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Learn about Shirakawa-go, Japan by reading A Village Out of the Past: Shirakawa-go, Japan by Sandy Zimmerman, Travel Writer. It features a mini, but thorough tour of the destination, plus all you'll need to know to plan your trip including getting there, objective information on places to stay and eat, and things to do. At the end of the article, we've provided a summary of the contact information for your easy reference. Enjoy!

A Village Out of the Past: Shirakawa-go, Japan

by Sandy Zimmerman, travel writer and WTA member

The famous slanting roofs can be found throughout the village
The famous slanting roofs can be found throughout the village.

There is a quaint little village hidden at the foot of Mt. Hakusan that has preserved its historic architecture. So authentic, so beautiful to see, the Shirakawa-go Village ("The Village of the White River"), in northwest Gifu prefecture, has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is one of only six world heritage sites in Japan.

Immediately upon arriving at Shirakawa-go, we noticed the unique architectural style of Gassho pampas grass roofs constructed with high thatched gabled roofs resembling hands joined in prayer. The steeply sloping roofs allow rain and snow to slide off and are flexible enough to move with strong winds. Huge Japanese oak trees bent at the base by the weight of the snow were used for beams. Structurally the roofs are not connected to the first floor, but tied together with ropes and built without any nails or pins. Usually the family lives on the first floor while the second and third floors are used to cultivate silkworms. The houses are re-roofed every 30-40 years by the yui labor exchange system. From 100-200 villages volunteer their services to climb the ladders up to the high roofs. Each house must be completed in one day because this is the people’s residence or business. You can see the villagers working on two-three houses each spring. According to tradition, professional carpenters build the first floor while the villagers build the roof.

Villagers in typical dress
Villagers in typical dress

Our walking tour brought us into another world to see 112 of these buildings. The Wada House, the largest of the Gassho houses, was built during the mid-Edo period and is still occupied by members of the Wada family. First we spent time in their downstairs museum to see the Buddhist altar, historic displays, living areas, main hall, and exhibits. Then we were allowed to climb up the stairs to the roof to see the beams. The second floor was used for silkworm cultivating, its height made it possible to bring in light from both ends of the eaves. They kept the large room warm with a hearth. The lineage of the Wada family dates to 1573. They became wealthy by manufacturing gunpowder and the head of the family served as the "Yauemon", leader of the village, in each generation.

Eating lunch inside one of these Gassho houses was a thrill! We removed our shoes to walk on the tatami mats, slipped through sliding doors, and entered a room where cushions were placed at a low table for Japanese-style dining sitting on the floor. The Bunsuke Restaurant’s traditional complete lunch included a whole mountain trout, whole rainbow trout, miso soup, tea, and assorted Japanese delicacies. One trout was served with soy, sugar, and saki sauce while the other was plain. The multi- course meal was delicious! The Japanese eat the whole fish including the head and eyes. While we were dining, I especially enjoyed the view from their extra large picture window overlooking a waterfall, brook, and rock garden. This is the perfect place to explore and to enjoy nature. The Bunsuke Restaurant is in a house that is also a traditional Japanese inn (Ryokan and Minshuku). In fact, if you want a very different vacation, choose from any of Shirakawa-go’s seven Japanese inns - the price includes one night’s accommodations and two meals - breakfast and dinner (7,500-15,000 Yen, from around $64 American depending upon the exchange rate).

Dining in the traditional Japanese-fashion, on the floor at the inn.
Dining in the traditional Japanese-fashion, on the floor at the inn.
Photo courtesy of Sandy Zimmerman

Visit Shirakawa-go during the Doburoku Festival, in October, and you will have an added treat! The Shishimai (lion dance) has been a part of their long history. Seven local groups are active in keeping the traditions alive. The large "Mukade Shishi"(lion- like centipede) becomes alive with four dancers hidden under the costume so you see eight legs dancing. Another interesting lion dance tells us of a legend of two boys winning a battle against a lion, using a Japanese sword and halberd. During the summer, visit the House of Doburoku Matsuri Festival Museum to see a doll exhibition depicting the festival.

Shirakawa-Go Details

Getting There

Just 2 hours from Nagoya, you can join a tour to Shirakawa-go. Just take the Shinkansen Bullet Train or bus.

Airlines

Nagoya is serviced by several airlines direct non-stop flights from San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Tourist Information

Shirakawa-go and Gifu Prefecture, http://www.shirakawa-go.org/english/index.html.

Nagoya Convention and Visitors Bureau, http://www.ncvb.or.jp/en/contents/.

Notice: This information is current as of May 2007. It is recommended that you contact the numbers, and/or visit the websites above to determine any changes to the information.