Shirakawago village (Shirakawa-go), Gifu Prefecture, Japan
In Japan, Shirakawago village is famous for its unique architectural style of sloping thatched roof houses. Located in the heart of the Japanese Alps, north of Gifu Prefecture, it is listed as a World Cultural Heritage site by UNESCO (jointly with Gokayama in Toyama).
This site is a must see for anyone wishing to discover the well-preserved life and traditions of a rural village. That’s why we have included this destination on our first trip to Japan.
In fact, the word “Shirakawago” indicates a small region in the Japanese Alps, inhabited by several historic villages. By extension, the most important of them, Ogimachi, with its 117 houses, is also called Shirakawago. In this article we will use these two names interchangeably. Being also the most accessible village in this remote mountainous region, it is the one we chose to visit.
Let’s recount our visit to this charming village in our travel blog Heulys.Access directly to the shirakawago map
1. The gassho-zukuri architectural style
The historic villages of Shirakawago are known for their unique architectural style called “gassho-zukuri“. In particular, this style refers to wooden houses, which very sloping roofs are covered with thatch to prevent snow from accumulating in winter. Indeed, during this period, the Japanese Alps are one of the snowiest regions in Japan. In addition, the term gassho-zukuri (“joining one’s hands together in prayer“) recalls the shape of the steep roof structure.
This architectural style was developed during the Edo period (1603 ~ 1868). At that time the demand for silk was very important and the mountainous topography of the places did not permit to live on rice cultivation only. Therefore, the villagers turned to a complementary activity, the sericulture that is part of the regional tradition. The houses were adapted accordingly. For example, they were made entirely of wood, held without nails and counted several floors. On the ground floor, a large central fireplace warmed people and animals, and the upper floor was occupied by families. Finally, on the top floor, under the airy and luminous attics, locals practiced the rearing of silkworm.
Over time, gassho-zukuri houses were either abandoned, destroyed by fire, or re-sold. So today there are only a hundred left in Shirakawago. Among the latter, some are over 250 years old.
For several years, Japan has launched a program protecting traditional houses. Furthermore, in 1995, UNESCO recognized the exceptional value of these customs still alive in the Shirakawa-go’s villages.
2. Visit to the historic village of Shirakawa-go
Having left Kanazawa by bus this morning, we arrive less than an hour later in Shirakawago village. The journey offered beautiful landscapes in the heart of the wooded and glowing mountains of the Japanese Alps.
A large building that welcomes visitors (terminal) marks the entrance to Ogimachi. The village which extends on both banks of the Shogawa river is not very large and can therefore, be visited on foot.
We start the visit of this unique site under the beautiful fall sun.
Before entering the heart of the village to visit the traditional gassho-zukuri houses, we walk up to the Shiroyama observation platform located on the hill overlooking the village. Thus, we will be able to admire Shirakawago from above and appreciate the hamlet in its exceptional natural environment, left intact for several centuries.
The panorama reveals Ogimachi’s beauty, nestled in the mountains, surrounded by shimmering rice paddies and glowing forests.
We notice that the houses of Shirakawago are all aligned in the same direction. In fact, every roof faces east and west to receive the maximum amount of sun. Thus, the snow which settles there melts more quickly.
What a magnificent panorama!
Shirakawago Village’s thatched houses
Then we go back to the heart of the historic village. We stroll along its main street and observe the beautiful gassho-zukuri style houses. Among them, some are still inhabited. Others have been transformed into souvenir shops, restaurants and also guest houses. It is therefore, possible to spend a night in these traditional houses for a unique experience. Other gasshō-zukuri mansions, converted into museums, retrace the region’s history. For example, they display collections of ancient objects used in everyday life.
Some remarkable houses are worth mentioning:
– the Wada house, located near the entrance to Ogimachi, is one of the largest and oldest houses in the hamlet. Some guides say it was built over 300 years ago, passed down from generation to generation. It would also have played an important social role within the village (the equivalent of a town hall). One part is still inhabited and the other is a museum.
– the Kanda house: one of the most beautiful Gassho-Zukuri houses in Shirakawago.
– the Nagase house: this 5-storey house was once inhabited by a doctor. Its visit reveals ancient medical equipment from the Edo period.
– Myozenji temple and museum: It is one of the rare Buddhist temples to be built in the gassho-zukuri style. The museum presents a collection of old farm objects, furniture, dishes.
The cooperative spirit of Shirakawago
We walk past a house which roof is undergoing renovation. Renewing thatch, which must be carried out every 30 to 40 years, is a colossal task. However if several people work together, a roof can be re-thatched in a shorter time. It is for this reason that for many years, teamwork and solidarity from the villagers of Ogimachi have been an integral part of their customs and traditions. This cooperative spirit is called “yui” and is a fundamental part of Japanese culture.
We leave the main street to stroll along the small adjacent paths that run along the edges of the rice paddies where other houses stand.
Shirakawa-go Gassho Zukuri Minkaen: in the heart of timeless Japan
At the South of Ogimachi, we cross the Deai bridge to visit Shirakawago Gassho Zukuri Minkaen, a true open-air museum.
This place brings together 25 Gassho-zukuri houses that have been dismantled and rebuilt on site in order to preserve them. It shows how people lived in Shirakawago during the Edo period. Thus, we stroll in the heart of a Japanese garden, discover a temple and a water mill. The old-fashioned charm of the place is enhanced by the natural landscape dressed in the fall’s colors.
This place is downright magical!
Upon this vision of the timeless countryside, we end our visit of shirakawa-go before taking the bus back to Takayama.
In conclusion, Shirakawago is a unique place where you can immerse yourself in the timeless atmosphere of the Japanese countryside. It’s a brief journey through time and space, where we discover traditional and exceptional elements of Japanese culture.
It shows the image of eternal Japan.