Highlights of Shirakawa-go: Explore a World Heritage Site Full of Greenery
Shirakawa-go is a village of gassho-zukuri style Japanese houses in Gifu Prefecture that is listed as a World Heritage site. Traditional and historical streets, buildings, and landscapes still remain here and will make you feel as though you are walking through a history book come to life. Here are some of the best spots and attractions of Shirakawa-go for when you visit.
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1. Gassho-zukuri Village in the Summer
This area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, and the village in the summertime is an especially green landscape, surrounded by the greenery of the mountains. The thatched, gassho-zukuri roofs are a time-honored characteristic of Japanese houses, and most of the houses are built in that style here in Shirakawa-go. There are also many rice and wheat farms on this mountainous area of land and boundless places to enjoy mountain vegetables and other blessings from the mountains.
Visitors come here, not just from Japan but all around the world, because this is the perfect location to enjoy a very traditional Japanese experience. There is something to appreciate here all year round, including cosmos flowers and cherry blossom trees depending on the season. Keep in mind that there are locals who live here, so please remember to be considerate towards them. When night falls, the last of the sunlight filtering through the trees behind the houses is truly magical, and on warm summer nights, you can take gorgeous photos looking out over the entire village.
2. Gassho-zukuri Village in the Winter
Winter is also a spectacular season to visit this region to see the entire village, its fields, and surrounding mountains blanketed in snow. It is highly recommended to visit here if you are on a ski trip and take half the day to look around the gassho-zukuri village. Make sure to check the traffic conditions beforehand as it can be difficult to reach the village by car in the winter.
It is recommended to visit here in the summer because of the weather conditions and the fact that many of the facilities are closed during the winter, but the photos you can take of Shirakawa-go under a layer of snow are breathtaking.
During the wintertime, the warm glow of light emanating from inside of the gassho-zukuri houses of the village from evening until late at night is a photographer's dream. The snow in Shirakawa-mura reaches up to 2 meters, so their winters can be quite severe. If you plan to view the gorgeous illumination, make sure to wear appropriate footwear and clothing for this weather.
Another attraction of the gassho-zukuri aside from their thatched design is how they deal with the heavy snow. The roofs of the gassho-zukuri are sloped at 50° degree angle so that the weight of the snow doesn't overburden the roof. The roofs of the gassho-zukuri in Shirakawa-go are different to those in Gokayama, so don't be satisfied by seeing one of either and compare them instead!
3. Wada Residence
The Wada Residence is said to be the largest gassho-zukuri house in Ogi-machi Village. It is a sightseeing spot; however, as it is close to regular homes, try to respect the privacy of others while visiting the Wada Residence. The tour guides there can get quite busy, so plan ahead to get the most out of your visit. You can also take photos and videos inside the building but be mindful of your surroundings as you experience the gassho-zukuri architecture.
You can see the exterior of the gassho-zukuri style houses from anywhere in the village, but there are few places where you can properly see what they look like inside. Get a first-hand experience of the unique traits of gassho-zukuri as you visit various spaces in the house, from the Buddhist altar room and the living room to even the toilet. This is a designated Important Cultural Property of Japan, so pay close attention during your visit and if you are bringing young children along, make sure to keep an eye on them to prevent any damages to the building.
4. Shirakawa-go White Road
The Shirakawa-go White Road (formally Hakusan Super Forest Road) is a great place to drive through in a car or on a motorcycle, and you can see some waterfalls along the way. The entire length of the road is 33.3km and if the weather is rough, the 30-minute drive can be extended to an hour. This road is also good for enjoying a full-day trek, or a half-day walking tour for waterfall sightseeing.
White Road is a toll road. Small vehicles are charged 2,200 for a round trip or 1,400 for a one-way trip, and standard-sized cars are charged 2,600 for a round trip or 1,600 for a one-way trip. It may sound a little expensive, but the experience is worth it. Enjoy a leisurely drive and stop along the way at destinations such as the Ubaga Waterfall, Iwasokono Waterfall, and the Hakusan observation deck.
5. Ubaga Waterfall (Ubagataki)
Located halfway along the Shirakawa-go White Road, this 76-meter tall waterfall parts at the bottom, giving it an appearance of an old woman's hair, which is why it is called Ubagataki (literally "old woman waterfall"). This is a magnificent waterfall, considered as one of the top 100 waterfalls in Japan.
The cool water staves off the summer heat, so it's a popular place to stop and rest in the summertime. There are only 35 car spaces in the parking lot, but it rarely gets so crowded that you won't get a spot. It is recommended to visit in the morning to have the best experience and avoid any crowds.
6. Ogi-machi Castle Ruins
You can drive or walk to reach this spot and look out over the entirety of the gassho-zukuri village. The Tenshukaku Observatory offers a breathtaking view of the landscape, so for people who want to photograph the gassho-zukuri village, the Ogi-machi Castle Ruins is a must-visit spot.
It is said that court nobles lived here in secret during the Nanboku-cho period (1336 - 1392), and according to history, this was the location of Kaerikumo Castle, which was constructed in 1465 and collapsed in 1585. Hardly anything remains of the castle today so it is mostly just used as a lookout, but those with an interest in history should definitely visit here.
7. Myozenji Temple Museum
This building was constructed around 1748, and even now receives a lot of attention as a tourist spot. It is affiliated with the Shinkyu Honkakuji Temple branch, and has several highlights, including the main hall, bell tower gate and Japanese yew tree.
As the seasons change from summer to winter and back again, the springtime cherry blossom trees and autumn foliage create an elegant scene that makes it seem as though you have stepped back in time to the Edo period (1603 - 1868). The temple museum has appeared many times on TV, but experiencing these historical buildings first-hand as you take some photos here for yourself is highly recommended.
8. Michi no Eki Shirakawago
Take a break from driving and pick out some souvenirs at this roadside station. This is a very convenient place for sightseers at Shirakawa-go, and many locals have stopped by here at least once in their lifetime. As for the souvenirs, you can purchase local products, many of which you can only find in this region, such as rice noodles (600 yen for a packet containing 2 servings), okoshi (rice or millet cakes) (540 yen per box) and wood ear mushrooms (500 yen for 25g).
There is also a farmer's market for vegetables grown locally in Shirakawa-go, so don't forget to check it out. At the restaurant, you can try the "Shoryu (rising dragon) Ramen" for 700 yen, as well as bear meat dishes, such as the Bear Soup for 800 yen and Bear Udon for 1,000 yen. There are 46 spaces in the parking lot, so there will be plenty of space to park and take a break from your journey to have a look around.
9. Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine
This is the shrine dedicated to the region's local deity. The shrine was rebuilt in the Edo period and has a long history. It is said to have been constructed between 708 and 714, giving this historical spot close to 1,300 years of history. It isn't a very large shrine, but it was built in harmony with the natural landscape of Shirakawa-go and is worthwhile to visit to experience its calming atmosphere and wish for a safe journey. The shrine is located a little way away from the gassho-zukuri village, but it is not far to drive to. The cedar trees here are designated as a natural monument of the village, and they lend the place a mystical vibe, so make sure to look for them when you visit.
The Doburoku Festival is held here every year in October, so if you visit then, you will get to enjoy the lively festival mood at the shrine. Goshuin stamps are given at the Doburoku Festival Hall, so try to time your visit to the shrine with the opening times of the hall. Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine has even appeared in the anime Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (known as When They Cry in North America) and fans of the anime still continue to visit the shrine. There is a sacredness in the air here that you will feel whether you are familiar with the anime or not. Please keep in mind to act respectfully on the shrine grounds and follow the proper way to visit a Shinto shrine.
10. Doburoku Festival Hall
At the Doburoku Festival Hall, where people go to pray for a bountiful grain harvest, you can sample doburoku (unrefined sake) and see displays from previous Doburoku Festivals. Try visiting here when you visit Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine to experience the local culture. The exhibit space inside shows the history of doburoku with realistic mannequins and dioramas.
While the Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine receives many visitors including anime fans, the Doburoku Festival Hall is comparatively quiet so you can look around at a leisurely pace. Doburoku can be an acquired taste for some people, but if you want to buy some as a souvenir, look no further than the Shirakawa-go Road Station.
A Great Destination for a Relaxing Day Trip
Shirakawa-go, with its traditional gassho-zukuri village and lush mountain landscape, is a graceful scene all year round. Spend a day to leisurely explore the village, and if you get the chance, visit for an extended amount of time to enjoy summer activities such as nature walks, or a winter ski trip. You will leave with no shortage of beautiful photographs!
Header Image: Worakit Sirijinda / Shutterstock
Translated and republished with permission from: SPIRA (formerly known as Relux Magazine)
By the way, you can book a hotel through Relux (run by SPIRA) by clicking here!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.