Shirakawa is a chilly, though beautiful, nook in the mountains of Gifu. In late February, metres of snow blocks roads and shrine entrances, obscures landscapes, and requires long boots and a shovel just to get into the road-station toilets.
The area is a well-known tourist destination in any season, as visitors come to see the World Heritage listed straw-thatched village of Shirakawa-go. The car-park is open from 8am until 5pm, and costs 500 yen per visit. (Japanese site with map). Earlier is definitely recommended as the bus tours roll in early, however there is always a very calm atmosphere here, despite the interesting items tour-guides use to signal their flocks.
While this style of house still exists elsewhere in rural Japan, what was once a community task to help a neighbour renew their roof has become a rare skill and very expensive. Maintenance costs around $10,000 every decade, forcing many make the switch to corrugated iron instead.
Shirakawa-go was able to soften this expense with a profitable tourism model, at the same time preserving some of Japan’s traditional architecture, however, this is not a theme-park. Apart from a few buildings set aside for viewing (at a small additional cost), the houses are occupied.
This doesn’t necessarily mean visitors can’t enter, just not outside of business hours. Unsurprisingly, many of the inhabitants have turned their homes into cafes or ryokan – Japanese style inns. Staying overnight in one of Shirakawago’s thatched houses means more time to explore the streets, and the chance to climb up into the mountains for the typical shot of the entire valley.
Seeing Shirakawago in winter was a bucket-list item for me, and it did not disappoint. It’s very cold however, staying at -4 during the day (and -9 overnight!) so hefty winter clothing, including insulated boots, is recommended.
When the chill gets too much though, it’s nice to know you are never far away from a warm cafe in Shirakawago.