Many role-playing video games start out in a remote place hidden deep in the mountains. The hero’s home town is often depicted as a rustic village full of wooden houses with thatched roofs. Outside each house, you pass rice fields surrounded by rivers, perfectly landscaped gardens and trees with fruits ripe for the picking. Okami, which is one of my favorite video games of all time, has all these elements of the classical Japanese countryside.
Walking through the streets of Shirakawa-go felt like I was transported into a fantasy world right out of a video game.
The historic village of Shirakawa-go is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Recognized in 1995, this traditional village whose name roughly translates to “White River Old-District” is located in the mountainous region of Shogawa river valley stretching across the border of Gifu and Toyama Prefectures in central Japan. The village is best known for its gassho-style houses, characterized by a thatched and steeply slanting roof resembling two hands joined in prayer.
For the longest time, this village was cut off from the outside world because of its remote location. But with the new highways, it’s become easier for tourists to visit and see firsthand the traditional way of life that has been perfectly preserved and adapted to its environment. By private bus, the village is about two hours from Nagoya through highways with scenic views of beautiful streams and forests along the way.
We first headed to the Shiroyama Viewpoint located on a hill, where we got a “world map” view of the village. The houses were constructed in such a way that they all face one direction. All the roofs face east and west so that during winter, they can maximize the sunlight causing snow to melt more quickly. Meanwhile, attic windows always face north and south to allow the best ventilation to keep houses cool in summer and warm in winter. The view of the houses all lined up, surrounded by fields and river in the mountains from the deck offers just a postcard perfect shot.
At the observation deck, there’s also a souvenir shop and a restaurant called “Tenshukaku” where you can dine with a view. Fresh flowers are in bloom everywhere and line most of the paths. I also noticed a small altar-like shrine that reminded me of Guardian Statues in the video game Okami, where you leave flowers in exchange for praise.
After soaking in the gorgeous view at the observatory, we drove down to the village and continued on foot, crossing a suspended bridge over a river.
Once you step foot in the village, you can’t help feel that there’s something magical about this place. The village really looks like something out of a fairy tale or fantasy game. The timeless structures with their thatched roofs feel so in harmony with nature. The houses themselves are architectural wonders that tell a story about the rich culture and traditions of the village. The house’s design is exceptionally strong. Roofs are inclined at a steep 60-degree angle to withstand the weight of heavy snowfall during winter and ensure that snow slides off more easily. Villagers also have a cooperative system called yui, in which they help each other re-thatch roofs whenever it needs repair.
Sidequest: #Drainspotting: Shirakawago Design Obtained
The village manages to hide the traces of the industrialization and the outside world very well. You don’t really notice the electric lines or cars with all the traditional structures. There are numerous fountains and mills, temples and shrines aside from the houses. Koi fish swim in little ponds and streams and even the water in the canals are so clean, you could probably drink out of them.
Everything looked so aesthetic and in balance. Houses and storefronts are decorated with farming tools, potted plants, statues and old bicycles propped outside the walls.
The weather was chilly but not too cold and the leaves of the trees that were just starting to turn orange looked lovely right next to the thatched roofs. Signs of harvest could be seen around the fields and in shops.
After walking around a bit, we paid a visit to the Kanda House, a prime example of the Gassho-style architecture with its steep rafters and delicate carpentry work. The Kanda family, a branch of the Wada clan, established their house here and built a sake brewing business. In the middle of the house was an irori, a traditional Japanese sunken fireplace, used for cooking food and central heating. The smoke from the hearth rises and spreads throughout the house, turning the wood black. Interestingly, the smoke makes the wood of the house more supple and pest-resistant, while keeping the different rooms warm during winter.
After listening to Mr. Kanda share some trivia about the house, warming ourselves by the fire and having a cup of aromatic tea, we explored the four stories of the 19th Century house. On the mezzanine floor was a small window looking out into the fireplace for whoever was watching the fire. It was a bit tricky to get up the steep wooden staircases leading to the higher floors, but I was amazed at how well-preserved the house was. The house’s rafters have curved beams made up of strong trees whose bases grew up curved under the weight of snow. No nails and almost no metal is used in the construction of gassho-style houses. Yet, the wooden framework knotted together with straw-braided rope, can support the roof from earthquakes and strong wind.
Apparently, upper stories of the Gassho houses are typically used for silkworm production, so a lot of traditional tools were on display. The window in the fourth floor attic provided a lovely view of the other gassho-style houses in the village.
Some of the houses in the village double as family-run inns and guesthouses. If you have time to spare, you can enjoy the experience of staying the night or two at one of these beautiful thatched roof houses. I would have loved to stay longer in the village since it offers such a unique cultural experience that you can’t get from traditional hotels. Though a lot of people still live in these houses, others have been converted into museums, stores and restaurants for tourists.
Since the village is nestled in the mountains right next to a river, the local cuisine uses a lot of fresh mountain herbs and river fish. In one house, you can experience making soba noodles from buckwheat flour and taste it after. Around the village, we noticed a lot of stalls selling fresh ice cream and rice cakes, which are local specialties.
Gohei Mochi is a simple treat that traces its origins to a lumberjack working in the forest high in the Japanese mountains during winter. It’s a rice cake on a stick coated with hoba miso paste and mixed with sugar before it’s cooked over a flame. The region’s cuisine is centered around miso, and this treat is traditionally offered at shrines in the spring and autumn to pray for a good harvest. The sweet and smoky flavor of the sauce is an acquired taste, but it’s very filling.
You ate Gohei Mochi. +10 HP!
Before heading back, I stopped to buy souvenirs at a merchant’s shop. The village is known for its nigori sake, tsukemono (pickles) and basket ware items. I also noticed a lot of human-shaped dolls with large heads and facial features, which I first thought were cats. Apparently, the Sarubobo (which translates to “baby monkey”) is a Japanese amulet, made by grandmothers for their grandchildren as dolls, and for their daughters as a good luck charm. Nowadays, they are a popular souvenirs, with each color representing a different wish. Red is a general good luck charm, gold/yellow means luck in money and pink means luck in love. However, for these to be effective, you shouldn’t buy it yourself, but rather be given one by someone else. Back in the bus before our trip ended, we were given the choice of what color we wanted by our gracious hosts as tokens from the trip.
While most tourists who visit Japan equate the country with the bustling technological hubs of Tokyo and Osaka, it was wonderful to see a this beautiful village in the countryside and experience the local customs and traditions firsthand. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, Shirakawago is definitely worth visiting on the way to Takayama.
Souvenir t-shirt purchased. – 2,600 Yen
Shirakawago takes on a different character depending on the season you visit. In winter it looks like a Christmas village blanketed in snow; in Spring, all the pink cherry blossoms are in full bloom; and in Summer, you can expect sunflowers and blue skies. I’m hoping my amulet brings me luck in the future, though I already feel extremely lucky for seeing the beauty of this World Heritage Site in Autumn.
Red doll amulet acquired. +50% Luck; increases encounter rate with cats
NOTE: This trip was made possible by Cebu Pacific and Centrair.
Cebu Pacific Air, the leading airline in the Philippines, flies between Manila and Nagoya (Chubu Centrair International Airport) every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Ongoing all-in seat sale fares start from P6,388, for travel from December 17, 2015 to March 31, 2016. Book your flights through the CebuPacificAir.com. For updates and seat sale announcements, check out www.facebook.com/
TRAVEL TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- Shirakawa-go Village is located in the Ohno District, Gifu Prefecture, Japan.
- Website: http://shirakawa-go.org/en/
- It can get busy with visitors during weekends, so it’s best to go on a weekday.
- The peak viewing season is from mid to late April and late October to mid-November. It’s said to be particularly beautiful in the winter snow and during cherry blossom (sakura) season in early spring.
- The Kanda House is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. No scheduled closure during March to November; Closed on Wednesdays from December to February. Tel. 05769-6-1072. http://kandahouse.web.fc2.com
- Entrance fee for Kanda House: Adults: 300 yen, Elementary and junior high children: 150 yen (in groups of 15 people or more.)
- For instructions on how to get to Shirakawago, check HERE.
One of our tour guides was using this Can-am Spyder Roadster, a three-wheeled motorcycle that has the look of a convertible sports car. It kind of looks like a Batcycle or part of some futuristic anime robot. I just had to have a photo op before we left. On to the next adventure! 🙂