One of my favourite places to visit in Japan is Shirakawago – I have three separate blog posts about it. Shirakawago is a historic village in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, where the farmhouses have roofs that are so steeply thatched they are called “praying hands roofs.” This is so the heavy snowfalls don’t pile up and crush the roofs, so the snow can easily slide off. Visiting Shirakawago in winter let’s you see the village at one of the most magical times of the year.
Winter was my first time to experience Shirakawago, and I realized it was such a cute village with some of the prettiest scenery. Keep reading for an introduction and my quick guide to visiting Shirakawago in winter.
Shirakawago in winter
I like to think I know a lot about Japan, having studied the language and the culture since high school and traveling here many times. Now, imagine my dismay when I came to Nagoya in 2012, and my husband suggested we go to Shirakawago. “Where?” I was a little embarrassed I had not heard of Shirakawago. He didn’t judge me.
To remedy my ignorance, I did some research on the mysterious (to me) village in the Japanese Alps. I was immediately greeted with images of the cutest wooden farmhouses tucked in between mountains and rice paddies. It was so unlike everything else about Japanese culture and architecture I thought I knew. It was rustic and raw. There are no red torii gates, no massive temples and Buddha statues, and no flashing signs or shopping centres. Just natural wood farmhouses, authentic thatched roofs, and nature. I wanted to go.
Visiting Shirakawago from Gero
The first time I went to Shirakawago with my husband was for our anniversary. We stayed in the hot spring town, Gero, and took a day trip to see the scenery of Shirakawago in winter. It was toward the end of winter, but because it is so deep in the mountains, there was still plenty of snow in the village. Winter is the peak visiting time to visit Shirakawago because of the snow.
To get to Shirakawago is not the most convenient. It is a bit out of the way if you are using the Japan Rail Pass. My husband and I took a train from Gero to Takayama and then a bus to the main village of Ogimachi. The bus is about one hour, and was part of the price of our special weekend train/bus/vacation ticket. When we arrived, we stepped into the cold and began exploring the village.
To date, I’ve been to Shirakawago two other times in the spring and autumn. I’m always happy that it is not insanely crowded. It is sort of like a large open-air museum (that people still live and work in), so there would need to be a lot of people for it to feel crowded. I haven’t been during the summer, so here is a post by Nano B of Shirakawa in the summer.
We spent some time exploring some of the farmhouse-turned-museums. You can see how the buildings and roofs are constructed, the types of tools they used, and how people used to farm silk worms in the attics. Because the winters are frigid here, there is a hearth built into the floor where families would spend time and have meals. To escape the cold for a bit, my husband and I stepped into one of these houses and had a warm milky drink served to us from the hearth. We also had the specialty, gohei mochi, which is a sticky rice cake with sweet soy sauce, and manju buns with the local hida beef.
Why you should visit Shirakawago in winter
While winter is the most popular time to visit Shirakawago, it is not my favourite. My favourite time is Shirakawago in autumn. I sometimes complain too much about the cold. But, winter does provide some spectacular views. The mountains will be snowy, and if you are not too late, there will still be snow on the roofs.
There is even a period during the winter when the houses light up at night. I think this the peak peak time visit, so it is crowded and you’ll need to reserve a place to spend the night long before you go. I didn’t see this, but it looks very beautiful. If you are keen on seeing the snowy village lit up, you should visit Shirakawago in winter. Here’s the schedule and basic information for the light up.
Besides the light up, Shirakawago in winter is a wonderful place to see piles of snow. Sometimes 1-2 metres in the middle of winter. This can be a treat if you are from a place that doesn’t get snow. A great place to see the entire village is from the viewpoint on the top of a small hill. It takes about 15 to walk up, and there is a shuttle bus for when the walking path is impassable during the winter. From the top, you can look out over the entire village. A nice spot if you wanted to see it during the light up.
Will you visit Shirakawago in winter?
I hope you enjoyed this introduction to Shirakawago in winter. Do you see how stunning the scenery is in the snow. Some things to keep in mind if you are visiting in the winter: It get’s very cold in the winter. The temperature falls below zero in the winter. Please make sure you wear enough layers of warm winter clothes. Including boots and rain proof outerwear. I’ve never experienced rain while I was there, but I’ve heard stories of people cutting their trip short due to weather. If it rains or snows, you’ll need extra precautions to keep you warm. Otherwise your trip might turn out to be a bummer.
Do you have a place you’ve been to more than once during different seasons? Do you have a favourite season?