shirakawa-go gassho zukuri minkaen

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.

shirakawago village located in japan

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Shirakawago Village, a World Cultural Heritage site

1.The “gassho-zukuri” architectural style
2.Visit Ogomachi village
Information to visit Shirakawago village

A bonus, look at the VIDEO : Shirakawago, Historical Village in the Japanese Alps

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.

shirakawago village nestled in the japanese alps

At the feet of the Japanese Alps

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.

japan_shirakawa-go-ogimachi
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.

Ogimachi at the feet of the mountains
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.

Shiroyama Observatory

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.

japan shirakawago observatory

Panoramic view from the observatory

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!

The observatory is a 20-minute walk from the terminal.

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.

japan shirakawago houses

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.

ogomachi shirakawago houses japan
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.

shirakawago village japan
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.

Shirakawa-go Gassho Zukuri Minkaen japan

 

This place is downright magical!

 There is an additional fee to visit Shirakawago Gassho Zukuri Minkaen.
Access to Shirakawa-go Gassho Zukuri Minkaen Map

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.

Practical information to visit Shirakawa-go village

Look at the VIDEO : Shirakawago, Historic Village in the Japanese Alps

Click on the image to watch the VIDEO

shirakawago-japanese-village

Shirakawago Map

Click on the picture to enlarge : 

shirakawago map ogimachi

Shirakawa-go Restaurants

Several restaurants but they close at sunset,

 Shirakawago Hotels

The village counts 40 gassho-zukuri houses transformed into ryokans (Japanese inns) or simple guest houses.
List of the lodging.
To book, send an e-mail to Shirakawa-go Tourist (info@shirakawa-go.gr.jp)
ou call 05769-6-1013 (9 am ~ 5 pm (in Japanese only)

 When to go to Shirakawa-go

The best times to go are spring (for cherry blossoms) and fall (for koyo with red maples).
In winter, Ogimachi has many charms, but in this mountainous region, the snowfall can be significant (4 to 5 m) and most of the roads are closed.

 How to get to Shirakawago

The village is only accessible by bus or car, so the route is not covered by the JR Pass.
Shirakawago is served several times a day by the Nohi bus line, including Kanazawa to Takayama (round trip).
The journey takes approximately 50 minutes.
Given the tourist attraction to the site, it is preferable to book at least 48 hours in advance, either on the Nohi site or at Kanazawa or Takayama station.
As the visit to the historic village does not exceed 3 or 4 hours, it is quite possible to leave from Takayama or Kanazawa and make a stop in Shirakawago (this is what we did). Upon arrival, the terminal building has a guarded locker where luggage can be left.

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