Shirakawa-go: A Real-Life Winter Wonderland
By Mamiko Kim
Even if you don’t know the artist, you’ve probably seen the work of Thomas Kinkade. Depicting countryside cottages or sunlit towns colored in shades of soft pastels, his paintings evoke a strong sense of sentimentality. Admirers of his work cherish their celebration of tradition and nature, but others have criticized their dream-like qualities as being overly romantic and unrealistic.
Yet, there is such a place that seems to defy realism in its beauty, and it is in Japan.
Please allow me to introduce Shirakawa-go, a picture-perfect region of mountainside villages made even more enchanting when blanketed in snow.
A side-by-side of Thomas Kinkade’s “Olympic Mountain Evening” (left) and Shirakawa-go (right)
1. What makes Shirakawa-go so special?
Shirakawa-go, located along a mountain range spanning Gifu and Toyama prefectures, is made up of three villages that were together declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. 96% of the village areas are forested, and with deep winters providing a scenic depositing of 2-3 meters of snow a year, Shirakawa-go has been said to be reminiscent of being on the Swiss Alps.
These villages are most famous for their traditional wooden gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some which are older than 250 years old. Their steeply angled thatch roofs give the buildings their signature triangle shape and are thought to look like the hands of a monk clasped in prayer. With its status as a historic site, all management and repairs of the farmhouses are done in a traditional manner, and the community comes together annually in the spirit of cooperation, known as yui, to thatch new roofs (which wear down every 20-30 years).
As a functioning village, with residents still living in these buildings and working the land, it is a rare opportunity for tourists to experience what life may have been like hundreds of years previously.
(Left) What the underside of the roof looks like.(Right) Applying a new roof. No nails are used during the process! (Image Source: https://visitgifu.com/specials-of-gifu/shirakawa-go/)
2. Can you stay in a gassho-zukuri farmhouse?
Absolutely! Some of these farmhouses have opened as minshuku, or family-operated B&Bs. Stays typically consist of a private tatami room with seating and futon bedding. Meals may be prepared in a traditional manner, over an open fire and in an irori iron pot, and are a delight to the senses, particularly as locally sourced ingredients are featured. Buckwheat soba, award-winning hida beef, and salted and grilled river sweetfish are popular favorites, and homemade miso and farm vegetables add to the country charm.
Minshuku welcome guests, and often provide meals made traditionally over an open fire. (Image Sources: https://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5952.html, https://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/ryokan-search-results/Shirakawa-go/)
3. What should you do in Shirakawa-go?
Enjoy Meandering Down Shirakawa-go Kaido
Shirakawa-go Kaido is the Main Street of Ogimachi, the largest of the three villages. Stores and restaurants line the street and entice visitors to try their delicacies or shop their wares. In particular, silk goods are well-known due to the tradition of caring for silk worms in the area, and snacks are plentiful along your route, including hida beef skewers and gohei dango, grilled mochi coated in a miso, soy, and crushed walnut sauce. The road ends at Shirakawa-no-Yu hot spring, where visitors can warm up from their walk.
Visit Important Cultural Sites
Myozen-ji temple is the largest building constructed using gassho-zukuri techniques, particularly its main hall, kitchen and clock tower, and its monk’s residence serves as a museum on the history of the temple’s worship.
Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine, founded around 708, houses the local deity that serves great importance to the agricultural community that surrounds it. It is also the site of the annual fall Doburoku Festival, which allows locals to ask for a plentiful harvest.
Finally, the Wada House, a gassho-zukuri farmhouse, is larger than most as it was the home of Wada family, whose head served as village leader during the Edo Period, and gained wealth by trading silk and gun powder. While still a family home, the second and third floors are open to the public.
Each of these locations warrant a visit!
Clockwise from top left- Shirakawa-go Kaido, Gohei Dango with silk doll, Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine, Myozen-ji temple. (Image Source: https://www.snowmonkeyresorts.com/smr/takayama-city/things-to-do-in-shirakawa-go-where-to-stay/)
Shirakawa-go Visitor’s Map (Image Source: https://www.vill.shirakawa.lg.jp/en/)
4. Any travel tips?
Takayama and Kanazawa are the two largest cities near Shirakawa-go, so tourists who are coming from Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto may find it simplest to ride a train to these cities and then transfer to a bus from there. From Tokyo, the total trip time is roughly 3.5 hours. For those who’d like to drive there themselves, be aware that vehicles are restricted due to the village's status as a World Heritage Site. However, there is parking at Seseragi Park. More details on how to get to Shirakawa-go can be found on the official tourism website.
5. When should you visit?
Shirakawa-go is beautiful in every season, but winter is a particularly magical time. Something about the snow covering every surface, the traditional architecture, and the serenity of the surrounding forest and mountains make these villages especially picturesque, and the warmth of each hearth welcoming guests becomes even more comforting. Shirakawa-go also holds annual winter illuminations, lighting up the village at night, which may be best viewed from the nearby observation point. It truly is a stunning sight!
Illumination dates for 2023:
January 15, 2023 (Sunday)
January 22, 2023 (Sunday)
January 29, 2023 (Sunday)
February 5, 2023 (Sunday)
February 12, 2023 (Sunday)
February 19, 2023 (Sunday)
If you make a trip to Japan, I recommend you take your camera (or paint set!) and head to Shirakawa-go to enjoy a retreat filled with natural beauty and tradition. With Japan now open to international travelers, there isn’t any reason to hesitate. I’ll end with this video for all those of you who are still on the fence.