The UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakawago, located in land-locked Gifu Prefecture, is one of the most iconic tourist spots in Japan. With its picture perfect Gassho-zukuri (lit. “praying hands” reflective of the way the sloping roofs look) huts, it is a favorite for photographers and travelers worldwide. The area receives some the heaviest snowfall in Japan, making the scenery and atmosphere different for every season. The largest and most popular of the villages, Ogimachi, can be explored easily on foot, and there are a few must do’s during your time there.
1. Head up to the observation point
A must for any visit to Shirakawago, the observation point is a pleasant 20 minutes walk from Shirakawago Bus Terminal, but can also be reached via a shuttle bus for those less inclined to exercise. The view of the village of Ogimachi is so picturesque it could almost be a painting; cute huts dotting green rice fields across a background of snow-capped Mt. Haku, one of the three sacred mountains of Japan. The observation point itself basks in the shadow of leafy green trees (in warmer months), creating a very peaceful atmosphere. Winter presents another gorgeous scene, with the thatched-roof huts and entire village blanketed in heavy white snow. A popular illumination event is held a few days during winter months, and visitor flow to the village peaks with a multitude of tourists during this time.
2. See the inside of a Gassho hut
There are a number of Gassho huts open to the public, but the Wada House is the biggest and most prominent one in the village. The family has always had high social status, with some former members being government officers or landlords of Ogimachi village. The family has now kindly opened up part of their house to tourists for the sake of cultural appreciation. Currently run by a 20th generation Wada family member and his wife, visitors are able to take a look inside the rooms of a Gassho hut and catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of these villagers who endure bitter winters and heavy snow every year. Admission is JPY 300 per person (half price for kids), the fireplace is lit all year round, and visitors can take photos and videos inside.
3. Walk across the suspension bridge
If you are coming by bus, then this is one bridge you can’t avoid crossing. The Deai-bashi suspension bridge which hangs over Shokawa River connects the main bus terminal and car park with Ogimachi village. Serving as an entrance to the car-free village, the bridge affords panoramic scenes of the river, mountains and village all in one shot. The bridge is solid enough that it doesn’t really sway, but the vibrations of the dozens of people walking across the bridge together with you can be felt. Another testament to the dynamism of the scenery across seasons, the contrast between winter and spring is a world apart.
4. Take in the culture of Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine
Fans of the anime Higurashi no Naku Goro Ni (When They Cry), which created a boom for yandere girls amongst fans in the West, will recognize many parallel scenescapes with many almost carbon copy similarity. It is a well-known fact that Ogimachi village formed the model for the fictitious village of Hinamizawa in the series, where many bizarre occurrences and two-faced girls plagued the male protagonist, who unknowingly transferred to the village. Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine is another spot that appears consistently throughout the series as Furude Shrine, the shrine of Oyashiro-sama, the god of Hinamizawa, and the place where the Watanagashi Festival is held in every year. The structures of the shrine, from the torii gates to the purple curtains, bear undeniable resemblance to those in the series, and it has become so well-known for its connection to Higurashi no Naku Goro Ni that aspiring comic book artists have taken to writing their wishes for success on ema (votive picture tablets) and hanging them up. You can check out the impressive artwork and interesting wishes during a visit.
5. Drive by Miboro Dam
Although not located in Shirakawago per se, Miboro Dam is located around 30 mins by car from Shirakawago and is on the way if coming from Takayama or up from Gifu City and Nagoya. The dam forms another interesting historical nugget to the area. Completed in 1960 over 3 years, it is a rock-fill dam 131 meters high, 401 meters wide and supports a 256 MW hydroelectric power station. Downstream of the dam is a facility (closed Wednesdays) where you can learn more about the history of the dam and its power generation capabilities. The road leading to the facility is lined with cherry trees making for some excellent photo opportunities.
On the lakeside stands two nearly 500-year-old Shokawa-zakura cherry trees. They were moved here, when the dam was constructed, from two shrines which originally stood in a village located at the bottom of what is now the lake. It is said that each petal represents the memory from someone who lived in the villages before they were flooded. Truth or mere romanticism, you can decide.
You can visit all these places in 1 day with an English-speaking guide, with lunch and transport from Takayama to Kanazawa included, on this great value-for-money Shirakawago Holiday Shuttle Plan on JAPANiCAN.com.