Surrounded by mountains and crossed by the Shogawa River, in the heart of the Japanese Alps, we find Shirakawa-go, one of those traditional villages that manage to resist the passage of time. And luckily. Let’s see, tourist is VERY touristy, but it still seems like an essential visit on a trip to Japan, and an ideal day trip. For you to enjoy it to the fullest, we will tell you the best things to see and do in Shirakawago.
But first, let us introduce you to this historic village … In 1995 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and when you are there you will understand why. The most striking thing is its typical well-known style houses gassho-zukuri which are characterized by their peculiar thatched roofs, very sloping, in order to prevent snow from accumulating in large quantities and causing damage to the structure.
Curiosity: the term gassho it refers to the position in which the hands are placed when praying (literally it would be “to put the hands together”).
They say Shirakawago is pretty in every season: in winter covered with snow (as we saw it), in spring full of flowers, in summer it shines bright green and in autumn it is dyed with a mantle of orange colors. Come on: go when you go it will be beautiful.
Now yes, we are going to tell you everything to see and do in Shirakawago:
1. Stroll through the narrow streets of the town
After parking the car (or getting off the bus) you will have to cross the Deai Bridge to enter the village. Once there you will freak out: you will feel like in a village of little elves, surrounded by dozens of wooden and straw houses with those typical sloping roofs. It is amazing to think that some of these houses are more than 200 years old and, happily, a good handful of them can be visited from the inside, either because they are restaurants, house-museums or even accommodations where, a lucky few, decide to spend the night.
Curiosity: Our driver told us that he once took a group of Chinese tourists and one of them had so much vertigo that he couldn’t cross the Deai bridge and stayed all day on the XD bus. It’s not really that bad (I suffer from vertigo and I crossed it without problems … but hey, a little yuyu does work).
2. Go up to the Tenshukaku Observatory Deck
Another thing to see and do in Shirakawago is to climb the Tenshukaku Observatory Deck, a viewpoint with amazing views. It is also known as Shiroyama Observatory and it is where the Ogimachi ancient castle. From up there, the town houses seem to be part of a wooden model and if, like us, you travel in winter, well, the snow will give you an extra punch: total magic.
There are some tours that arrive there (and not to the parking lot next to the bridge), but you also have the option of taking a shuttle bus from the center of Shirakawago to the viewpoint (although you can perfectly walk, it is a walk of about 15 -20 minutes).
3. Pay your respects to the gods
In Shirakawago, as in any corner of Japan, there are several temples and shrines of different cults. There is for example the Myozenji Buddhist temple, a bell tower (with a bell, of course!) built in the same gassho style and located at the back of the museum with the same name. Or the Shirakawa Hachiman Shinto shrine, a beautiful temple that appears in the anime “Higurashi no Naku koro ni”Whose story takes place in Hinamizawae, an invented town set in Shirakawa-go, and where it is known as the Furude Shrine.
4. Visit a house-museum
Visiting a house-museum is something that everyone who passes through Shirakawago should do. If you only have the time (or the desire or the money) to visit one, we definitely recommend the Kanda House. And not only because with the entrance (300 ¥) they offer you a warm cup of tea (which also hehe), but because you can access up to the highest floor and enjoy a very cool panorama from the windows. The interior is perfectly preserved and traditional instruments and everyday objects are on display.
Get ready: the wooden stairs to go up to the second floor are those steep (yes, not as steep as those of medieval castles).
Other interesting house-museums are:
- The Wada House, the largest in the town, which belonged to one of the wealthiest families in the area. The most curious thing is that here you can see silkworms (the family worked in the sericulture sector).
- The Nagasa-ke House, whose owner was one of the Maeda clan doctors. Inside are collected a lot of objects and instruments of his profession.
- The Myozenji House-templeThe most peculiar thing is that this house has a beautiful private temple, with a curious thatched roof.
All houses have an entry price of 300 ¥ (about € 2.5).
5. Approach the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen (or not)
We did not do it, because by walking around the town and entering a house-museum we were (very) satisfied, but if you want to learn more about the peculiar architecture of Shirakawago and walk among dozens of typical houses, you may be interested visit the open-air museum of the town, called Gassho-zukuri Minkaen.
It costs 600 ¥ to enter and is located on the other side of the river, at the edge of the parking lot.
6. Delight in the local gastronomy
We read that one of the typical dishes of the area is the bear meat 0_o but the truth is that we did not see it. What we did see (and smell and taste) were the sobas noodles (buckwheat noodles) from Nomura restaurant, one of the best options where to eat in Shirakawago well and cheap. Having some sobas with soup lifts your spirits and warms your body and spirit. Ains, how we like Japanese gastronomy.
You also can’t leave without trying the mitarashi dango, a skewer of rice balls covered in sweet soy, which is prepared on the grill. It will not take long to find it (although if you travel in summer, you may want an ice cream more).
If your budget allows it, an alternative is to try probably the best beef in the world: the hida beef. You find it, for example, in the Tenkara restaurant.
7. Relax in an Onsen with hot springs
15 minutes from Shirakawago you can enjoy a super relaxing and therapeutic bath in the thermal facilities of the Shiramizu-no-yu Oshirakawa. If you have not tried an onsen yet, this is a great opportunity, if you have already tried it, you will probably spend the rest of the trip in Japan looking for the closest Spas.
This one specifically offers different bathrooms, both indoor and outdoor, and its waters have healing properties, do you need more reasons? The price is 600 ¥ and remember that in Japanese baths the facilities are divided by sex.
8. Stay to sleep
If you have time (and above all money), you want to know Shirakawago without the hustle and bustle of the daily tourist and you want to live a unique experience… stay for the night! We already told you that there are a good handful of accommodations, both traditional houses and rural hotels. Of course … they are not very cheap :-p
The most backpackers-friendly option we saw is the Shirakawago Guest House Kei (double room for about € 80), but if the budget is not something that worries you, the Onyado Yuinosho and the Shiroyamakan they look nice!
So far our tips to spend a great day in this small town in the Japanese Alps. You have been? We have forgotten an essential stop or things to see and do in Shirakawago?
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