Why, hello there! This post might contain affiliate links, which means I earn a commission (at no extra cost to you!) if you purchase from them.
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 Santa’s.
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 in Japan.
I don’t want to be cliche and tell you how amazing it is to travel “off the beaten path.”
But, rather, Japan’s charm 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 busloads of tourists adds to the magic of this place!
What is 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.
Falling in love with Shirakawa-go
I’m going to 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.
Everything you need to know about visiting Shirakawa-go
If you want to visit Shirakawa-go for yourself, it does require some effort, but it is 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 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 clean!) and includes free breakfast in your room rate. The staff are super friendly and helpful (they even brought out towels for me when I came back drenched from the rain).
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. Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor
Book on Booking.com | Book on Expedia
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!
For budget travelers: Shirakawago Guest House Kei
This guesthouse is perfect for those on a tight budget. It’s located a short 600 m walk from the main Gassho village, giving you enough peace and quiet from the crowds of Shirakawago. The shared dorms here are mixed, but they are incredibly spacious and clean. They also have affordably priced private rooms for those who don’t want to share! Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor
Book on Booking.com | Book on Expedia
For mid-range travelers: Shirakawago Terrace
Ever wanted to stay in a traditional wooden house? Then you’ll probably want to stay here 😉 This century old traditional Japanese wooden house, is located just a 10-minute walk away the main Gassho village.
All the rooms are Japanese style, which means you’ll be sleeping on a futon on the tattami flooring. This just adds to the charm! Check out the reviews on Tripadvisor
Book on Booking.com | Book on Expedia
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 wow” and gotten those familiar “this is crazy beautiful” tingles up your spine?
Leave me a comment and let me know!
Psst – are you planning your Japan vacation? Here are some helpful links for you…
Heading to Shirakawago? Book your accommodation now!
Don’t forget to pick up a guidebook: this is my favorite Japan guidebook!
Want more Japan tips? Check out my posts here, or if you want some help packing I’ve got the ultimate packing guide here
I want to visit it during winter, I bet it will look so magical covered in snow. I love Japan and I’m always on the lookout for interesting and off the beaten path places. Exactly what I needed, thank you.
Hi Cory, Shirakawa-go is super popular during winter! It would definitely be a beautiful time to visit. There’s so much to see in Japan, I’m so glad you found this useful 🙂
What an awesome hidden gem in Japan! I really want to go here and seeing places like this is exactly why I want to see it. I really love the mist as it really gave it a mystical vibe didn’t it? What a great little day trip to have.
I also love that you can have such a local experience too. That in itself is such a treat for travelers to get a view into. Great post!
I’m glad you enjoyed it – the mist definitely gave it a magical vibe! Would highly recommend visiting if you get the chance to 🙂
This brought back such wonderful memories of visiting Shirakawa-go. I visited on a whim too (just as the snow was melting a few years ago) and had mixed feelings about what to expect; it really was one of the most magical places to visit. Your post and photos really bring it alive – thank you!
Hi Lynne, I’m so glad my post brought back some wonderful memories for you. It sounds like you visited at a beautiful time, I would love to go during winter – Shirakawa-go would be beautiful to see after snow!
I’m going to call you out on your hyperbole here as it’s not quite fair to mislead people in this way. Shirakawago is most certainly not forgotten although it is a little bit magical. Shirakawago is a UNESCO World Heritage site and very much on the beaten track. I’ve visited in spring autumn and summer and it has been busy every time. It’s a very pretty and very cute village and I’d highly recommend a visit or even a stay BUT it’s extremely small, often overrun with tour buses and most of the houses have been turned into souvenir shops or guesthouses.
Hi Karen, thanks for taking the time to leave me a comment! My intention is not to mislead people, and I apologize if you think this article does. I don’t call Shirakawago forgotten because I think people don’t visit. I do however think most visitors to Japan miss this magical town. It sounds like you’re well traveled in Japan (I assume this is the case if you have visited Shirakawago twice) and thus you know all about this cute village. To first time visitors to Japan, Shirakawago is lesser known. Perhaps my choice in words in using “forgotten” is not perfect, however I stand by my intention of this post which was to share my experiences and encourage visitors to venture beyond the typical tourist trail of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment and I’m always glad to hear from others who have enjoyed traveling in Japan!
Hi mae-gene, do you have some sugestion for a couple as guesthouse in Shirakawa-go?
Loved your piece!
My husband and I have been to Japan more than 15 times, but have not ventured out to very “country” areas if not accompanied by Japanese speakers as we are not fluent in the language, even tho’ we are Japanese by ethnicity.
I marvel at westerners who do so!
We have finally decided to expand our horizon, but my husband is leaving it up to me to do the research.
Do you think that non-Japanese speakers can navigate and have a full experience? I thought that since it is a UNESCO site, they might be used to non-speakers.
We’ve tried various translator devices with lukewarm success.
Hi June, thank you so much for your kind words!
Non-Japanese speakers can definitely navigate, but it depends on what you mean by having a full experience. As a non-japanese speaker, I found it easy to get around (especially since there is a mountain of information online about navigating trains and buses, even to places that aren’t as popular with English speaking tourists).
But as with all travel, speaking the local language definitely makes things easier. Shirakawago has definitely become more popular with tourists in the last few years and when I visited, the information center had maps and materials available in English. However, some of the sites you can visit there had signage in Japanese, so I did lose some context (note: this could have since changed)
I really enjoyed my visit, but there were parts of my visit that would have been different had I spoke Japanese or been traveling with a Japanese speaker. I would say that this applies to many places in Japan that aren’t on the well-beaten path of English speaking tourists. Despite this, I still had an enjoyable visit and would recommend others to not be dissuaded from visiting!
Hope this helps and feel free to reach out if you have more questions 🙂