A winter trip to Shirakawa-go is like traveling inside a snow-globe.
Designated in 1995 as UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan, the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are known for their traditional farmhouses in the architectural style of gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り), meaning “praying hands” referring to the likeness of the steep thatched roof shape to Buddhist monks pressing their hands together in prayer.
The characteristic roofs are thus shaped to minimize its weight burden from heavy snow buildup every winter. The structures are built without nails to avoid rust. The first floor is usually designated as living area for the family for up to thirty people— extended family included— while the upper floors are used for the family’s livelihood. With limited agricultural land, the industries that thrived here were cultivation of mulberry trees, rearing of silkworms, and gunpowder production.
To preserve this village with its fire-hazard structures, community anti-fire water-spraying exercises are held every autumn (last Sunday of October); wide reforesting for roof materials is undertaken in the summer; and for deteriorating roofs usually every twenty-five or so years, re-thatching is done in the spring.
Established as early as the 11th century along the Sho River, these mountainous region communities were isolated from the rest of Japan for a long time, leading them to be self-sustaining by adapting to the environment as well as maintaining traditional lifestyle and social systems.
On the way here from Kanazawa, you will get to preview the snow-capped Alpine mountains with ski slopes on the right side and barren fields on the left where lotus and edamame are waiting for spring.
A. GOKAYAMA (Suganuma, Toyama Prefecture) – In this quieter village [not easily accessible by public transport], there are nine remaining gassho-zukuri style houses.
The residents opened some souvenir shops as part of their livelihood. It’s nice to be able to support them in some way.
Despite its historic traditional status, the Japanese applied their technology advancements so sweetly by installing this elevator for visitors to get back to the parking lot above the hill. The happy lady on bottom right is my tour guide, Mai.
B. SHIRAKAWA-GO (Gifu Prefecture)
This famous village is an open-air museum with a panoramic viewpoint located in Ogimachi. Winter illumination —starting at dusk—is breathtaking and is ideal for overnight trips or if you are staying in nearby towns like Takayama or Kanazawa. (From Osaka, it’s a challenge to catch the last train back to Kanazawa and then Osaka after illumination)
Shirakawa-gō means (白川郷, “White River Old-District”). You cross this foot bridge above the white river (below) to access the village.
At Shirakawa-go, one of the farmhouses is a museum and a few of them have been turned into minshuku (family-operated, Japanese bed and breakfast) available for overnight stays which are perfect for an authentic experience. There are coffee houses and many souvenir shops.
It’s a winter playground for families and even pets.
In the winter, trees are reinforced to support the trunk in preparation for heavy snow’s weight.
The pond waters are so clear you could see the fish keeping still.
I am so grateful to tag along on this trip and see Shirakawa-go finally. Thank You Lord!
GETTING HERE FROM OSAKA
There are different routes to get to Shirakawa-go (From Tokyo or Nagoya). My experience was from Osaka.
Take Thunderbird Express Train (Platform 11) from Osaka Station to Kanazawa (Duration: approx. 2hrs. 38 mins; Buy ticket at Osaka Station). [Please double check the overhead monitor for Platform Number]. There was no food outlet open by the platforms before the 630am train nor on that particular train schedule (almost 3 hour ride) so pick up your breakfast from a convenience store before you board. (My favorite is the egg sandwich).
JR West Timetable “Thunderbird Osaka to Kanazawa” http://www.westjr.co.jp/global/en/timetable/
Interactive Schedule Finder : http://time.jr-odekake.net/cgi-bin/mydia_ml.cgi
Get picked up by Kanazawa Walking Tours Guide at Kanazawa Station for a customized day trip for places in the area you want to visit. [There are less expensive tour alternatives but I only had one day to spare and another trip to Japan or an overnight trip with additional hotel for this tagalong trip to do Shirakawa-go would have cost even more The price is the same for 1 or 4 persons.]
I chose this itinerary for the 9-hour tour:
- Shirakawa-go (early on itinerary because they say that on peak seasons, this is as busy as Shibuya Station crossing; exagg for sure but it makes sense to avoid crowds)
- Takayama. And because I was good at avoiding prolonging the trip (by wearing snow spike shoe attachments, avoiding shopping, having a planned list of things to do, and chop-chop quick photos) we were able to add:
- Kenrokuen Gardens, among Japan’s Top 3 Most Beautiful Gardens.
My Kanazawa Walking Tour Review: Kanazawa Tours solved the puzzle of an impromptu plan to visit Shirakawa-go area. Gavin was the perfect pre-trip coordinator, efficiently and promptly answering every (of my many a) question erasing every plan barrier… that gave me the comfort level to proceed with the trip to what I thought was a faraway place. The region is definitely worth a visit! Mai was the best guide to Shirakawa-go, Gokayama, Takayama, and Kenroku-en Gardens. Very informative, courteous, professional, efficient with time, and patient to take souvenir photos for me! Had a very good Hida Beef Fried Rice and Soy Sauce ice cream in Takayama. Kenroku-en Garden was supposed to be closing already but we were able to get in for a quick dash. She customised to my interests and pace to cover the most ground given the limited time.
OTHER OPTIONS FROM OSAKA AND NAGOYA:
FROM OSAKA 2-DAY TRIP:
DAY TRIP Viator Day Trip
DAY TRIP Govoyagin
2 DAY TRIP Viator 2
When choosing a tour, please read the fine print because some companies indicate that the tours are meant for Japanese guests, are conducted in Japanese, and foreigners will not be given English explanations of the sights. The companies mentioned above have designated English-speaking guides. On another previous tour, H.I.S. Company had a Chinese (Mandarin) guide and conducted her explanation in Chinese but explained to me in English afterwards.
Here is a website that gives Travel Tips to Shirakawa-go from Manila:
p.s. It’s worth going slower to get a walking spot near the cable rails of the foot bridge [rather than faster center lane] into Shirakawa-go village. My tour guide and another lady slipped and fell even when they were walking carefully/ slowly. Check out shoe spike info for safety walking over the bridge in this post: