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If you are looking for a place where you can see the combination of majestic nature and serene historical villages, Shirakawa-go is the perfect choice. It is located in the Ono District of Gifu Prefecture.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, it is a Japanese mountain settlement, famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
The title was not received only due to the architecture and the landscape in the area, but also due to the spirit of the locals which was highly appreciated. Nowadays, Shirakawa-go’s tourist count keeps increasing every year due to the fame of the district and the more open transportation network.
Once considered a wild and unexplored region, Shirakawa-go has become one of Gifu's must-visit destinations. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, its traditional and beautiful views are the definition of picture-postcard perfect.
The world heritage site consists of three historic mountain villages, Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma, surrounded by the steep forested mountains of the Chubu Region in central Japan. For those that are also travelling to Takayama, selecting Shirakawa-go as a short detour is the perfect choice. You can reach Shirakawa-go from Takayama in about 50 minutes by bus.
Because of the area’s natural environment of high mountains and heavy snowfall, interaction with neighboring regions was limited. However, this also helped create conditions for the development of unique cultural practices and lifestyles. In the 8th century, Shirakawa-gō was a location for ascetic religious practices, and mountain worship centered on Mt Hakusan.
Due to the area's mountainous terrain and paucity of flat land, cultivating rice was almost impossible. As a result, buckwheat and millet were selected as substitute yields by the farmers. Japanese paper called washi, niter for manufacturing gunpowder, and sericulture or silkworm farming, were the marketable products coming from the area.
Once considered a wild and unexplored region, Shirakawa-go has become one of the most popular sightseeing destinations in Central Japan, together with Takayama and Kanazawa. Let us take a closer look at the beautiful attractions that Shirakawa-go has to offer.
Being the largest village and main attraction of Shirakawa-go, Ogimachi is home to several dozen well preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. The farmhouses are designed to withstand the harsh winters while providing a place to work and live, and are best seen either covered in snow or surrounded by green fields.
A lot of them now serve as restaurants, museums or minshuku, where you can stay overnight.
Some farmhouses from the surrounding villages have been relocated to an open air museum across the river from the town center in order to save them from destruction. This museum and the large concentration of farmhouses and attractions in town and the easy accessibility make Ogimachi the best place in Shirakawa-go.
Some other attractions offered in this area include the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen, the Shiroyama Viewpoint, and also the Doburoku Festival Museum.
The Gassho-zukuri Minkaen is an open air museum that lies across the river from the village center. This is where farmhouses and other structures relocated to Ogimachi are exhibited.
The Shiroyama Viewpoint is located north of the village center and offers nice views of Ogimachi and its farmhouses. You can access it via a walking trail in about 15 to 20 minutes from the village center or by a shuttle bus.
The Doburoku Festival Museum contains displays of the Doburoku Festival held every year on October 14th and 15th. One of them is the Doburoku Sake which is produced by the shrine and can be sampled at the museum.
Located on a high but narrow terraced plateau to the west of the Sho River, Ainokura Village is the most remote village in the Gokayama region, but also the largest of the villages, with nearly 20 gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Many of them remain private residences, and a few have been converted into restaurants, museums, and minshuku.
As it is less developed and harder to get to than Ogimachi, Ainokura is quieter and sees less tourist traffic. But, this also enables the inhabitants to maintain a lot of their traditional culture. This can be seen in its folk dances and music, which uses a number of traditional instruments unique to the area.
The attractions include the Ainokura Folk Museum and the Washi Workshop Hall.
The Ainokura Folk Museum is made up of two buildings. The first building is a farmhouse that has been converted into a small museum, displaying daily life in the Gokayama region during the Edo Period. The second building holds displays of washi paper making and other industries of the region.
At the Washi Workshop Hall, you can watch how washi paper is made, and even try making some yourself.
Suganuma is the smallest of the three villages of the World Heritage Site, containing just eight households. It is made up of two areas, the Suganuma Village and the Gokayama Gassho no Sato. The two areas are connected by a tunnel, which also connects to the parking lot on the hill overlooking the village. You can reach the village via an elevator. This makes the place pleasant and easy for visitors to explore on foot.
A few of the nine gassho-zukuri farmhouses have also become restaurants, minshuku, and museums, showing the daily life and the washi paper and saltpeter industries that sustained the region.
The Gokayama Gassho no Sato has a number of traditional farmhouses which have been relocated there in order to save them from destruction, but none of them are inhabited. Instead, they consist of the following:
the Saltpeter Museum, the Folk Museum, and the Gassho Cottages.
The Saltpeter Museum displays exhibits on the procedures, tools and history of the making of saltpeter, an ingredient of gunpowder, which was an important industry for the region during the Edo Period.
The Folk Museum displays tools and household items used in daily life, including tools used for farming, raising silkworms and making washi paper.
The Gassho Cottages area collection of relocated gassho-zukuri farmhouses, where school groups can stay overnight and participate in activities based on Gokayama traditional life.
The purpose of the steep roofs and massive structures of the Shirakawa-go farmhouses is to keep the snow off in the winter. Ogimachi Village typically gets covered by one to two meters of snow during the peak of the white season. Although it causes the locals quite a bit of hardship, the snow turns Shirakawa-go into a picturesque winter wonderland.
The village organizes special illumination events that are displayed on selected Sunday and Monday evenings in January and February which attract many tourists. During the light-up event, many of the gassho-zukuri farmhouses are lit up from 17:30 to 19:30.
But, over the recent years, this event has attracted an overwhelming amount of visitors which has caused a lot of problems. Because of this, a new system will be used that will limit visitor numbers during the light-up events by requiring advance reservation.
Shirakawa-go is particularly famous for the traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses. The name means "constructed like hands in prayer", due to the steep thatched roofs that resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer.
What makes these houses unique is that no nails or metal materials were used to construct them and all straw and wood was sourced from the forests surrounding the village.
This architectural style is designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter. Gassho-zukuri is a branch of Minka-style architecture, meaning housing for the people, and was an architectural style popular with farmers, artisans and merchants.
At first glance, it seems that all the gassho-zukuri farmhouses of the Suganuma, Ainokura and Ogimachi villages are the same. However, they are all different and unique from each other. They are based on their own building structures according to their regional characteristics.
The first difference is that the slope of the roofs of the gassho-style houses in the Suganuma and Ainokura villages are a bit steeper compared to the ones in Ogimachi Village. This is because Suganuma and Ainokura have heavier snowfalls than Ogimachi.
Another unique difference can be seen on the houses in Gokayama. The roof gable is rounded at the end and is called “Hafu”.
The last difference has to do with the entrance of the gassho-style houses in Suganuma. There, the entrance can be seen from both sides of the roof, while the entrance of the gassho-style houses in the other villages can be seen on only one side of the roof.
Another unique thing about the gassho-zukuri houses is its structure. Each house has three to five stories, to ensure that there was enough space to store farming or sericulture equipment. The first floor of these houses must be constructed by carpenters, but the assembly of the roof structure can be built by the village people.
The attic is two stories high. The bottom floor of the attic is called "AMA" and the top floor of the attic is called "SORA-AMA". The structure and use of the first floor and the attic are different.
Generally, Japanese-style houses will have a pillar in the attic, which restricts the use of the attic. However, no pillar is used in the attic of the gassho-style houses.
Also, there is no stairwell in the roof of the attic. These are the major characteristics of the gassho-style houses which cannot be seen in any other area in Japan.
Similar to preparing your weapons before going to war, you need to learn some things first before visiting Shirakawa-go. Here are some guidelines that you can follow:
Shirakawa-go experiences the four seasons. During spring time, which is March to May, you get to see cherry blossom, and rice paddies that are ready to be harvested. During summer time, which falls between June and August, you get to see many lush green trees.
During fall, you can see vivid colors of the changing leaves, and during winter, you can see beautiful snow capes. Most tourists pick May, August, September, and October as their time for visiting.
If you visit during winter, it is recommended that you wear warm and waterproof coats, along with long boots or warm shoes with grippy soles to avoid slipping on the snow, as Shirakawa-go tends to receive lots of snow and the temperature can get as low as -6°C.
Be cautious at night, as there is a risk of slipping or falling on the frozen streets. In addition, there is a danger of fresh snow obscuring holes, ponds, or irrigation ditches. Please be wary ofsetting foot on areas of freshly fallen snow that have not been subject to snow removal.
When visiting this area, there are some rules that you must follow. The first rule is that you cannot throw trash around the village or in the public toilets. Trash cans are not provided and you have to take your trash home with you. Also, please return food containers to the shops from where the food was purchased.
The second rule is that lighting cigarettes, fireworks and fire, is strictly prohibited. This is because the houses are extremely vulnerable to fire damage.
The third rule is not to remove any of the native plants from the village.
The fourth is not to enter private premises or fields, open doors, or peek through windows without express permission, as there are a number of residents still living there. Additionally, please do not pick flowers, vegetables, and crops growing around the village that have been carefully nurtured by the inhabitants.
The fifth rule is only to use the designated public toilets, please,and not to relieve yourself at any other location.
The final rule is that camping is not allowed. If you wish to camp, you may use the “Shirakawa-go Hirase Onsen Campsite” or the “Hakusan Buna-no-mori Campground”.
Whilst visiting Shirakawa-go, try out its local cuisine like Suttate Nabe Hot-Pot, which is a local specialty dish, prepared by mixing stone-ground soybeans with a miso and soy-sauce-based broth. Two other local delicacies are Tonkatsu Tomiya, which is breaded pork cutlet with a hand-made demi-glace sauce, and Soba Dojo which is served with hand-made soba.
Exploring this vast and ancient area can be very confusing. You might get lost if you are wandering around this area on your own. Go to Shirakawa-go with Asia Highlights and make your trip educational, wonderful, and memorable.