View of the Gassho-zukuri houses in Shirakawa-go in autumn

Visitor’s Guide to Shirakawa-go – Japanese Alps

This post was last updated on June 11th, 2020 at 01:44 pm


Like nearby Gokayama, Shirakawa-go has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. The village is known for its traditional farmhouses in characteristic gassho-zukuri architectural style. Some of these houses are more than 250 years old. Gassho-zukuri, incidentally, means “built as hands in prayer.” The sloping roofs, therefore, resemble the pressed hands of praying monks. With a little imagination of course!

 

The practical reason for this architectural style is to be able to carry the large amount of snow that falls here in the winter months. The village lies in the heart of the Japanese Alps, where about 5 meters of snow falls from the sky every year.

 

Shirakawa-go is divided into three different rural villages, of which Ogimachi is the most famous. The other two are Suganuma and Ainokuram, only they are never actually visited unless you drive there yourself.

 

A day trip is easily done from Takayama or Kanazawa. Since we already heard many people talking about Shirakawa-go, we couldn’t help but take a look at it ourselves. We took the bus from Takayama. After passing many dark tunnels, we drove through increasingly beautiful nature.

 

An hour later we arrived in the picturesque Alpine village.

 

Is Shirakawa-go really as beautiful as almost every website seems to describe? In this article, we’ll give you our honest opinion.

 

Autumn colors around a Gassho-zukuri house in Shirakawa-go

 

Buses Full of Tourists

Upon arrival, it immediately became clear that Shirakawa-go is an absolute tourist attraction. Our bus turned out to be one of many and the bus station was packed. We did prepare ourselves for hordes of tourists, yet we couldn’t shake the feeling of wondering what we got ourselves into.

 

At first glance, it seemed to be a typical place where you mostly encounter day-trippers, where authenticity is a bit lost. Anyway, maybe we were wrong?

 

It was time to explore.

 

A Scenic View From the Tenshukakau Observatory

View of Gassho-zukuri houses in Shirakawa-go in autumn from the Tenshukaku Observatory

 

You’ll have the best view of Shirakawa-go -or actually Ogimachi- from the Tenshukaku Observatory. This viewpoint can be reached via two roads and we chose to take the most adventurous through the forest. And even though autumn was far past here, some trees were still bizarrely beautifully colored.

 

‘There’s no one else here’, was the first thing that came to mind. How was this possible? After all, this viewpoint is one of the most popular places in Shirakawa-go. Via all kinds of winding paths and smooth stone steps and a lot of drops of sweat richer, we got to the top. There were dozens of people taking pictures. They appeared to have come from the other side, the paved road. Not as quiet as we initially thought.

 

In fact, we had to queue up to take a photo of the view. A really impressive view, by the way. At first, it looked somewhat gray and menacing through the clouds. But soon after, nature did its job and some rays of sunlight broke through, followed by a picturesque setting.

 

However, if you have to wait 5 minutes until a group unabashedly takes all the time to take photos from all angles and there is also a queue of people waiting behind you, then the magical feeling tapers off a bit, in our opinion. It feels like taking a quick photo just so you have one.

 

Walking Through the Village

Autumn colors and a small pond next to a Gassho-zukuri house in Shirakawa-go

 

We walked down the paved path to see Shirakawa-go up close. However, the hike did not go very quickly, because the countless trees with beautiful yellow, orange, and red leaves made us stop every now and then. It’s one of those things that we love so much.

 

Once in the village, we walked past unique wooden houses with thatched roofs, and the mountain peaks colored by the autumn in front of us. We had already accepted that the peace – which this place deserves – was lacking due to the hundreds of tourists.

 

Moreover, you can avoid the crowd when you walk out of the busy center. That is how we ended up at a vast rice field with a handful of farms, bordering wooded hills. For us, this was one of the nicer places we would see this day.

 

The Deai Bashi Suspension Bridge

Deai Bashi suspension bridge with autumn colored trees behind it in Shirakawa-go

 

The Deai Bashi Suspension Bridge is the iconic eye-catcher of Shirakawa-go. For a moment, because of the number of people and the slight fluctuations, we were afraid that this suspension bridge would not hold. Although the bridge must be used to holding quite a lot of weight since all the tourists flock there. From the bridge you can see a fast-flowing river and a part of the village, surrounded by mountains and – in our case – colored trees.

 

From the village, the bridge leads to a parking lot for buses, where there is little else to do. You can walk along the river to take a nice picture, but that’s about it.

 

Fun Sightseeing Spots

Shirakawa-go is a beautiful place. Ogimachi is located in a wide valley and is surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps. Another great time to visit the village is during the cherry blossom season. All those light pink flowers contrast beautifully against the thatched houses. Below we have briefly listed some more fun sights in Shirakawa-go.

 

Gassho-zukuri Minkaen Open Air Museum

The main attractions of Shirakawa-go and Ogimachi are the traditional triangular houses. They are spread across the valley and are surrounded by vegetable gardens and rice fields. The whole village, consisting of 26 completely original but relocated gassho-zukuri houses, feels a bit like an open-air museum, except that this place is actually still inhabited by real people. Are you curious about how the locals live? At some houses, you can take a look inside.

 

The entrance fee is 600 yen (~ US$5.60).

 

Gassho-zukuri houses and ricefields in Shirakawa-go during autumn

 

Shiroyama Tenbodai Viewpoint

Be sure to take a walk to Shiroyama Tenbodai, the viewpoint of the village. It is a bit of a climb, but the view over the many houses and the mountainous area in the background makes up for it.

 

Wada-ke

One of the houses that you can take a look at is the Wada-ke house, the largest house of Shirakawa-go. This structure was declared a National Treasure and was built around 1800. The entrance fee is 300 yen (~ US$2.80).

 

Myozen-ji Temple

The Myozen-ji Temple with its thatched roof is nice to have seen, although it is not very special if you compare this with other temples in Japan.

 

Myozen-ji Folk Museum

We haven’t been here ourselves, but if it rains or if you have some time to spare, you can visit the Myozen-ji Folk Museum. Here you can learn more about daily life in the village.

 

Our Opinion on Shirakawa-go

All in all, Shirakawa-go is a very beautiful village, in a traditional style that you will hardly encounter in Japan. The beautiful autumn colors also made it extra beautiful.

 

We do have to add that we have mixed feelings when we look back on it, due to the busloads of tourists. Yes, you can avoid many of these tourists since there are plenty of places outside the busy center where you hardly encounter anyone. However, it is precisely in the tourist area where most of the houses are located, which is the main reason that you travel to Shirakawa-go.

 

Therefore, if we had the choice, we would rather choose Gokayama. A similar village, only it’s not overrun by day-trippers. We heard that it is a lot quieter there, although the transport options to get to Kanazawa via Gokayama turned out to be a lot scarcer. That’s why our choice ultimately fell on Shirakawa-go.

 

Gassho-zukuri houses in Shirakawa-go in winter with snow on the rooftops
The winter is also a great time to visit Shirakawa-go if you’re into beautiful white landscapes

 

How to Get to Shirakawa-go

 

From Tokyo to Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go can be reached in several ways from Tokyo. You can take the super-fast Hokuriku Shinkansen to Matsumoto and take a Nouhi regional bus to Takayama. Several buses run daily from the bus station in Matsumoto. An alternative is to first travel all the way to Toyama or Kanazawa (also with the fast Shinkansen) and take a local bus from there. There is also a direct bus from Tokyo (¥10,000 or ~ US$93). In all cases, it takes about 6 hours and it is better to consider an overnight stay on the way there.

 

From Kyoto to Shirakawa-go

From Kyoto in the southwest, Shirakawa-go can be reached in about 3 hours by first taking the Thunderbird (a limited express train) to Kanazawa, then boarding a regional bus. The local bus leaves right on time from stop 2, East Kanazawa Station. You can check whether it is the correct boarding location at the information desk. You can also buy lunch at the various bento shops at Kanazawa Station. Showing the printed ticket upon boarding is sufficient, you can also show the ticket from your phone. Avoid chairs 1c and 1d, especially if you are a bit taller. There is little legroom because of the partition behind the driver. The bus ride goes through a beautiful landscape and there are many tunnels along the way. The bus drives largely on the highway except for the last part.

 

From Takayama to Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a popular destination among day-trippers staying in Takayama. You can take the bus from Takayama to Shirakawa-go dozens of times a day. Your JR Pass is not valid on this route. A return ticket costs 4600 yen (~ US$42.85) per person. View the bus schedule here.

 

There are also several organized tours, easy to book at one of the tour desks in the town (e.g. iSiteTakayama where you can also book online in advance). An alternative is to rent a car in Takayama. By car you are flexible and you can easily stay in Shirakawa-go until the evening (the village is perhaps even more beautiful at night than during the day, especially when there is snow). At Takayama station, there are a number of car rental companies. We’ve read that Toyota Rent-a-Car is the most reliable.

 

When you travel to Shirakawa-go by bus, you will arrive at the Shirakawa-go bus station. From here it is a few hundred meters to the first gasshō-zukuri houses. If you go there with a rental car, you can park the car in the large parking lot across the Shokawa river (paid), and walk through the Deai-Bashi suspension bridge into the village.

 

An alternative is taking a taxi from Takayama. A ride to Shirakawa-go is not cheap, but if you have little time you can still drive back and forth quickly. Some taxi companies in Takayama are Medix Taxi and Hato Taxi.

 

Where to Stay in Shirakawa-go

If you want to stay in Shirakawa-go, you can choose from a handful of accommodations via booking.com. Shirakawago Guest House Kei is by far the cheapest option and has both dorms and private rooms. If you want the ultimate Japan experience and you have a large budget, you should stay overnight in the beautiful Shiroyamakan ryokan.

 

Shirakawa-go during the winter with snowfall on the rooftops and lights
Shirakawa-go is gorgeous during the winter

 

Visitor Tips

  • During the spring, when the snow melts on the roofs of the gasshō houses, you can experience a beautiful phenomenon. The melting of the snow causes steam to rise above the rooftops (best visible early in the morning).
  • There are no ATMs in Shirakawa-go. Bring enough cash.
  • There are no supermarkets. So bring your own snacks.
  • Please note that if you bring your own food and drinks, you have to bring the trash back with you. There are no bins in Shirakawa-go.
  • Don’t feel like eating in the restaurants? Then bring a bento box from Takayama or Kanazawa.
  • Don’t have a local SIM card or Pocket Wi-Fi with you (or no range)? You can use the Shirakawa-go Free Wi-Fi (click on the .pdf).
  • Several times a year there’s the Shirakawa-go Light-up on certain weekends in the winter months, where the entire village is attractively illuminated. The village has always been beautiful when there is snow, but with the lights on it is even more beautiful. Before your visit, check exactly when the Light-ups take place via the Shirakawa-go tourist information website.
  • There are several cozy cafes and restaurants in Shirakawa-go. Most are visibly aimed at tourists. We recommended: Ochudo, Coffee Hina, Konjaku, Irori, Bunsuke, Cafe Akariya, Sobasho Yamakoshi, Kita No Sho, Arai, and Yamamotoya.
  • Want to take a sneak peek at Shirakawa-go? View the live camera feed here.
  • Don’t forget to take the last bus. After 5 p.m. all shops and restaurants close and there is nothing to do in the village.
  • Don’t feel like carrying around heavy luggage if you want to stay in Shirakawa-go? Then consider Takuhaibin; the baggage forwarding service in Japan. You drop off your luggage at your hotel (e.g. in Tokyo or Kyoto), do the trip to Shirakawa-go and later your luggage is waiting for you at your next destination.
  • You can also store your luggage in lockers at the bus station. Count on about ¥500 (~ US$4.65) for a day. If the lockers are full, you can always leave your luggage safely at the reception. You will then receive a ticket and with this ticket, you can pick up your luggage again later.

 

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