Shirakawa-go is one of the most beautiful places in Japan. Located in the outskirts of Gifu Prefecture, the historic village is renowned for its thatched houses, or gassho-zukuri. It has been widely featured in postcards and souvenir items. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, along with its neighboring region Gokayama.
The steep thatched roof of the houses looks like two hands in prayer position. Its ingenious design has withstood harsh weather conditions. The interior is spacious and can accommodate big families. Houses can reach up to four storeys high. The houses are able to adapt to the environment. They are cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They use a fireplace for heating. The floor is made of wood. Some areas are covered in tatami.
The village has a strong sense of community. The entire community participates in rebuilding the thatched roofs. Here is a very good documentary about Shirakawa-go.
When I came across a picture of the Gassho farmhouses covered in snow, I was mesmerized. It was so beautiful. It looked like a village taken from a fairy tale. I was determined to go to Shirakawa-go no matter what.
Shirakawa-go may seem like a faraway land that is inaccessible to tourists. The route appears complicated, but it's actually simple. It is only accessible via Nagoya. You can get a flight to Nagoya Chubu Centrair International Airport or if you are already in another prefecture, you can reach Nagoya by shinkansen.
From Nagoya station, take the train to Takayama. Takayama is another popular destination. Many travelers who go to Shirakawa-go also visits Takayama. There are different ways to reach Takayama. I highly recommend taking the JR Hida limited express train, which is already an attraction in itself. When you arrive in Takayama, transfer to a bus and get off at the first stop, which is right at Shirakawa-go. Cross the footbridge to the village.
JR Hida Limited Express Train
The Hida train is operated by JR Central and runs from Nagoya to Toyama. From Nagoya, the train departs nearly every hour. The train also departs from Osaka once a day. The travel time from Nagoya to Takayama is about two hours.
The train is famous for its wide windows; hence, it is also referred to as the Wide View Hida. Unlike in regular trains, this train's windows give you an unobstructed view of the scenery. If you're traveling with a group, you can turn the chairs so you can face each other during your trip. Don't forget to bring some snacks with you! There is a convenience store on the platform. You can buy food there while your companions wait in line. You can try asking which side has a better view, although I think both sides are pretty much the same.
Make sure to book your tickets days before your journey, especially during peak days. There are three types of seats: Green seat, Reserved seat, and Unreserved seat. The Green seats are the "first class" seats. They have bigger windows and provide more leg room. They also cost much more. The Reserved seats cost a little more than the Unreserved seats and tickets run out fast. There are also smoking and non-smoking area. I don't think Reserved seats are necessary since you can easily get a nice seat by arriving in the platform several minutes ahead of your schedule. When we went there during the Christmas holidays, my family arrived 30 minutes early. We were able to get four seats together.
Check the train timetable before your trip. I use HyperDia (website) and Japan Trains (app). These sites are very helpful in planning your schedule. They provide details such as arrival/departure time, travel time, transfers, platform/lane number, and fare. However, keep in mind that only some areas in Japan have free Wifi access. It is better to take a screenshot of the schedules or simply write them down on a piece of paper.
Hida Train Tickets
Tickets can be purchased at the Shinkansen and JR Lines Tickets in Nagoya station. I believe it also has an office at the airport. It doesn't open 24/7, so try to purchase your tickets as soon as you can. Japan Rail Pass users can purchase their tickets online.
Like in most limited express trains in Japan, you will be given two tickets for the Hida train. When my family bought the tickets, we initially thought that the non-English-speaking clerk got confused and gave us round-trip tickets instead of one-way tickets. We were perplexed when we realized that each set has two different amounts (3,350 yen and 2,160 yen). We learned that the first amount (3,350 yen) is the base fare and the second one is the seat fare. So, each set costs 7,670 yen per person. You will only use the first ticket at the ticket gates. The second ticket will be inspected after you get on the train. The amount on the second ticket varies depending on which type of seats you have purchased. Green seats cost 4,910 yen while Reserved seats cost 2,680 yen.
The train is covered by Japan Rail Pass, which is only available to foreign tourists. No extra fee is required.
When you arrived in Takayama, take the Nohi bus. The bus terminal is right beside the Takayama train station. Tickets are sold at the convenience store. During peak season, the lines may get long but the ticket clerks are fast and they do speak English. Like the Hida train, the Nohi bus also has reserved and non-reserved seats. Check the website to see the timetable. The site has now been improved.
Unfortunately, non-Japanese visitors cannot book tickets online. If you prefer buying reserved seats, you can email Nohi bus and they will help you book a ticket. Bear in mind that they are not obliged to do so. The best way to thank them is to show up. Nevertheless, you can buy tickets on the same day of your trip. Even with the crowd, my family didn't have a problem getting tickets.
There are many buses to Shirakawa-go. Buses arrive frequently. Make sure that you are waiting at the correct platform. When the line to the bus gets too long, someone holding up a Shirakawa-go sign will stand at the end of the line. The bus ride takes about one hour.
Accommodation in Shirakawa-go
There are some inns in Shirakawa-go. For a unique experience, I recommend staying there for a night. That said, it is almost impossible to book an inn during peak season. Due to the limited number of inns, travelers can only stay for one night.
Most tourists would stay at a hotel in Takayama. From Shirakawa-go, you can easily take the bus back to the terminal. You can stay at the Best Western Hotel near the bus terminal. If you want a more special experience, you can stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese hotel. My family stayed at Sumiyoshi Ryokan, a family-owned ryokan. Since it was our first time staying in such hotel, I cannot compare it with other ryokans. All I can say is we had truly enjoyed our stay. The family was very warm and hospitable. The breakfast and dinner were delicious. They even have a cat at the balcony!
Things to Do in Shirakawa-go
There is a Gassho Open Museum near the terminal. The entrance fee is 600 yen. It has several Gassho-styled houses. The place is beautiful, but to be honest, I think it looks pretty much the same as the village. At the time of our visit, only a few people went there. Most of the crowd went straight to the village which is in front of the museum. The village also has some museums. If you have plenty of time, try to go to at least one museum. You will have to take off your shoes before getting inside.
Do not miss the Hida beef, which Shirakawa-go is famous for. We found a food stall that sells different types of food containing Hida beef. I have only tried their korokke (croquette), meat ball sticks, and Hida beef sticks. If you can, try them all! They are very delicious! Even a picky eater such as myself loves their Hida beef.
I think one thing that you shouldn't miss is visiting the three Gassho-styled houses. Although it is not far from the crowded area, it is isolated and not many people go there. The maps provided were not very comprehensive. The three houses were not even on the maps. I had to ask a couple of people for directions. From the village, it will take probably 10 to 15 minutes to reach the houses. Just walk straight along the main street.
Coming from the village, you will first see the backside of the three houses. I didn't spot the houses right away. I had to walk past them before realizing that they were the houses I was looking for. To see the houses at the right angle, we had to walk across the snow-covered muddy field. Our boots got wet and muddy, but it was totally worth it!
I regret not going to the Shiroyama Observatory Deck, which gives you a bird's eye view of the entire village. There are two trails leading to the viewpoint. The path with steps is shorter but it is steeper and more slippery. The other path that doesn't have steps is longer but safer.
Aside from sight-seeing, there is nothing much to do in Shirakawa-go so half a day is more than enough. Shops close before dusk. Most products they sell are available in Takayama.
© Rainy Kua 2016