Concealed in the midst of the Hida Mountains, the historic villages of Shirakawa-gō & Gokayama are like a time warp inside Japan's modernity, a place where secular architecture and traditions have resisted change for the delight of Japanese and foreign tourists alike. They are one of the 11 UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan and the only villages that have earned that privilege.
The main attraction is the Gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り) architecture, meaning "clasped hands" due to the steep slope of the thatched roofs which remind of the Buddhist position of hands in prayers. This style used to be common on the Japan Sea side of Central and Northern Honshū, where the heavy snow falls in winter (up to 4 metres) would cause less inclined roofs to collapse. The thick thatch served as necessary support as well as thermic isolation. Gasshō-tyle houses are normally built on three or four storeys, the upper floor was traditionally used for the breeding of silkworms, or other commercial activities.
Confusingly the UNESCO site refers to the two municipal entities of Shirakawa-gō & Gokayama, but the historic houses are actually located in hamlets bearing different names, namely Ogimachi (in Shirakawa), Suganuma and Ainokura (in Gokayama). The former lies in the Gifu prefecture, and the latter in Toyama. Both are situated inside Shō-gawa valley stretching across the border of the two prefectures. Ogimachi is the largest village, with 152 households, including 59 Gassho-style houses. Ainokura has 20 houses and Suganuma a mere 14.
Ogimachi is the main of the three villages. It is considerably bigger than the two others owing to the fact that many Gasshō-style houses in the valley were moved to Ogimachi during the damming of the Shō-gawa River in the 1960's. The high density of Gasshō-zukuri is therefore artificial. It doesn't really matter as the houses are genuine and still mostly inhabited by local families. What did change is the lifestyle and occupations, rice farming and silk breeding letting place to the tourism industry. Many farmhouses are now restaurants or minshuku (Bed and Breakfasts). A few houses have turned into museums to show visitors how life used to be. The first to do so was the Wada-ke, at the northern end of town, which also happens to be the largest Gasshō-zukuri in the village. You can also visit the Nagase-ke, Myozenji-ke (and adjoining Myozen-ji Temple Museum) and Kanda-ke. Admission to each house is typically ￥300.
On the western side of the river, near the bus stop, the Gasshō-zukuri Folklore Park (合掌造り民家園) is an open-air museum where 25 farmhouses from around the valley were transferred to escape destruction. Not unlike the Hida Folk Village in Takayama, it provides an opportunity to peek inside the houses furnished as they were in past centuries. In addition, there are demonstrations of traditional handicrafts such as wood-working, pottery, weaving, and Japanese calligraphy.
The Doburoku Festival is held each year between 14 and 19 October at the Shirakawa Hachiman-jinja Shrine. Doburoku is the name of an unrefined, milky sake drunk during the festivities. You can watch videos of the festival at the Doburoku Matsuri Exhibition Hall.
The smallest of the three villages, Suganuma only has a handful of Gasshō-zukuri houses. The main interest here are the two museums : the Gokayama Minzoku-kan and the Enshō-no-Yakata. Both have daily-life artefacts on display, but the latter also has exhibits relating to gunpowder, which the Kaga lords produced secretly in isolated Gokayama as it was prohibited by the shōgunate. A combined ticket for the two museums is ￥300. If you want to visit just one of them, the ticket will cost you ￥210.
Ainokura is the least easily accessible of the three villages, but is considered to be the most beautiful too. 20 of its 27 houses are built in the Gasshō style.
How to get there
The villages are accessible by bus from Takayama, Kanazawa or Nagoya. The main bus stop is in Ogimachi, near the open air museum. Nohi Bus has 8 or 9 daily buses (one less on weekends) from Takayama (50 min, ￥2,400) and 3 from Kanazawa (75 min, ￥1,800 - only upon reservation). Gifu Bus only operates one bus per day to Shirakawa-gō, leaving at 9:00 am from the Meitetsu Bus Centre (2 hours 45 min, ￥3,500 one-way) and returning at 3:35 pm.
If you are coming directly from Tokyo, the fastest would be to fly to Kanazawa and take the bus from there. If you have the Japan Rail Pass, take a shinkansen to Nagoya, then a JR Limited Express train to Takayama.
Coming by car, the brand new Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway gives easy access from Nagoya (about 2 hours 10 min), Takayama (about 50 min, via route 158) or Kanazawa (about 1 hour 50 min, via the Hokuriku Expressway). If you are coming from the Kantō or Kansai, head for Nagoya first and follow the signs for the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway.