From the very first time I saw pictures of Gassho-zukuri-style houses in Shirakawa-go, I was smitten and promptly put that into my bucket list. The village scene of these picturesque houses with triangular thatched roofs, especially in winter, has always been mesmerising. It’s only on my 3rd trip to Japan that my family and I made it to this Unesco Heritage site. Even though we didn’t make it in winter, I was still mighty happy that we visited in autumn.
UNESCO added the historic village of Shirakawa-go, including Ogimachi and Gokayama to the World Heritage List in December 1995 due to the architectural value of the Gassho-zukuri-style houses as “minka” or folk houses. The fact that there were quite a number of these Gassho houses remaining in a group within the original village landscape is another compelling reason for the World Heritage listing.
Love, love, love the autumn colours everywhere!
In 1924 there were 300 Gassho houses in the village but by 1961, only 190 were left. Some were sold outside the village while some were burned. I’m glad that in 1971, the residents set up an association to protect the natural environment of the site focusing on 3 principles” “do not sell”, “do not rent” and “do not destroy”.
Gassho-zukuri means “like hands in prayer” and this refers to the construction of the steep thatched roofs which resemble the hands of Buddhist monks in prayer. The practical aspect of this architectural design is actually to help the roof withstand the thick and heavy snowfall during winter. The roofs are constructed without nails and the large attic space has a purpose: silkworms cultivation.
Shirakawa-go was actually our 3rd stop after Tokyo and Hakone (will blog about those later!). We drove almost 400km from Hakone to. Shirakawa-go, a journey lasting about 5 hours and more than a hundred tunnels, to Shirakawa-go. Of course we did many stops along the beautiful route for rest and refreshments. Driving up to Gifu Prefecture where Shirakawa-go is located was pretty easy and the scenery along the way was simply stunning. We drank in glimpses of snow-capped mountains in the distance flanked by gorgeous fall foliage everywhere and pristine lakes sparkling in glorious sunshine – it was autumn at its best!
Just look at these scarecrows – looked like so much fun!
Shinto Shrine in the village
We reached Shirakawa-go in the late afternoon, with the sun’s tired rays lighting up the scene in a very magical way. The entire village of Shirakawa-go is off limits to vehicles. Cars and buses have designated locations to park. The village is strictly for walking only – we didn’t complain! In fact, we enjoyed walking around so much, peering into windows, doors and generally just absorbing the vibes that we didn’t really want to leave even when it grew dark. We went back there again the next day, starting off in the morning. Some of the houses are actually inhabited and people go about their daily routines despite the hordes of strangers thronging the place! Some have been set up as shops selling souvenirs and snacks.
We couldn’t resist some hot “paus” at the snacks shop!
Dinner at a local restaurant just outside the village
You can actually stay at some of the Gassho houses as they have been turned into guest houses. Rates are not exactly cheap but if you want to experience what it’s like, living in an ancient traditional house, it surely is a unique experience. Most of the houses have their washrooms outside the main building, I’m told. It would be quite an inconvenience if you need to use the loo in the middle of the (cold) night though!
We didn’t stay in a Gassho house – instead we stayed at a lovely modern guest house, renovated from an old Japanese bungalow. Called “Shirakawago Terrace“, it’s located pretty near the Unesco heritage site, about 10 minutes’ walk away. It’s a cosy place with just about 10 rooms. We took the only Family Room they had (for 4 pax) and it cost us JPY28,000 for a night (inclusive breakfast). We slept on comfortable thick mattresses on the floor tatami-style and our room opened up to a beautiful lotus pond outside and beyond that, a river filled with rapids.
This great thing about this guesthouse (besides the super friendly and warm host) is that it has all the modern conveniences, like an en suite bathroom! There’s a common kitchen/dining area where guests can DIY their own breakfasts – we had a hearty breakfast of fresh bread, eggs, instant noodles and coffee & tea – the whole works!
Our recommended stay in Shirakawa-go:
*You can book them on booking.com
Shirakawa-go made a very lasting impression on me. I absolutely love the place and would love to see it again, in a different season as the village takes on a different character in different seasons. Winter would be magical but it’s also the super-peak season there.