Magnificent farmhouses that look like they jumped out of a storybook, large open fields, streams and canals, ponds with koi, lovely porches, unique shops and a magnificent view of the surrounding mountains. All this and more in Shirakawago! Here’s what we will cover in this article:
- Getting to Shirakawago from Takayama
- What to see and do once you’re there
- All about the Gassho-zukuri roofs
- Unique values of the village
- Links to more information around accommodation, transport, passes
On a cold and rainy April evening in 2015, my friend and I huddled together in a small Washitsu (和室) or traditional Japanese room with a Tatami floor in Takayama at J Hopper’s hostel, getting ready to settle in for the night. We had an early morning coming up and wanted to be sprightly when it did arrive.
We were on a 17 day trip backpacking across Japan from Tokyo all the way south to Hiroshima and on this particular night, we were excited to journey across the snow capped mountains of the ‘Japanese Alps’ near Hida Takayama.
The next morning, at 7.50am we boarded our bus from Takayama bus station headed to Kanazawa crossing the Alps and covering Shirakawago enroute.
Getting to Shirakawago
You could take the bus from Takayama like we did or figure out other ways to reach based on your itinerary and location. You can find all information on buses, Shinkansen and passes at this page on Japan guide (oh-so-helpful website this one has proven to be!)
The bus took us along winding highways that danced alongside a gushing river for many miles ultimately emerging high up in the mountains. Here we stopped for a 5 minute coffee break and were told that the bus would not wait for anyone that was delayed by even a minute! True to their words, they departed exactly in 5 mins (one of the many things I adore about the Japanese). And so if you do take a bus like this one, make sure to keep an eye out for departures and stick to the timetable to be safe!
Arriving at Shirakawago
After a while, we arrived at the drop off point at Shirakawago. We disembarked and crossed the river using a huge bridge and there we caught our first glimpse of the magnificent UNESCO world heritage site amidst the mountains that were sprinkled with snow like powdered sugar on pancakes.
The Shirakawa-go (白川郷, Shirakawagō) and neighboring Gokayama (五箇山) regions line the Shogawa River Valley in the remote mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, they are famous for their traditional Gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
What to see and do
The Ogimachi village is small and can be easily explored on foot like we did. Even though many of the Gassho-zukuri houses have today been converted into museums, they still provide a fascinating view into the rural farm life in Japan found in few other places. Each house that is a museum has opening and closing hours mentioned and an admission fee as well. So make sure to plan ahead if you’d like to cover more than one and head back to catch the bus.
You could stay here overnight in one of the farmhouses to explore the local way of life and really soak it all in or proceed by bus to Kanazawa like we did or back to other bigger cities nearby. In Ogimachi, we ambled through one cobbled street after another looking at the houses up close, entering and exiting souvenir shops, stopping to buy some coffee and souvenirs and taking plenty of pictures. You could even strike a conversation with one of the locals that speaks in English if you’re lucky and get to know some of their stories!
There is an open-air museum and also a viewpoint that you can walk to for a lovely view of the surrounding area. The viewpoint can be accessed via a walking trail as shown below (closed during/after heavy snowfall) in about 15 to 20 minutes from the village center or by a shuttle bus, which stops near the Wada-ke House.
The meaning of Gassho-zukuri
The words mean “constructed like hands in prayer” as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The architectural style developed over many generations and in older times the roofs provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms.
Here is some interesting trivia about the roof architecture:
- The houses in these villages face north and south, to minimize wind resistance thereby adjusting the amount of sunlight needed in order to keep the rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
- The roofs form an equilateral triangle and so any of the three angles makes 60 degrees.
- No nails or any metal is used in the construction of any of these.
- Straw ropes and “Neso” a rope from Mansaku trees are used to hold the beams down (it is a sight to behold how the entire village gets together every 20-30 years to do this and how they weave giant needles through the roof using the rope as thread.)
- The sloping roof is able to let the heavy snow fall off during winters as well as deflecting rain making it easier to maintain. The residents keep a fire burning in the houses through seasons both to keep away termites and insects that may infest the roof and also to make sure that in winter or rains, neither water nor snow ruins the straw.
- In summers, the roofs move a little back and forth with the winds since they aren’t fixed down and thus allow for the air to flow through the houses cooling them down!
Isn’t that an absolutely beautiful way of channeling nature’s energy and being in complete harmony with one’s surroundings? This is one of the classic examples of the simplicity of the Japanese way of life since ancient times.
3 rules of the village
These farmhouses were built more than 300 years ago and over time the imminent threat was that of modernization. Many of these houses were demolished and some villages disappeared. In the face of this challenge, the villagers in this area decided to come together to define three rules that would protect and preserve these houses for future generations and for tourism. Those rules are: “don’t sell, don’t lease, don’t destroy”.
The concept of ‘Yui’
One of the most beautiful concepts of working as a community and living in harmony is portrayed by the idea of ‘Yui’ that these villagers follow. The idea is simple: they come together to re-thatch the roofs and share the work. ‘Yui’ thus describes the bonds between the villagers: across age, across gender and across backgrounds. This is what has protected the village too.
There is a fascinating episode on NKH World TV about these houses which I would highly recommend to anyone who would like to relive their trip to this village or to those who hope to visit someday! You can find more information on their website.
In a nutshell
Even if you do not get to visit all the houses and the museum in your short trip, just taking a walk through the streets will give you a peek into how the locals live and work. This little village is sure to enchant all kinds of travelers, most of all the ones that have some room in their hearts for simple joys!
Closing credits and useful links
- To book hostels in Takayama, you can try the J Hopper’s hostel through Booking.com like we did or go through any other booking site too.
- For overnight stays in Shirakawago region you could try the village’s official website
Bus routes and timings
- You can find details of bus routes and timings on the Japan Guide website that we found to be very useful for all our planning.
Credits to websites referenced:
Copyright: All images in this article were shot personally and if you do use them elsewhere, please do give credits to this page/article. Thanks and safe travels!