Shirakawa-go: Japan’s Iconic Winter Village
Outside of Hokkaido, you’d be hard-pressed to find more iconic winter scenery in Japan than Shirakawa-go. Located in Gifu prefecture, Shirakawa-go is a small village known for its beautiful scenery and traditional houses. Translated in English, Shirakawa-go means “white river village,” which is a fitting name considering the small river that runs along the outskirts of the village. I’ve visited the village on two separate occasions; once in the spring, and more recently this winter, which may be the most popular time to visit.
Shirakawa-go’s Famous Houses
Before even entering the village you will notice the unique look of the homes, topped with steep, hay-covered triangular roofs. This style of roof is known as gasshō-zukuri, which translates to “prayer-hands construction,” and has a practical use, allowing the homes to withstand heavy snowfall. Several of the homes serve as museums and I was able to enter one of them known as Nagase House. The first floor was the most museum-like, featuring many traditional Japanese pictures and items on display. The second floor felt much more natural, as there were many items sitting in the middle to walk around and view, with no display cases in sight. I was getting ready to leave when I realized the second floor wasn’t the last and there were actually two more floors above it (although the highest was off limits).
The homes at the village look big from the outside, but I had no idea they were as big as four floors. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a four-story home in Japan outside of Shirakawa-go. Don’t go too high up if you’re afraid of heights as the floorboards on the higher levels are few and far between with set areas to walk on. They’re not thin enough to fall through, though, so I wouldn’t worry too much.
Other Sites and Activities
Even if you’re unable to enter one of the homes, there’s still plenty to see and do in Shirakawa-go. In fact, the scenery alone makes the trip worth it. Surrounded on one side by mountainous forests and the other by the aforementioned river, the village is quite a sight to behold, and seeing it all covered in snow is a very serene experience. Throughout the village you will find many small shrines, rice fields and scarecrows that add to the charm. One of my favorite finds were two scarecrows with faces drawn using Japanese hiragana characters.
There are numerous gift shops and snack stands throughout the village. During my first visit I tried sweet potato ice cream at one of the snack stands, which was surprisingly good (and purple). I also picked up some Shirakawa-go related souvenirs for my family, including a red sarubobo, which is a faceless doll with pointy arms and legs that is said to bring good luck.
A Great Experience No Matter When You Go
Shirakawa-go is most popular in the winter when covered in snow, but as someone who’s also visited during a greener time of the year, I can say you won’t be let down no matter when you go. The best way to go is by a bus tour, and I would especially recommend any tour that stops at both Shirakawa-go and Takayama (another great historical city to visit). I personally took this tour by Meitetsu Bus Tours both times I visited. If you’re interested in seeing a more traditional, less urban side of Japan, Shirakawa-go is a must.