Tucked inside Mt. Haku’s highest peak, gracing the top of the Ryōhaku Mountain range, resides a small and snowy town called Shirakawa. Shirakawa, Japan, located in the Gifu Prefecture, is nothing short of a fairytale village. With its towering thatched-roof homes built more than 300 years ago, the lush greenery of its mountainous forests, and its remarkably heavy snowfall, Shirakawa-go is cause for many fantastical adventures.
Shirakawa is a village long excluded from the advancing modernity of Japan. Because of its secluded location, many traditions and ways of life known to ancient Japanese culture are still alive and well in Shirakawa. Access to the entire region was difficult for a long period of time which caused a multitude of villages lying alongside the Sho river -- including Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma -- to remain untouched by the advancing age. One of the main reasons Shirakawa has such a rich authenticity is because of it’s rare gassho-zukuri style homes, which still remain in the original clusters and domains that they were first crafted in. Gassho-zukuri translates roughly to “praying hands”, which depicts the triangular structure of these wooden farmhouses thought to resemble two hands meeting in prayer. Gassho-zukuri are incredibly unique because of their thatched-roofs which are sloped at a forty-five to sixty degree angle. Even so, the houses can be three to four stories tall. Shirakawa and Gokayama are the only two regions in Japan to lay claim to this style of housing, built solely to survive the harsh winter months.
Shirakawa was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, which has led to the recent attraction of some foreign tourists. This isn’t always a bad thing, though! Select gassho-zukuri homes have since been converted into traditional inns called “minshuku”, while others have been altered to become restaurants.
Most travelers would say that it’s best to visit Shirakawa during the winter months, when the immense amounts snowfall (more than 13 feet per year) can be experienced first-hand. There is even a beautiful Shirakawa Winter Illumination Festival that can be attended on various dates in both January and February! But don't let that deter you from the visiting during the warmer seasons. The environment adapts and changes in wonderful ways to complement the varied climate.
Places To See:
The Wadake home is the largest of all the remaining gassho-zukuri homes. This home is still occupied by some of the locals, but remains open to showcase beautiful tools and antique equipment used when the houses were first forged. Because of its likeness to a small museum, this house is one of the most popular to visit.
The Hida tunnel encompasses a segment of the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway that runs through central Japan. The tunnel is 6.6 miles long (or 10.7 km), making it the second largest tunnel in Japan, just after the Kan-Etsu.
Hakusan Super Rindō
(Hakusan White Road)
The Hakusan mountain road is a truly scenic trip that will end at the foot of Shirakawa. The toll road is long and winding, taking about 60-90 minutes to traverse. The anxiety that comes with navigating through high elevation and steep slopes is worth the pigment-rich scenery flying by out the window. Especially in the Autumn months when the leaves are changing, the Hakusan road is coated with beautiful colors and fallen foliage. Don't forget to stop off and admire Fukubeno Otaki, an 86 meter waterfall just beside the road. And if you're still feeling adventurous further down the way, pull over and take a quick 15 minute hike down to the famous Oyadaninoyu hot springs.
If the weather is right (not freezing, that is), then outdoor excursions such as the Hakusan Rindo path, the Amau Pass, and the Koso wetlands are all wonderful places to get the most out of Shirakawa’s enormous forest, which takes up 95% of the town. The Amau Pass is renowned for its beautiful fall colors, and the Koso wetlands are incredibly vibrant and calming.
One more thing! You can't leave Shirakawa without trying their specialty Sake! It is called Doburoku. Doburoku is an unfiltered white sake that still contains bits and pieces of the rice it was made from. It is hazy like a thick mist, and very smooth.
So what do you think about Shirakawa? Would you love to visit as much as we do? Maybe you have been there already! Let us know in the comments below.