If you’re looking for a getaway from the chaos of urban life, Shirakawagō, nestled in the Japanese Alps, just might be the place for you.
As a World Heritage Site, this quaint little village in Gifu prefecture has charmed many tourists with its traditional architecture. The region is famous for its gasshō-zukuri houses, built with triangular thatched roofs resembling hands clasped in prayer — gasshō means “prayer hands” — and attics suited for raising silkworms.
Where is Shirakawagō?
Shirakawagō, or Shirakawa Village, is located in the mountains of Gifu prefecture, about 400 km (or about 250 miles) northwest of Tokyo. It’s also part of what was once Hida province, and some places still have Hida in their name, such as Hida-Takayama (more commonly known as simply Takayama).
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.
Gokayama, another village that is 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.
Getting to Shirakawagō
Now you know where Shirakawagō is, it is time to get there. Read on for details on how to get to Shirakawagō from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Kanazawa. If you’re already planning to visit Takayama, Shirakawagō is nearby.
Buses to Shirakawagō
To get to Shirakawagō from Tokyo or Osaka, you’ll need to take a highway bus to Takayama first. It takes around 5.5 hours from either city and costs between ¥5,000 and ¥7,000, depending on the season.
From Takayama, take another bus to Shirakawagō. 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 Shirakawagō. 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 Shirakawagō. 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 Shirakawagō
Catching a specific bus or navigating to the correct scenic spot on your own can be stressful. That’s why one of the most popular ways to see the village is with a bus tour. There are many starting points to choose from.
Trains to Shirakawagō
You’ll still have to take a bus to Shirakawagō 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 using a Japan Rail 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.
Takayama–Hokuriku Area Pass
The Takayama–Hokuriku Area Pass is a great idea for those who are traveling around the area and also want to include Kanazawa and Nagoya in their trip. Included in the pass is the bus from Takayama to Kanazawa — which stops at Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama en route — as well as travel to/from Kansai International Airport.
Find out more information about the pass and if it is worth getting for your trip in our handy guide to JR Central travel passes, which includes sample itineraries.
The pass costs ¥14,260 (or ¥15,280 when purchased in Japan) and is good for five days of consecutive travel. Unfortunately the pass is currently only available to foreign travelers entering the country on a temporary (“tourist”) visa.
Spending the night in Shirakawagō
While there are tourists who just spend a day in Shirakawagō (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 ¥14,500 per person, inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Additional charges may apply for bigger rooms and heating during the harsh winter months — Shirakawagō 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 in a gasshō-zukuri house 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). You’ll be sleeping on the floor on a futon and the bathrooms will be simple — usually just a shower and toilet — and shared with other staying guests.
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 (like Shimizu is). Knowing some basic Japanese phrases might be helpful.
Hotels in Shirakawagō
The traditional houses aren’t the only options for accommodation in Shirakawagō — there are also plenty of hotels and guesthouses! This is the best option for anyone who is more comfortable sleeping in a bed rather than a futon.
In the Hatoni district, you’ll find Shirakawagō Guest House Kei. It’s around ¥9,000 a night for a comfortable room with a shared bathroom, and as low as ¥3,000 for a bed in the dormitory.
Shirakawagō Onyado Yuinosho, another highly-related hostelry in the town, is a tad more expensive at — on average — ¥30,000 per room, per night.
What to see and do in Shirakawagō
Life in Shirakawagō is slow-paced, so take it easy and stroll around while enjoying the beauty of the natural sccenery. The entirety of Ogimachi can be explored on foot.
Shirakawagō top sights
So what are Shirakawagō’s famous sights? For starters, the entire village is already an attraction in itself. Head to the Tenshūkaku (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 Minka-en, an open-air museum displaying relocated and preserved gasshō-zukuri houses. There, you can learn more about the region’s traditional way of life.
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 shrine, Shirakawa Hachimangū, 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 Shirakawagō!
If you want to support Shirakawagō’s local businesses, drop by the shops and take home their iconic souvenir: a good-luck charm called 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.
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 December 2022.