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Magical Shirakawa-go Japan: An Epic Visit to the Gassho Zukuri World Heritage Site

Shirakawa-go Japan, is the perfect place to find a traditional Japanese roof village. When is the best time to go? Summer and winter bring lots of beauty to the gassho zukuri!


Amidst a light, but watery snowfall, Shirakawago greeted us with the old world charm for which it’s famous. We’d only come from Matsumoto  where we had a blast at the Ice Sculpture Festival, but were more than ready to get out of the car and walk.

The best thing about Japan winters is that the temperature isn’t that bad, as long as you are prepared for them. We were immediately taken with the snow-laden roofs of the “gassho zukuri” houses in the town of Ogimachi. The view was magical, dreamlike, something we’d seen stunning photos of, but weren’t sure that the real thing would live up to the hype. Spoiler alert: It did!

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Shirakawago is the Japan thatched roof village of world heritage fame.
A beautiful view of the town.

When is the Best Time to Go to Shirakawago?

After having been to Shirakawago in summer and also in winter, we can tell you that both seasons are fantastic and they have the harshest weather. So that means both spring and fall are just as great, if not better. In all truth the best time to go to Shirakawago is whenever you can!

Shirakawago is located in the Gifu prefecture in a valley surrounded by mountains. It’s a pretty wet place with no less than eight days of rain or snow per month. It’s the perfect farming weather and summer views are amazing with a deep green covering the hills and rice paddies and a plethora of flowers. Winters are heavy with snow, making for a stunning backdrop to this traditional Japan thatched roof village.

Average high and low temperatures through the year graph for Shirakawago.
Average high and low temperatures through the year.(source)
Shirakawago annual average precipitation.
Shirakawago annual average precipitation. (source)
In winter, tourists carefully cross the Shiro River suspension bridge into the village of Ogimachi.
In winter, tourists carefully cross the Shiro River suspension bridge into the village of Ogimachi.

Winter

Our first visit to the Japan heritage village was in winter. Snow fell on us during part of our day, fresh and clean. The village with their ancient wooden houses and steeped thatched roofs could not have been more fairytale-like. The temperature was warm enough for us to stay outside for good lengths of time in-between a run into a coffee shop or to our lunch restaurant. We definitely fell in love.

Graph of snowfall throughout the year in Shirakawago.
Snowfall graph. (source)

Pro Tip: As you can see the winter months in Shirakawago have very heavy snowfall. It’s gorgeous, but please make sure the day that you are going that the roads are open.

Gassho-zukuri houses in the world heritage site of Shirakawago, Japan.
Close-ups of the thatched roofs.

Summer

We loved the world heritage site of Shirakawago so much that we wanted to see it during the summer as well, so we had to return. Ogimachi was just as beautiful in summer. So when you ask me which season is better, I really won’t have a definitive answer. Unlike other places that you might travel in Japan, all of Shirakawago’s seasons are fantastic to walk around and find out about this step back into an era gone by.

Summer in Shirakawa-go is full of green pastures and vibrant flowers.
Summer in Shirakawa-go is full of green pastures and vibrant flowers.

Shirakawago  – World Heritage Site

In the past, Japan was a country that kept to itself. It wasn’t interested in other countries, and wanted its culture to remain intact. Therefore, it’s very easy when traveling around Asia to see that Japan is unique, and because of this isolationist policy there are still plenty of places in Japan that feel like a trip to the past.

One of the best examples of this is the historic village of Ogimachi, deep in the Shiro Valley of the Japanese alps, are many houses built over 300 years ago, with intricate and traditional steeped thatched roofs. Because of these outstanding examples, UNESCO included Shirakawago on the world heritage list in 1995, which includes not only Ogimachi, but its neighboring villages of Ainokura and Suganuma as well.

This valley and Ogimachi is not the easiest place to get to, unless you have a car or you take a day tour, but it’s well worth the effort, and the good thing is, unless you are paying for parking, there is no cost to wander through the village, so it’s quite affordable.

Snow on roofs in Japan, thatched roofs, can be found in Shirakawago.
A reflection of the gassh-zukuri house and snowy roof.

What Are the Gassho Zukuri or Thatched Roof Houses?

If you think that it’s a little out of the way now, you can imagine how rural and hard to get to it was a few hundred years ago. Situated in the Shiro river valley, it was basically cut off from surrounding areas especially in winter.

The winters are harsh, with up to ten meters (around 450 inches) of snow each year, the architecture had to be sturdy to deflect the heavy snow. Gassho zukuri was the result.  The steeped roofs of these farmhouses are said to be constructed (“zukuri”) in the shape of a Buddhist’s praying hands, called “gassho,” and it’s one of the features that draws people to this village.

It's much more serene and peaceful in Shirakawa go in winter.
It’s much more serene and peaceful in Shirakawa go in winter.

The roofs are built on wooden beams that are held together with wooden pegs, not nails, as well as lashed together with ropes. You can visit some of the old houses and see the inside of the roofs if you are willing to pay a small fee. While we were visiting in the summertime, we watched as a crew was re-thatching a roof in town, quite fascinating.

Due to its isolation and unique environment, the Shiro valley was also one of the only places in Japan to host the silkworm industry. The space in the attic, during the summer was airy and light, making it the perfect place to raise silkworms. 

Shirakawago Map

Map of Shirakawago Things to Do.
Google Map of Things to Do in Shirakawago.

What to Do in Shirakawago

In Ogimachi there are surprisingly quite a few places to stop and visit. You can easily fill up a day, but if you’d like to do a little hiking, or just experience the village at night when all the tourists have gone home, you can book one of the gassho houses for a night’s accommodation as well.

The Hatogaya Hachiman Shrine is as peaceful as it gets in Shirakawago in summer.
The Hatogaya Hachiman Shrine is as peaceful as it gets in Shirakawago in summer.

Places to Visit in Shirakawa go

  • Shirakawago Tourist Information Office – Located in the main bus parking lot, it’s a good place to start when you arrive to give you a good layout of the land and what’s on offer.
  • Gassho Zukuri Minkaen – A small open air museum with placards explaining the building and history of the area.
  • Gassho Houses – Some of the farmhouses are open to the public and charge a small fee to enter: Wada House, Kanda House, Iwase House, and Nagase House. Cost is about 300 yen per person at each house.
  • Ogimachi Castle Observation Deck – This is a must-see for everyone. There are a few ways to get there: walk up the path which takes about 15 minutes, take the shuttle bus, or drive and park. Cost is free.
  • Myozenji – Buddhist temple with gassho roof.
  • Hatogayahachiman Shrine – A peaceful shrine most of the year, but really comes alive in February during the Doburoku Festival.
Hida beef croquettes are a must eat in Ogimachi.
Hida beef croquettes are a must eat in Ogimachi.

Where to Eat in Ogimachi

After having visited both in winter and summer, I can tell you that there are certainly more places to eat in summer, but don’t fret. There’s still plenty of restaurants and stalls to get some fantastic Japanese food all year long.

Of course, we wanted to eat in a traditional house, and since almost all of the structures at Shirakawa-go are protected that wasn’t really a problem. The big problem is being in the small village at the right time. The few restaurants that are there are likely to run out of their lunch offerings fairly early.

Our first choice is always Konjaku, one of the first building just across the foot bridge from the main parking area. If we’ve missed out on that, then udon at Hanamizuki in a quiet corner of the hamlet is our next choice.

If that’s not available then soba and tempura always pleases at Keyaki, a (slightly) newer wooden building in the middle of town.

The world heritage village of Ogimachi has many thatched roofed homes to tour.
The world heritage village of Ogimachi has many thatched roofed homes to tour.

Shirakawa-go Accommodations

If you are interested in staying in a gassho farmhouse right in the village you’ll need to contact the village tourist association directly. According to their website these farmhouses are rather austere as far as accommodations go, but are often one of the most memorable experiences for visitors.

There are a few ryokan and hotels in the area, with the standout option being the beautiful hot spring inn, Onyado Yuinoshou just on the edge of town. Another excellent option is to stay in Takayama at another one of our favorite onsen hotels, the Wat Hotel and Spa Hida Takayama, and then visit Shirakawago on a day trip.

Summer in Shirakawa-go is green which highlights the tan thatch on the world heritage roofs.
A rice paddy in front of a thatched house.

How to Get To Shirakawago

Shirakawago has traditionally been cut off from the rest of the world, but today it is much more accessible. There are plenty of bus tours, both summer and winter, regular buses, and of course if you have your own car, you can drive.

I always prefer driving, because along the way, it gives me the opportunity to stop when I want to stop. However driving in Japan can easily be as expensive as a shinkansen so definitely take a look at your options.

Take a Private Shirakawago Tour

A UNESCO world heritage site, such as Shirakawago, makes it a sure thing for tour companies and you can pick up a day tour from Kanazawa. This tour is for up to three people, and it’s completely private. In winter, there are several weeks where the town is decked out in lights. It’s very difficult to get on one of these tours, but if you can secure it, you’ll love it.

Takayama to Shirakawago

Takayama is easy to get to by train from anywhere. It is on the Take the Japan Rail Tokaido Bullet train from Tokyo, with one change.  First you take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, then switch to the JR Hida line to go to Takayama. Total ride is almost four hours. That’s okay, though, because there is plenty to see and do in Takayama as well. 

By bus – Take the Noki bus from the Takayama bus terminal if you want to reserve online before you go. Otherwise you can get to the terminal and inquire when the non-reservation bus is next departing. Both will get you to Ogimachi in 55 minutes. Alternatively, you could book the half day tour with our partners at Get Your Guide.

By car – Driving only takes about one hour from Takayama to Shirakawago, take the Chubu Expressway, then follow the signs to Hida. Take exit 14 to Shirakawago and it’s a straight shot into the town of Ogimachi. This is a toll route.

Winter in Shirakawago is snow heavy and beautiful.
Winter in Shirakawago is snow heavy and beautiful.

Kanazawa to Shirakawago

Kanazawa is another fantastic destination, and to get there from Tokyo take either the Hokuriku or the Kagayaki bullet trains (both take about two hours). From there you will need to take a bus from Kanazawa station to Ogimachi.

By bus – The Kanazawa bus terminal once again has a number of buses to choose from if you don’t want to make reservations before you go. One of the best options t0 Ogimachi is to take the Hokutestsu bus. This ride takes about one hour and 15 minutes. 

By car – Take national road 159 to Nanto where you will get on the Hokuriku Expressway. From there take exit 14 to head into Shirakawago. This route will take 1.25 hours and has tolls.

Tokyo to Shirakawago

If you really are just looking for the easiest way to Shirakawago from Tokyo and are also interested in seeing Mount Fuji and then going to Osaka or Kyoto, we recommend this two day tour from our partners at Get Your Guide. They’ve done all the planning and will do all the driving while you sit back relax and enjoy the sights.

Turquoise water of the Shiro River in summer, Japan.
The Shiro River.

Conclusion

If you are looking at a trip to Japan, make it the best it can be. Japanese traditional culture is still intact in very few places, and one of those is Shirakawa-go. I would highly recommend you try to make it here. You will love it.

More Photos of Shirakawago Winter and Summer

Shirakawago Summer Images

There are plenty of places to eat traditional Japanese food in Ogimachi, like this one.
There are plenty of places to eat traditional Japanese food in Ogimachi, like this one.
Summer bring many tourists to Shirakawa-go.
At the top of the hill is the observatory, a must stop in Shirakawago. As you can see, summer brings many tourists to this world heritage site.
A thatched roof house and rice paddy in the gasho zukuri village of Japan.
Flowers, green rice shoots, and a thatched roofs.
From below, you can see the bell of the Myozenji Temple and a traditional house.
From below, you can see the bell of the Myozenji Temple and a traditional house.
A green rice paddy is part of the traditional gassho-zukuri house.
A green rice paddy is part of the traditional gassho-zukuri house.

Shirakawago Winter Images

Snow piled high on the rocks in the Shiro River, Japan.
Snow piled high on the rocks in the Shiro River, Japan.
Snow piled on the gassho zukuri house.
Snow and icicles tell you just how cold it is in the winter months.
Restaurants and shops in the bus and car parking lot for Ogimachi.
Restaurants, shops, and a visitor center are located right in the parking lot where you can also find the bus terminal for Ogimachi.
Snow on the ground and thatched roof.
Don’t forget, you can stay in many of the traditional homes overnight anytime of year.
A charming winter scene with the traditional thatched roof house.
A charming winter scene with the traditional thatched roof house.
This Japanese traditional village with thatched roofs is the best place to go in the whole country. Click here to find out more!