1935г. German architect Bruno Taut made a big trip to Japan. For three years he sought inspiration, studied the local culture, and ventured into the most remote places. Bruno wrote a book about what he saw there. And this book changed the life of one small settlement forever.
The Japanese village of Shirakawa-go is located deep in the mountains. Even nowadays, it’s hard to get there during the rainy and snowy season. When Bruno got there, he could not contain his excitement and praised the colorful village to the world .Today, more than a million people come to Shirakawa-go every year. We didn’t stay away, either.
What Shirakawa-go is famous for
Located in the valley of the Sho River and the Chubu mountain ranges, the settlements of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were isolated from the bustling centers for a long time. The main craft of the locals was silk weaving. Workshops were set up in the multi-story attics of their homes, under a massive thatched triangular roof. Its unusual shape also protected the house in winter from heavy snowfalls. From the outside, such a structure resembles folded hands in prayer, which in Japanese is called“Gassho-zukuri”. This style of architecture is unique and specific to Japan.
By the way, the village is actually called Ogimachi, and Shirakawa-go is a region. Ogimachi and two other nearby villages, Ainokura and Suganuma, have been protected by UNESCO since 1995.
We took a bus from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-go. The drive took a little over an hour, I didn’t even have time to read all the brochures from the bus station.
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We got out at a small station and started to make our way toward the lockers. Despite the early morning, there were many tourists and all the lockers at the station were occupied. We got rid of the stuff after all. Next to the train station there is a barn in the backyard that also accepts suitcases and backpacks for storage. A small bag – for 500 Yen(≈ 4 USD), a large – twice the price.
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Many travelers spend the night in Shirakawa-go in traditional houses. Already 6 months before our trip, they were all fully booked. We didn’t want to stay in a regular hotel and bought a day bus ticket to Takayama. We picked up a map of Shirakawa-go at the bus station and went to explore the local beauty.
For a complete list of lodging in Shirakawa-go, look here.
Must-visit in Shirakawa-go
In Ogimachi, there are several dozen Gassho houses that are about 300 years old! To see the whole village we went up to the observation deck.
From above, the houses and streets seemed toy-like. And from the lookout, you can also see the architectural features that Bruno Taut admired so much and that are harder to see up close. The houses all look in the same direction, so that there is enough light and air inside, and the snow from the roof melts faster.
If you don’t want to walk 20 minutes to the observation desk, there is a shuttle from the stop at Wada House (3 minutes from the bus station) to the lookout. You pay cash of 200 Yen (≈ 1.5 USD) on the bus. Departs every 20 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3:40 p.m.
There are restaurants and toilets upstairs.
Speaking of food and other pleasures of tourists. Almost all Gassho homeswere sold to investors and converted into the hotels, cafes, and souvenir shops. But there are a few museums that we rushed to check out before lunch.
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Maps, prices, restaurants, activities, time for each location, and other helpful travel tips
The Myozenji Museum is the largest structure in the village. The house consists of two parts: an ancient temple and an auxiliary “kuri” where the monks once lived.
This five-story Gasshowas built in 3 years out of Japanese cedar and without a single nail! The huge thatched roof was covered by a hundred to two hundred workers at a time. Straw, by the way, should be changed every 30-50 years, necessarily one day. The Japanese call this event “Yui”..
Admission to Myozenji costs 300 Yen (≈ 2.3 USD), in cash. Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Apr-Nov), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Dec-Mar)
It’s pretty ascetic inside. The lower living room is laid with tatami. A large hearth – aka kitchen, aka heating, aka disinfector – is laid out in the corner. The fire in the house was kept burning all day and night, the smoke rising to the upper floors and smoking the wood properly, destroying insects. Over two hundred years, the wood has darkened and become shiny.
We went into the museum at a time when the custodians had just thrown up some wood. The acrid, stinking smoke filled the whole area. So we inspected the attics at an accelerated pace so as not to suffocate.
The inhabitants of the Shirakawa and Gokayama regions raised silkworms. It was their main craft and they did it right in their homes, in their attics. Silk spinning is no longer practiced in the village, but many tools remain in the houses.
After the attic, we went down to the temple area. It didn’t smell like smoke at all. It was quiet, cozy and beautiful. The walls of the temple were painted by the famous Japanese artist Hamada Taisuke.
After the Myozenji Museum, we stopped by the Wada family’s house. Their ancestors had a high social status and the interior was much more expensive than in the monks’ dwelling. But in general, the essence is the same: a living first floor with tatami and hearth and a large wooden attic with tools and machines for growing silkworms. Admission costs 300 Yen (≈ 2.3 USD). Open from 9:00 to 17:00.
All of Gassho lodges are more or less the same. You can limit yourself to visiting two or three. Find a complete list here.
There is also an open-air museum of 26 houses, Minkaen, on the other side of the Sho River. The admission and opening hours can be found on the official website. We didn’t make it to this museum because were in a hurry to catch the bus to Takayama.
Where to eat in Shirakawa-go
We had a few hours before the bus to Takayama. From the Myozenji Museum, we walked to the other side of the river across the bridge and came back for lunch.
There are many cafes and restaurants in Shirakawa-go. Almost all had high prices and low ratings. There was a line at almost every one. We ate at Shiraogi. For a complete list of Ogimachi’s cafes and restaurants, click here.
After lunch we wandered through the spring mud to the bus stop. We took our backpacks out of storage and said goodbye to the charming Shirakawa-go. Not once have we regretted that we came here, but half a day to get acquainted was quite enough for us.
When is the best time to go?
Shirakawa-go is open all year round. According to statistics from the official website, the most popular tourist months are May, August, September and October.
- Snowfall – December to February
- Cherry blossoms from mid-April to mid-May
- Red maples – October-November
- The annual Doburoku Rice Festival takes place in mid-October
- For several days in early January and February, the village hosts the Light Up Festival. All the houses are beautifully illuminated. At this time the number of tourists are limited through registration. To confirm dates and sign up for 2023-24 year, please follow this link
- Find a full program of festivals and events for the year here
Good to know
- It is forbidden to smoke in the village, because all structures are very flammable
- You can’t use drone in Shirakawa-go without a special permit. Read more here
- You can’t go anywhere; many yards and houses are private property
- Near the bus station there is a currency exchange and ATM, which is relevant, because almost all museums and souvenir stores only accept cash
- There are no trash bins on the territory
- There is free “SHIRAKAWA-Go” Wi-Fi in various parts of Ogimachi
- Onsens – baths with hot thermal water. Shirakawa-go no Yu and Oshirakawa Onsen Shiramizunoyu are open to the public
How to get there?
Nohi Bus and Hokutetsu Bus can be taken from Kanazawa to Shirakawa. Nohi mostly go as far as Takayama, but make a stop in Shirakawa-go. The ticket must be purchased in advance, at the Hokutetsu office or online.
|Schedule||8:10 8:40 9:10 9:40 11:10 12:40 13:10 13:40 14:40 16:00|
|Travel time||≈ 1 hour and 15 minutes|
|Ticket price||2000 Yen(≈ 15.2 USD)|
The Hokutetsu office at Kanazawa Station is marked on the map below. It’s open 6:15 to 8 p.m. The bus stop to Shirakawa is also located there.
Most people go to Shirakawa-go from Takayama, so the Nohi Bus and Hokutetsu Bus run frequently. Some of them can be purchased and reserved online – marked as “(R)” in the table below
Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass and SHORYUDO Bus Pass holders cannot use them to book online. You can book by phone at +81-577-32-1688 or choose a bus without early check-in.
|Schedule||7:50(R) 8:20(R) 8:50 9:50 10:50 11:20(R) 11:50 11:20(R) 11:50 12:20(R) 12:50(R) 13:50 14:30(R) 14:50 15:50(R) 16:30(R) 17:50 19:00|
|Travel time||≈ 50 minutes|
|Ticket price||2600 Yen(≈ 20 USD)|
There is no direct public transportation from Tokyo to Shirakawa. So the route looks like this: take the Hokuriku shinkansen from Tokyo toToyama station, and then take a bus to Shirakawa.
|Schedule||Shinkansen: Check here |
Bus: 8:50 10:35 12:00 17:30
|Buy Online||Bus: at the link|
|Travel time||≈ 4 hours|
|Ticket price||≈14,690 Yen (≈ 112 USD); 12960 (shinkansen) + 1730 (bus)|
From Kyoto (Osaka)
To get to Shirakawa-go on your own from Kyoto or Osaka, the fastest way is to take the Thunderbird Express (included in the JR Pass) to Kanazawa and then take a bus. In this case, I recommend staying in Kanazawa for a day or two.
Another option is shinkansen + express through Nagoya to Takayama and then by bus. Allow three to 3-3.5h to watch Takayama.
|Schedule||Thunderbird, shinkansen, and express: check here |
Bus from Kanazawa: above
Bus from Takayama: above
|Travel time||≈ 4 – 4.5 hours|
|Ticket price||≈8,490 Yen (via Kanazawa) – 11,950 Yen (via Takayama) (≈65 USD -91 USD )|
If you are planning a trip to Shirakawa-go by car, the nearest parking area to the village is called the Seseragi Park Parking Area. Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost: 1000 Yen(≈ 7.6 USD) – car, 3000 Yen(≈ 23 USD) – minibus, 200 Yen(≈ 1.5 USD) – motorcycle.
There is a gas station in the village – Hida-sekiyu Shirakawa-go gas station
In winter, you may need chains on the wheels to get through.
Have a great trip everyone!