Beautiful, distinctive triangular roofs—visiting Shirakawa-go during winter

Shirakawa-go is famous for wooden houses that look as if a person is pressing hands together in prayer, which is called “gassho” in Japanese. Do you know the best season for visiting there? It’s winter. In this article, we would like to talk about its charm.

The wooden houses in Shirakawa-go feature a style called “gassho zukuri.” There are different theories as to how the house style came to be called as such, but it is said to be named after “gassho,” pressing one’s hands together in prayer, according to one theory.

Gassho zukuri is characterized by its thatched roof. Materials such as iron nails are not used on its lining material, but a plant-based material called “neso” is used instead to create elasticity so that the roof can withstand the harsh elements such as wind and snow. The wisdom of our ancestors is truly astonishing, considering that the roofs have been holding up for about 200 years with just plant-based materials.

A gassho zukuri village. Houses with distinctive exteriors are lined up in a peaceful rural landscape.

The attic of a gassho zukuri house.

Shirakawa-go is located in Shirakawa-mura, a village surrounded by tall mountains in the northern part of Gifu Prefecture, which is situated almost at the center of Japan’s main island. You can enjoy a rustic view with rice and vegetable fields from spring to autumn, but everything is completely covered in snow during winter. Due to its secluded location and to the natural environment that gets so much snow, it even was once called “the hidden land.” As for the begining of the village, according to one of many theories out there, samurais fled to and settled in this village after losing in what is called the “Gempei War” over 800 years ago. Although it has become a popular tourist destination today due to factors such as its registration as UNESCO’s world heritage site (cultural heritage) in 1995, there are still many things unknown about Shirakawa-go, which developed in its unique way in the snowbound region.

“Former Toyama House Folk Museum” in winter. A typical Gassho zukuri house in the area.

Shirakawa-go during winter is known for its beautiful snowscape, and an illumination event is held in January and February every year (reservation-only since 2019). The reservations for 2024 are almost sold out, and you must have a ticket to enter the site after 3 p.m. on the illumination event dates. If you are planning to go there during that time, make sure to check in advance.

As the snow piles up, lights are lit in the windows of the Gassho house.

Besides the winter illuminations, Shirakawa-go offers a variety of activities for every season. The traditional landscape and cultural experiences of Japan that you get to enjoy only at Shirakawa-go will surely be the best memory of your Japan trip.

■DATA Address: Ogimachi, Shirakawa Village, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture Shirakawa-go Tourism Association Official website: https://shirakawa-go.gr.jp/en/ Shirakawa Village Official Website Shirakawa-go Responsible Tourism: https://www.vill.shirakawa.lg.jp/srt-en/ World heritage site viewing hours: 8:00a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (excluding guests staying at the hotel and when events are being held) Photo provided by Shirakawa Village Office, Gifu Prefecture (Information as of November 2023)