Introducing Shirakawa-gō & Gokayama
These remote, dramatically mountainous districts between Takayama and Kanazawa are best known for farmhouses in the thatched, A-frame style called gasshō-zukuri (‘hands-in-prayer’). They’re rustic and lovely, particularly in clear weather or in the snow, and they hold a special place in the Japanese heart.
In the 12th century the region’s remoteness and inaccessibility are said to have attracted stragglers from the Taira (Heike) clan, virtually wiped out by the Minamoto (Genji) clan in a brutal battle in 1185. During feudal times Shirakawa-gō, like the rest of Hida, was under direct control of the Kanamori clan, connected to the Tokugawa shōgun, while Gokayama was a centre for the production of gunpowder for the Kaga region, under the ruling Maeda clan.
Fast-forward to the 1960s: when construction of the gigantic Miboro Dam over the Shōkawa was about to submerge some local villages, many gasshō houses were moved to their current sites for safekeeping. Although much of what you’ll find has been specially preserved for, and supported by, tourism, it still presents a view of rural life found in few other parts of Japan.
Most of Shirakawa-gō’s sights are in the heavily visited community of Ogimachi. In Gokayama (technically not in Hida but in Toyama-ken), the community of Ainokura has the greatest concentration; other sights are spread throughout hamlets over many kilometres along Rte 156. Ogimachi and Ainokura are Unesco World Heritage sites (as is the Gokayama settlement of Suganuma).
Tour buses can diminish the magic of these communities. Get around this by avoiding weekends and holidays. Even better, stay overnight in a gasshō-zukuri house that’s been turned into an inn. Advance reservations are highly recommended; the Shirakawa-gō tourist office by the parking area in Ogimachi can help with bookings (in Japanese), or Takayama’s tourist office can help in English. Don’t expect rooms with private facilities, but some inns have irori for guests to eat around.
Bus services to and around the region are infrequent and vary seasonally; it’s important to check schedules. For maximum flexibility (and perhaps even a cost saving), consider hiring a car. Either way, traffic can be severe on weekends and throughout the peak tourist times of May, August and October. Expect snow, and lots of it, between late December and late March.