village is already an attraction in itself. Head to the observation deck; it’s a long walk from the main village, so if walking isn’t your thing, you can take a bus for 200 yen one-way. There, you can see the village from above; it really looks like a tiny hamlet from the distant past. It gets even more picturesque during their winter light-up event, when the bright lights provide a contrast to the darkness and the thick blanket of snow around the village.
Aside from the observation deck, check out the Gassho-Zukuri Minkaen, an open-air museum displaying relocated and preserved gassho-zukuri houses. There, you can get a glimpse of their traditional way of life (let’s be realistic – not all of Shirakawago’s traditions have survived the test of time!). Elsewhere in the village, some families’ former homes have also been opened for public viewing: the Wada House, which is the largest in the village; Kanda House, and Nagase House. There’s also the Shirakawa Hachimangu Shrine, which has become an attraction for otaku, as it was featured in a murder mystery visual novel and anime series called Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. If you’re a fan of that series, you can consider your Shirakawago trip to be a pilgrimage and take note of the places that were featured there. And for other sights, just walk around the village and you’re bound to come across something charmingly fascinating: a mill, a creek, and so on. These probably might not be too spectacular on their own, but think of the bigger picture, and remember that you’re in a rustic village and that all of these add up to the charm of Shirakawago.