Join us on a visit to Shirakawa-go, an architectural gem in Japan’s mountainous Chubu region
Tourists flock to Shirakawa-go year-round because each season has its own charm. This ancient village is famous for its architecture and the area’s rural beauty. Visitors come here from Takayama, a peaceful city famed for its old-fashioned administrative buildings.
The name Shirakawa-go translates as “White River”. Indeed, many visitors feel this village is at its loveliest in the winter, when the roofs of its Gassho buildings are covered in white.
UNESCO has conveyed World Heritage status on two sites in Japan due to exceptional and unique architecture: Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Both of these regions are located in Chubu, an area plagued by winter avalanches. Here, the traditional houses feature roofs of thickly thatched hay that slope 60 degrees to allow the snow to slide off. The roofs are positioned to enjoy maximum sun exposure so that snow will melt. Beneath the roofs lie networks of interlaced wooden boards connected by ropes without nails. A house is divided into two or three stories. The ground floor contains a living room, kitchen and private living corners. The attic is built to catch breezes and light. Locals used this space to raise silkworms, which stayed warm thanks to rising heat from the living quarters below.
In the past, villagers grew paddy, raised silkworms and made gunpowder. Today, tourism is the main business thanks to the village’s World Heritage Site status. According to UNESCO’s criteria, Shirakawa-go is an example of a thousand-year-old settlement where people lived in harmony with nature and an example of Japan’s rural culture.
Visitors who come to Shirakawa-go on the weekends from January to mid-February will be overwhelmed by its sparkling beauty. For the past 30 years the village has hosted a winter lights festival. From 5.30 to 7.30pm on weekend nights in the winter, the village’s old Gassho houses are lit with golden lights. The effect is dreamlike.
The best views may be had from Shiroyama Viewpoint, a sightseeing hub in the northern end of the village. Even in daylight, visitors flock to this viewpoint to enjoy views of wooden houses and paddy fields. In the winter, the only way to reach the lookout is on foot – unless too much snow falls and the trail is blocked. In mid-winter, it’s not uncommon for one to two meters of snow to fall on Ogimachi.
As well as iconic old houses open to the public such as Wada House, Nagase House, etc., the village is home to some famous temples, including Myozenzi and Doburoku Museum. Visitors will also find many traditional restaurants and lovely boutiques.
During the cold winter, it’s worth seeking out Shirakawa-go no Yu, a homestay with an onsen hot bath. While there is a lot of accommodation in Ogimachi, visitors must book far in advance before the peak season. Some Gassho houses have been transformed into guesthouses known as minshuku. Tourists can join the locals to experience their daily routines. Visitors who are short of time can catch a bus or rent a car in Takayama and enjoy a half-day trip to Shirakawa-go.