Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
Leave modern technology and worries behind, and rediscover a simpler way of life buried in the mountains.
Do you pine for the sleepy rural lifestyle of Japan’s past, where farmers tended to rice fields at the base of sharp, majestic mountains and slept under the high roofs of wooden farmhouses? Your nostalgic dreams can become reality with a visit to the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these villages are so perfectly picturesque that they look like they must be a movie set.
The villages are easily recognized in pictures by their unique gassho-zukuri farmhouses, which evolved to weather the local environmental conditions. These houses feature steeply angled thatched roofs, built so that the region’s heavy snowfall wouldn’t pile up in the winter. The houses were given the name gassho (meaning “to press one’s hands together in prayer”) because the roofs resemble praying hands. The best way to experience them is with a cozy overnight stay, which usually includes a traditional Japanese dinner in the price. Reserve early, for these bookings are extremely popular and can fill up months in advance.
You’ll find the biggest concentration of gassho-zukuri in Ogimachi, the largest and most easily accessible village, located in Shirakawa-go. Aside from offering lodging, they serve a variety of purposes today. Some have been transformed into shops and restaurants, while others, like the Wada House and Nagase House, showcase the history and belongings of former inhabitants. Some are still lived in, their laundry lines and automobiles lending a charmingly human touch to the scenery.
The open-air museum near the bus stop provides more opportunities to learn about and explore gassho-zukuri houses, and even make your own soba noodles. For a sweeping overhead view of the village, a short climb or shuttle bus ride takes you to the Shiroyama Viewpoint, the secret behind all those attractive birds eye photos.
Suganuma and Ainokura in the Gokayama region are further off the beaten path, but for the intrepid explorer they offer even more rural charm. More of the houses here are still lived in, and along with small museums and artistic workshops, including one where you can make your own washi paper, they provide further insight into the traditional lifestyle and culture of this remote area.