Winter Illuminations at Shirakawago
By John Asano
The historic village of Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beauty. Located deep in the mountains of central Japan, it is one of the many must see destinations in Japan.
The name Shirakawago (白川郷) means “White River Old District’, and the place certainly lives up to its beautiful name as it’s situated in a picturesque river valley surrounded by rugged mountains.
The traditional village is famous for its gassho zukuri (合掌造り) farmhouses, which are an important cultural property. Gassho Zukuri means ‘hands in prayer’ and perfectly describes the unique thatched and steeply slanting roof of these amazing houses, which look like two hands joined in prayer. The thatched roof farmhouses are built this way to survive the harsh winter and large amounts of snow that the region experiences. The area has one of the largest snowfalls in Japan.
Amazingly the roofs are constructed without the use of nails, or metal supports, and use only traditional natural materials such as wood, clay, straw and paper.
The houses are large with three to four storeys encompassed between the low eaves. They were historically built this way to house large extended families as well as provide enough space for a variety of industries.
Ogimachi is Shirakawago’s largest village and main attraction. The village is home to several dozen beautifully preserved farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Some of the houses in Ogimachi are open to the public, either as museums or as places to stay overnight.
A nearby hill provides the perfect vantage point for viewing the village and all its beauty. I recommend a visit here during the summer when there is no snow, but the village is surrounded by lush vivid green mountains and forests. The contrast between the houses and nature is truly breath-taking.
During winter the village takes the experience to an even higher level when it’s covered in pure white snow. It becomes a winter wonderland straight out of a fairy tale. To enhance this experience even further for a few select Saturdays and Sundays in January and February they put on a stunning illumination.
The houses and surrounding grounds are lit by spotlights which illuminate the snow covered thatched roofs. The gassho zukuri farmhouses are lit up individually from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., while the entire village is softly illuminated until around 8:00 p.m.
The illumination will run from mid January to mid February in 2015.
Shirakawago makes a great day-trip from nearby Hida Takayama also in Gifu Prefecture. Hida Takayama is famous for its natural beauty as well as its well preserved Edo Period historic town and sake breweries.
From Hida Takayama you can take an expressway shuttle bus to Ogimachi Village in Shirakawago in around 50 minutes.
Dates for 2015:
January 17, 24, 25 & 31
February 1, 7 & 14
Times: 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Address: Ogimachi, Shirakawa Village, Ono District, Gifu Prefecture
From Tokyo take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line to Nagoya and then change to the JR Takayama Line to Takayama. Outside of Takayama Station you can catch an expressway shuttle bus from the Takayama Nohi Bus Center, which will take you to Shirakawa-go in around 50 minutes.