Shirakawa-go Itinerary: Enter a Japanese Fairy Tale

by Dec 30, 2018Itinerary, Japan

Shirakawago makes the perfect day trip from Takayama or the perfect day trip from Kanazawa. It also makes a great stopover while traveling from Takayama to Kanazawa or from Kanazawa to Takayama. Here is my suggested  Shirakawago itinerary for 1 day.

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Shirakawa and Gokayama are two regions in central Japan that are famous for their traditional gassho zukuri style houses, some of which are 250 years old.

These Gassho-zukuri houses are named after the steep roofs that look like two hands coming together to pray. They’re unique to this region of Japan.

For the longest time, I thought Shirakawa was the name of a village, but it’s actually the name of a region.

Shirawaka-go Region: Ogimachi Village

The main village that people visit in Shirakawago (also spelled Shirakawa-go) is Ogimachi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But when you buy your ticket to Ogimachi, you can just say you want to go to Shirakawago, and everyone will understand that you want to specifically go to Ogimachi. You can easily get to this village by direct bus from Takayama, Kanazawa, and Toyama.

Gokayama Region: Suganuma and Ainokura Villages

The two main villages in the Gokayama region with gassho-zukuri houses are Suganuma and Ainokura.  They are also UNESCO World Heritage attractions but are smaller and not as touristy as Ogimachi in Shirakawago.

Most people just visit Shirakawago because it’s easier to get to it than getting to Suganuma and Ainokura. From Takayama, you’ll need to transfer in Ogimachi. There are direct buses from Kanazawa and Toyama, but it’s hard to find information online about these bus routes.

Don’t be discouraged from visiting the more remote villages if you can only go by bus. It’s not that difficult. Suganuma is only 30 minutes from Ogimachi and Ainokura is 45 minutes from Ogimachi by bus. And there are buses that depart hourly.

Guided Tours of Shirakawago: If you don’t want to deal with the bus system or want a guide to tell you more about what you’re seeing, you can instead join a tour of Shirakawa-go from Takayama or Nagoya. They’re reasonably priced. Here are some tours to check out:

How long to spend in Shirakawago

Day Trip to Shirakawago:

If you’re short on time, your Shirakawago itinerary could easily last one day and you’d feel you’ve seen enough. Arrive in the morning around 10:00 and then leave on the 3:00 or 5:00 pm bus. The last bus leaves at 5:30 pm.

Stay Overnight in Shirakawago

However, if I could do my Shirakawago visit over again, I would have stayed overnight. During the day, it felt like there were only tourists in the town and no actual residents. Supposedly, after 5:30, the place empties of tourists and it becomes more peaceful. It would have been nice to get some shots of the town during the golden hours of dawn and dusk and to walk around and enjoy the scenery without so many tourists.

How to get to Shirakawago

You can get to Shirakawago by bus from Takayama, Kanazawa and Toyama.

From Takayama, it takes 50 minutes, from Kanazawa 75 minutes, and from Toyama 80 minutes.

The perfect way to tour this area is to travel from Takayama with all your bags (store under the bus), stop in Shirakawago for the day (store your bags at the bus station there), and then take a bus at the end of the day to Kanazawa. You can also go from Kanazawa to Shirakawago to Takayama. I started in Takayama, which is the route I’ll explain below:

Takayama to Shirakawago:

Buses leave Takayama from the Nohi Bus Terminal (also called Takayama Bus Center), which is next to the train station.

Half of the buses to Shirakawago are reserved buses. Taking a reserved bus means that you are guaranteed a seat. Unreserved means that even though you have a ticket for that bus, you might not get on that bus. Supposedly, they’ll find another bus for you to get on. But from my experience having this happen in other places in Japan, sometimes you need to wait a while.

Here is the bus schedule as of December 30, 2019. (R) means ‘reserved.’

My Experience: I went to the bus station to buy my ticket one day before my trip to Shirakawago and the reserved tickets for 8:20 were all sold out, so I bought an unreserved ticket for 8:50 am. It cost me ¥2,470 (US$22 / €20).

When I arrived at 8:40 am to get on the 8:50 am bus, the line to get on the bus was incredibly long, so not everyone was able to get on. Fortunately, there was one seat left, but because I was a solo traveler, I was able to jump the queue.

Arrive at the bus station early!

⇒ For the current bus schedule between Takayama and Shirakawago, click this link here

⇒ For other buses in the region, click this link. 

Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa:

You can also buy your onward ticket to Kanazawa while at the Takayama bus station. I was able to buy a reserved bus ticket for 5:30 pm. for this leg of my trip. The bus arrived in Kanazawa at 6:45 pm. The ticket cost me ¥1,850 (US$17 / €15).

Here is the timetable for buses from Shirakawago to Kanazawa when I was there.

⇒ Check out my Takayama itinerary post to find out how to spend 2 days there.

⇒ To learn how to spend 2 days in Kanazawa, check out my Kanazawa itinerary post here

Where to store your luggage in Shirakawago

The first thing to do on your Shirakawago itinerary is to store your luggage.

When I was there, there were two choices for storing your luggage:

1. Lockers – There are lockers on the outside wall behind the bus station. The small lockers cost ¥500 (US$4.50 / €4) and the big ones that can hold 2 large backpacks cost ¥1,000 (US$9 / €8). You can only use coins for the lockers. But no worries: you can get change at the information desk inside the bus station. There weren’t enough lockers for all the people who wanted to store their bags in them, though.

2. Luggage Storage Office – There’s a guy who lives in a house behind the bus station who will store your bags for you. He charges ¥500 (US$4.50 / €4) per bag. You need to pick them up before 5:00 pm.

The bus station also has a tourism information desk (lots of maps), an ATM machine, vending machines, and a restroom.

If you want something to drink or eat, the people who worked at the information desk told me that the cafes and restaurants wouldn’t open until 11:00 am. However, there was a convenience store across from the stop for the shuttle bus to the observatory.

There is a larger Visitor’s Center, but it’s way across the village near the Gassho-zukuri Open Air Museum.

How to get around Shirakawago

The city is small enough to walk around. It takes no more than 15 minutes to walk from the bus station to the farthest site from the station.

What to do in Shirakawago

Here are six things you can do on your Shirakawago itinerary.

1. Visit the observatory for great views and photos of the village

I started my tour of Shirakawago with a visit to the observatory. A castle used to be located there. I’m sure you’ve seen those iconic pictures taken from above Shirakawa-go. This place is where you can get those same photos.

There are two ways to get to the observatory. Walking to it takes 20 minutes, but the footpath up to the observatory is closed in the winter. The walk up and down is on a gently sloping road. No stairs.

You can also take a shuttle, which costs ¥200 (US$1.80 / €1.59 / £1.40) one way and takes 10 minutes. Unlike the footpath, the bus to the observatory still runs in the winter.

The bus drops passengers off across the street from the observatory.

There are restrooms, a gift shop, and a place to buy icecream.

When you’re at the observatory, it becomes clear how isolated the village was in the past. These surrounding mountains and the heavy snowfall the region got, cut villages in the area off from each other and from other regions of Japan. As a result, they created their own unique style of architecture.

There are several viewpoints where you can take photos of the village.

The best pictures for me were from the viewpoint near the small shrine to the right of the observatory platform and buildings.

Look for this shrine.

I didn’t think the pictures from the actual observatory platform were all that great.

Make sure to bring a tripod so that when you zoom in on the village, it’s not blurry.

2. Walk around looking at all the houses and shrines

The next thing to do on your Shirakawago itinerary is to just walk around looking at the houses and mini shrines, admiring the views, and taking photos.

The village is full of these Gassho-zukuri houses surrounded by bright green rice paddies.

People in the region started building the Gassho-zukuri houses in the 1700s. Many that you see today are from around 1800.

These houses have several distinct features that reflect the climate of the region. Their roofs are steeply sloped and made of thatch. This shape and material make it easy to bear the heavy snow that accumulates on the roofs.

You’ll also notice that all the houses are facing the same north-south direction. This has something to do with minimizing the impact of the wind, which makes it warmer in winter, and controlling the amount of sunlight that hits the buildings, which makes it cooler in summer.

The roofs are rethatched in the spring using the grass that was harvested in the fall. In the past, the villagers would rethatch their houses every 40 to 50 years, but nowadays the villagers rethatch less frequently due to a lack of a special type of grass that’s available and the decrease in the use of hearths.

When the houses are rethatched, all the villagers come out to work on one house together. In this way, they are able to finish one house in a day.

Some of the houses have been turned into Japanese style guesthouses called ryokans and minshukus. The map from the tourist information center lists 22 guesthouse and inns.

There are also small shrines are the village.

3. Visit a Gassho-zukuri house: Wada House, Kanda House, and/or Nagase House

COST: ¥300 (US$2.70 / €2.40 / £2.10) for adults; ¥170 for children for each house; OPEN: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm

There are three houses that are open for visitors to tour: Wada House, Kanda House, and Nagase House. I would suggest at least visiting one of them.

Wada House: Built around 1800, the Wada house is the oldest. The family members that lived there made silk and explosives. You can see the first two floors.

Kanda House: The Kanda House was built in 1850. You can see all 5 floors. The family that lived in the Nagase House used to be doctors. I visited this one.

The first thing I noticed every time I went into one of these houses was the hearth in the middle of the first room you enter. In the winter, the family members would sit around it.

When I visited the Kanda House, I took a rest on the tatami mats and had some tea while a television played in the background.

The Kanda House has 5 floors that you can explore.

Many of the people in Shirakawago were involved in the silk farming business (sericulture). They used the upper floors of their houses for this business.

There are also some nice views of the village from the upper floors.

I went up all the way to the top attic of the Kanda House.

4. The Gassho-zukuri Folk Village Outdoor Museum

COST: ¥600 (US$5.40 / €4.70 / £4.20) | OPEN: Mar-Nov 8:40-17:00; Dec – Feb: 9:00-16:00

The Folk Village contains 25 Gassho-zukuri houses and a watermill, a shrine, and a watch tower. The buildings were moved from another area of Shirakawago and put together again in this spot.

To get to the museum, you need to cross a bridge and a large parking lot. I was always so amazed at how clear and clean the water in the streams and rivers in this part of Japan were.

The Folk Village was definitely the least crowded place in Shirakawago.

The best part of the visit was watching a very fascinating film explaining how the Gassho-zukuri houses are built nowadays.

Each building you enter is pretty similar to the one before it. You’ll see a hearth on the first floor.

There is one house, the Yamashita house, that was built in 1750.

There were supposed to be demonstrations of regional crafts, but I didn’t see any.

I think you can probably skip this museum. You’ll see a lot of the same houses while walking around the village. There isn’t enough explanation of what you’re looking at to make it worthwhile.

5. Myozenji Museum and Myozenji Temple

COST: ¥300 (US$2.70 / €2.40 / £2.10)  for adults; ¥100 for children; OPEN: Apr-Nov: 8:30-17:00; Dec-Mar: 9:00-16:00

Skip this boring museum. 

The building used to be the quarters for the monks from the temple, but it’s now a small museum displaying everyday objects from the village. It’s too bad that there are no signs in English. You don’t know what you’re looking at.

6. Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture

COST: ¥200 (US$1.80 / €1.59 / £1.40) | OPEN: Apr-Nov – 8:30-17:00; Dec-Mar: 9:00-16:00

The one last thing you can do in Shirakawago is visit the Tajima House Museum of Silk Culture to learn about silk farming (sericulture).

How to See Shirakawago’s Winter Light-Up

Visiting Shirakawago in January and February has become so popular in recent years that at times you actually need to make reservations to visit. Why? Well, just look at the photo below.

The area gets a tremendous amount of snow, and when the snow sticks to the gassho-zukuri’s steep roofs, the farmhouses look particularly magical. If you add illumination at night, they appear even more so.

Here are the days when Shirakawago will be lit up (5:30 pm – 7:30 pm):

  • January 13, 2020
  • January 19, 2020
  • January 26, 2020
  • February 2, 2020
  • February 9, 2020
  • February 16, 2020

To see the light-up event, you can’t go without some kind of reservation. Here are the 3 ways to visit during the light-up events listed above: 

  1. Join a Tour Group: Check out these tours from Nagoya and Takayama.
  2. Go by private care: You need to make an advanced reservation for a parking spot
  3. Make an advanced reservation to stay overnight. See the section of this post on Where to Stay in Shirakawago.

For detailed instructions on how to see the light-up events, check out this post from Japan Guide or this post from the Shirakawago Tourist Association.

Where to stay in Shirakawago

Shirakawago finally has a guesthouse with dorm rooms for single travelers: Shirakawago Guesthouse Kei.

For a list of more places to stay in Shirakawago, visit the Japanese Guesthouse website.

There aren’t many places listed on Agoda or Booking.com.

If you want to stay in Ainokura, Japanese Guesthouses website lists around 5 minshukus. They look to be cheaper than staying in Shirakawago.

Where to get more information

Shirakawa Village Official Website

Nohi Bus Company Website

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Everything you need to know for Shirakawago
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11 Comments

  1. Japan’s at the top of my travel list and I’ve looked into quite a bit of it so far, but I’ve never heard of this village/region before your post. Thanks for sharing! Love the old traditional houses and the history that must be sprinkled all over this magical place.

    Reply
    • Although Tokyo and Kyoto were wonderful, this area of Japan was my favorite. There’s a city called Takayama that you can stay in and make tons of day trips to the Japan Alps, Onsens, and Shirakawago. I hope you get a chance to go!

      Reply
  2. Wow, what a beautiful, lesser known place in Japan (well, it is for me anyway!). All those thatched houses looks so pretty against the green mountains. I often travel solo and it is annoying when they don’t take solo travellers. I’m happy there is a dorm that accepts us now! great posts and thanks for sharing.

    Sophie | http://thirdeyetraveller.com

    Reply
    • I think most people aren’t aware of how much natural beauty Japan has.

      Reply
  3. So cute and different from what you usually see associated with Japan!

    Reply
    • I know. Most people don’t really think of a small villages surrounded by mountains when you think of Japan.

      Reply
  4. Great post! I loved the thatched roofs and how the whole community comes together to re-thatch each one togther – so lovely. And great photos! 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks! I agree. I love them, too!

      Reply
  5. This is so beautiful! And the itinerary is really helpful…definitely makes me want to explore places outside Tokyo.

    Reply
  6. Wow, Shirakawago looks like a beautiful village, and not what I’d expect to find in Japan – looks like a German village transplanted! I usually take a weekend trip when I visit Tokyo, and Shirakawago has shot to the top of my list for next time.

    Reply
    • Yes, I highly recommend it. It’s really charming and stunningly beautiful!

      Reply

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About the Bamboo Traveler

The Bamboo Traveler - a guide to traveling in Asia

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of a place. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make more informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand a place more deeply.

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