Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, Shirakawa-go takes you back to rustic and rural Japan. This fairytale village crafted together over the centuries is lost in time and let’s hope it stays like this.
Getting off the bus, I was greeted by lush rice fields, blooming flowers and misty mountains and at the centre of them were these beautiful traditional thatched-roof houses. Shirakawa-go (白川郷) was even quieter than Takayama - almost silent - and transported me to a zen-like state for the next couple of hours. I recommend starting with the 15-20 mins hike to top of the Ogimachi Castle Observation Deck (荻町城跡展望台) to get a bird’s eye view of the village (infrequent shuttle buses are also available). From here, you can see the whole village (it’s quite compact) and its overall layout to help you navigate when you are on the ground.
Shirakawa-go and nearby Gokayama were registered as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 for its rare and fine collection of Gassho-style houses. Gassho style houses are steep straw-roofed homes made of wood (hence fire is a major hazard). The roofs are steeply sloped to prevent the snow from piling up and are said to resemble hands meeting in prayer. Shirakawa-go receives some of the heaviest snowfall is Japan (record snowfall of 4.5 m) and was historically blocked-off from the surrounding area due to snow. In addition, the houses face to the north and south (the dominant wind direction here) to minimise wind resistance and control the amount of sunlight hitting the roof, thereby providing cooler summers and warmer winters.
These Gassho style houses are highly functional and photogenic so enjoy some of my favourite shots from this forgotten region of Japan. I am hoping to return in the winter to see this village twinkle through a carpet of snow!
To get to Shirakawa-go: There are buses from Takayama, Gifu and Kanazawa (see Japan Guide for more info). They can be booked in advance but it is also fine to buy a flexile ticket and show up at the bus stop whenever works for you. Lots of hotels/hostels/tour companies in those towns offer half day guided tours (with max 1.5-2h spent at the village itself) but I opt-ed out of these so I could explore at my leisure. If you love photography or want to explore more thoroughly, I recommend spending 3-4 hours or overnight here (and combine it with a Gassho homestay).