If you’re looking for a getaway from the chaos of urban life, Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture just might be the place for you.
As a World Heritage Site, this quaint little village nestled in the Japanese Alps has charmed many tourists by preserving most of its traditional ways of life. Its gasshō-zukuri — houses built with triangular thatched roofs resembling hands clasped in prayer and attics suited for raising silkworms — are clear evidence of this.
Where is Shirakawago?
Shirakawa-gō, otherwise known as Shirakawa Village, is located in the larger municipal of Shirakawa. They are both in the mountainous region of Gifu Prefecture around 400 km north-west of Tokyo. The area is also in the old Hida Province, and some parts still keep the name, such as Hida-Takayama (more commonly known as Takayama).
Gokayama, another village part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, is also beautiful, but is more difficult to access on your own, so people tend to join tours to see it.
Ogimachi is Shirakawago’s largest and principal district, as well as the most accessible (as this is where the bus drops you off). For your reference, the attractions and most of the accommodation mentioned in this article are in Ogimachi.
Getting to Shirakawago
Now you know where Shirakawago is, it is time to get there.
Buses to Shirakawago
To get to Shirakawago from Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll need to take a highway bus to Takayama first. It takes around 5.5 hours from both cities and costs between ¥5,000 and ¥7,000, depending on the season. From Takayama, take another bus to Shirakawago.
This 50 minute-long journey costs ¥2,600 one way. Buses leave six times per day and you can book a seat online. Quick math: That’s a total of ¥8,600 on average for a 6.5-hour trip.
You can also take a direct bus from Nagoya to Shirakawago. This trip takes around 3 hours and can cost as little as ¥3,000.
If coming from Kanazawa, there are buses that leave regularly from the East Exit of Kanazawa Station for Shirakawago. The tickets can be booked online, the journey takes 1 hour and 15 minutes, and the fare is ¥2,000.
How to book
Bus tours to Shirakawago
Catching a specific bus or navigating to the correct scenic spot on your own can be stressful. That’s why one of the most chosen ways to see the village is with a bus tour. There are many starting points to choose from.
Trains to Shirakawago
You’ll still have to take a bus to Shirakawago from your final train station, as that’s the only mode of public transportation that takes you directly to the village. This is usually Takayama Station, so remember to add an hour and ¥2,600 on to your journey.
A train ride from Tokyo to Takayama will only be about an hour shorter than a bus ride (4.5 hours with one change in Nagoya or Toyama), but is significantly more expensive at between ¥15,000 and ¥16,000, so this isn’t really an option for Cheapos unless you’re on a JR Pass.
The “Wide View” Hida Limited Express primarily connects Nagoya with Takayama but also has one service a day from Osaka and Kyoto. From Nagoya, this scenic trip takes a little less than 2.5 hours and costs ¥6,340. From Osaka, it takes 4.5 hours and costs ¥8,650, and from Kyoto, it is just under 4 hours and costs ¥7,990.
Spending the night in Shirakawago
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 gasshō-zukuri house? It’s certainly a unique experience that you can only get in Shirakawago and Takayama because that style of architecture is unique to the area.
The price per night is similar for most houses. Currently, it is between ¥8,800 and ¥14,000 per person, inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Additional charges may apply for bigger rooms and heating during the harsh winter months — Shirakawago gets buried in snow and is thus extremely cold in winter. You can also find some quite expensive properties, so make sure to check the official tourist site to find one that suits you.
Our top picks are Shimizu, Rihei, and Gensaku. Also, if you’re still not convinced to stay in a gasshō-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.
What is staying at a gasshō-zukuri like?
A night at a gasshō-zukuri is a great chance to experience Japanese hospitality; 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). Convinced yet?
Note: Not all house owners are fluent in English. Knowing some basic Japanese phrases might be helpful.
Hotels in Shirakawago
The traditional houses aren’t the only options for accommodation in Shirakawago — there are also plenty of hotels and guesthouses! It’s a bonus that these include a bed and not a futon on the floor.
A bit farther away in the Hatoni district, you’ll find Shirakawago Guest House Kei at around ¥9,000 a night for a comfortable room with a shared bathroom.
Shirakawago Onyado Yuinosho, another highly-related hostelry in the town, is a tad more expensive at — on average — ¥35,000 per room, per night.
What to see and do in Shirakawago, Gifu
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 the 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 gasshō-zukuri memorabilia, hoba miso, and doburoku (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 Tenshukaku (Castle Keep) Observatory; it’s around a 15-minute walk from the main village. 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 the winter light-up event in January and February, when the bright lights provide a contrast to the darkness and thick blanket of snow enveloping the village.
Note: Advance reservations are necessary to visit during the light-up event due to increased popularity.
Aside from the observation deck, check out the Gasshō-Zukuri Minkaen, an open-air museum displaying relocated and preserved gasshō-zukuri houses. There, you can get a glimpse of the region’s 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 anime fans, as it was featured in a murder mystery visual novel and anime series called Higurashi no Naku Koro ni.
As for other sights, just walk around the village and you’re bound to come across something charming and fascinating: a mill, a creek, and so on. Remember that you’re in a rustic village and all of these little experiences add up to the charm of Shirakawago in Gifu.
While we do our best to ensure the information here is correct, it is subject to change. This article was first published in March 2015 and was last updated by Alexandra Ziminski in August 2022.