Japan has no shortage of things to do, things to see. As any visitor to this country can attest to, even just visiting the major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka) can leave you with aching feet and a to-do list longer than my mum’s shopping list at Costco.
While it can be incredibly hard to avoid trying to do ALL THE THINGS when visiting Japan, the one thing I wish had done previously was to visit smaller cities. I wish I had made more of an effort to visit places that were not as touristy.
I don’t say this to spew some cr*p about how amazinggg it is to travel “off the beaten path.”
Rather, the real charm in Japan lies in its smaller cities and villages. Think rice paddy fields, highway buses and areas so small they immediately know you’re a tourist (regardless of whether you look Japanese or not) because that is how small their city or town is.
One of my first forays in exploring smaller areas was my visit to Shirakawa-go. This magical village is popular with Japanese tourists and with “in the know” tourists from Taiwan and Hong Kong. For some reason, the rest of the world is yet to catch on. Part of me hopes it doesn’t get too popular. Wandering through the village without bus loads of tourists adds to the magic of this place!
An introduction to Shirakawa-go
Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO World Heritage listed site. Here, the houses are built with local wood in what is known as the “Gassho Style” with thatched roofs. The community in this village works together to support each other and maintain the houses here. For example, it takes about three days to remove the old roof for one house and another full day to build a new one. Talk about community effort!
It’s amazing once you understand the effort and passion that goes into maintaining these beautiful buildings. I mean, I can hardly manage to make my bed in the mornings (yeah I know, I’m lazy!)
Falling in love with Shirakawa-go
Imma be honest here and admit that I only visited Shirakawa-go on a whim. This UNESCO listed village was not initially on my wish list of places to visit in Japan. If you’re traveling from Tokyo, Shirakawa-go can be a bit of an effort to get to – but boy is this village worth the effort!
It was raining heavily when I arrived by bus, and there was mist rolling into the valley from the mountains. While torrential rain is not usually something that complements traveling, in this case, it added to the experience.
As I started wandering through the village, it was the small details that got me. The well looked after gardens, the beautifully maintained thatched roofs.
When visiting, you can even enter some of the houses and learn about the history of the area. In some of the houses, you can even sit down to a cup of tea. This was my absolute favorite travel moment. I loved sitting down on the tatami floor, watching the rain pour outside with a cup of tea.
Shirakawa-go has a magical quality to it. I honestly felt as if I were in an alternative reality, filled with rolling hills, lots of fog and beautiful wooden houses. There were moments where I thought “oh sh*t, am I in a movie??”
Everything you need to know about visiting Shirakawa-go
If you want to visit Shirakawa-go for yourself, it does require some effort, but boy is it worth it!
Getting to Shirakawa-go:
If you have a JR railway pass and are planning a visit from Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, there are a variety of train and bus options. Shirakawa-go does not have a train station, so you will need to take a train to the closest railway station. As there are soooo many travel options, I would highly suggest you check out Japan Guide for your transport options to Shirakawa-go. Once you get to your transfer city, you will then need to take a bus (the bus ride is approximately 1.5hrs).
My suggestion would be to visit via Takayama. This beautiful city has an amazing historical area filled with beautiful wooden houses. Shirakawa-go is a 1hr bus ride from Takayama, and buses leave on an hourly basis. To get to Takayama, you can either take a train (nifty for those with a JR pass) or for the budget traveler; there are a variety of highway buses. These aren’t for the faint-hearted though, as the highway bus from Tokyo to Takayama takes approximately 5 hrs!
Getting around Shirakawa-go:
Once you arrive by bus in Shirakawa-go, everything is accessible via foot. Pick up a map from the information center when you arrive, and you’ll soon find everything is within walking distance.
The only bus in the village is the shuttle bus from just outside the main bus terminal to the observatory. The observatory gives you a beautiful view of Shirakawa-go. From memory, this costs 200 JPY one way and takes about 10 minutes, or if you want to walk, it takes approx. 30 minutes. Since it was pouring with rain when I was there, I lazily opted for the shuttle bus (which departs every 15 minutes or so).
Where to stay:
If you’re short on time (or on a budget!), I’d recommend visiting Shirakawa-go on a day trip and staying in nearby Takayama. Takayama is a bigger tourist city and hence has a wider range of accommodation options. My budget accommodation recommendation for Takayama is the Takayama Station Hostel. Despite the name, the hostel only has private rooms (which are incredibly affordable!) and provides breakfast in your room rate. I paid approximately 7,980 JPY for 2 nights (including breakfast) for my own room. This equates to approximately 3,990 JPY per night which is about $36 USD.
If you’re after a unique experience, another option is to stay in a guesthouse in Shirakawa-go. While the village wasn’t crazy busy when I visited, I can imagine during the summer there would be a lot more Japanese tourists. It would be nice to stay on after all the day trippers have gone home. If you’re planning on doing this, definitely book ahead, as the guesthouses only take pre-booked guests!
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Now, tell me – what’s the most magical place you’ve ever visited? Have you ever been to a place where you’ve thought “oh sh*t” and gotten those familiar “this is crazy beautiful” tingles up your spine?
Leave me a comment and let me know!
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