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Written by: Wasistha Weesenha Putri

Did you know that Japan ranks 11th place in terms of countries with the most number of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites? Japan is home to 25 World Heritage Sites; 20 cultural sites and 5 natural sites. One of the most well-known cultural sites is a historic village called Shirakawa-go, which is also a popular destination for a winter trip because you can see a magical view of the Gassho-style houses covered in thick snow.

In this article, I would like to share my personal experience of going there at the end of December last year.

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What Kind of Place is Shirakawa-go?

Located in the mountainous region of Gifu prefecture, Shirakawa-go is a historic village that preserves one of the traditional Japanese architectures: the Gassho-style. Its special feature of the thatched and steeply slanting roof is made to allow snow to slide off easily since the area is said to have one of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan every winter. 

How to get there?

Shirakawa-go is used to be an unexplored region because of its geographical location which is surrounded by forests and the limited access to the village could be blocked by snowfall. Even until now, the only way to reach the village is by car or bus. There is no train station inside the district where the village is located.

If you have a Japanese driver’s license, it is best to go there by car. But if you don’t, you can choose one of the following options:

From Tokyo

  1. Ride the Hokuriku shinkansen to Toyama station/Kanazawa station/Shin-Takaoka station, then take a local bus from there.
  2. Join a bus tour arranged by travel agents. Since there are many agents who offer this tour plan, you can google it by using the keyword “Shirakawa-go bus tour from Tokyo” and choose one that suits you the best. This option is highly recommended because the tour usually includes accommodation for one night stay and you don’t need to worry about transferring rides! I took a bus tour arranged by H.I.S Travel. The departure point was a parking lot in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku. It’s easy to find and only 10 minutes walk from Shinjuku station.

From Nagoya and Takayama

There are several direct buses both from Nagoya and Takayama to Shirakawa-go. Some may require advance reservation. So, please visit the bus companies’ websites first and make sure you get all the most recent information including the buses’ schedules. (During this pandemic, it is possible that the scheduled bus is cancelled due to not enough passenger)

Some bus companies websites for reference:

Gifu Bus (From Nagoya)
Nohi Bus (From Takayama)
Hokutetsu Bus (From Takayama)

From Osaka/Kyoto

Ride the Express Thunderbird train from Osaka station to Kanazawa station, then take a local bus (Nohi bus or Hokutetsu bus) from there.

What to See in Shirakawa-go?

Winter view of Shirakawa-go is like a paradise especially for those who love photography. The all-white scenery with the touch of ancient Japan vibes coming from the Gassho-style houses makes a perfect combination that will please your eyes (and your camera lens!). To enjoy a wide landscape of the whole village, you can go to Tenshukaku (castle keep) observatory. There are shuttle buses that run between the village and Tenshukaku. However, be sure to check the schedules beforehand since they may not operate when the snowfall is heavier than usual.

Need not worry, even if you cannot go to the observatory due to certain conditions, you can still enjoy the beauty of the village by looking at the traditional houses closely. There are three houses which are publicly open for interior viewing: Nagase house, Wada house, and Kanda house. Inside the houses, you will find various information about how they built the Gassho-style house, the traditional clothes they wore in old times (from around Meiji era), how they cultivate silkworms for living, etc.

The attic of Wada House

Japanese vests in the old times

The silkworm cocoons preserved inside a mini wooden shelf

Important Points To Note Before Visiting Shirakawa-go!

As written above, Shirakawa-go has one of the heaviest snowfall in Japan. Temperatures can drop to approximately -20°C or even lower at the peak of winter. Thus, you should prepare what you are going to wear carefully.

  1. A proper coat, heat-tech fabric/long johns, and gloves are a must.
  2. Make sure your shoes are waterproof and not slippery (snow boots are recommended!).
  3. Bring some hokkairo (heat pads) will help, especially when your hands start to freeze.
  4. Bring a folded umbrella may save your body and face from being covered by snow when the snowfall suddenly gets heavier.

Besides the clothes, the next thing you should take note is that to reach the village, you will need to cross a suspension bridge. This is probably one thing that many people don’t know yet.

The suspension bridge covered in snow

I was quite shocked when I arrived and knew about the bridge for the first time. The snowfall and the wind were quite strong at the time, so I needed to be extra careful when I was crossing the slippery, covered in snow bridge while holding my umbrella firmly so it would not be blown by the wind.

Crossing the bridge under such weather could be dangerous for children. It also seems impossible to go through with a stroller. So, it is highly recommended to check the weather beforehand on a trustworthy weather app if you are going to bring your children.

So, When Is The Best Time To Visit?

Now is the time! The snow will keep falling and turning the village into an all-white fairy tales-like scenery until early March. 

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