If you have a day to spend to see something truly unique and want to feel as though you take a step back in time, jump on a bus and head on out to the traditional village of Shirakawa-go.
Shirakawa-go is probably one of the most unique traditional villages you can easily visit in Japan. With its thatched-roof homes, known as "gassho", you are able to glimpse back to see how a traditional farm town was before the modern age. You don't need to spend an exorbitant about of time here as a day is quite sufficient.
How do I get there? It looks far from everything!
Nestled in a remote village in the mountains might sound as though Shirakawa-go would be difficult to get to. Fun fact - it's actually quite easy! Especially if you're staying in the Gifu or Toyama Prefectures. There are buses daily that leave out of the major cities in the area operated by Nohi Bus (See their timetables here). We stayed in Takayama at the time and were able to schedule tickets the morning we wanted to head out that way.
Word of advice: you may want to check the bus station for tickets potentially a day ahead of time if you're planning a few other stops around the village and you're staying during a popular season. We went in April and had difficulties on timetables and were unable to take a bus to adjacent cities because all tickets were reserved.
If it's a village, does that mean they only speak Japanese?
On the contrary, since Shirakawa-go was listed in 2015 with the UNESCO World Heritage Foundation, it has become a popular tourist attraction for not only foreign travelers but also for Japanese tourists alike. Though the locals don't all speak English, they will offer menus and signage in restaurants and tourist attractions with English Translations (or lots of helpful pictures). So when in doubt when it comes to communication, just simply point at what you'll want! You won't have any issues getting around.
What about money? How do I know what to bring with me?
Though some places can accept credit cards, always assume cash is required. Since Shirakawa-go is a village, don't assume ATMs will be readily available either. General rule of thumb is to ensure you have cash in the form of the local currency at all times.
Things to see?
The beauty of this area is not only the surrounding forested mountains. The famous gassho-zukuri buildings are one of the main draws to Shirakawa-go. You can stay overnight in one of these homes (which we have heard can be magical in the winter, but we only visited for the day), but for just $500 yen (about $5 USD), you can walk around and see the inside of one.
These homes were built and utilized as farmhouses. Each level and room of the house serves a particular purpose. They're actually quite fascinating to see from the inside if you have the chance to check it out. Also, the views from inside are unique!
Another must is making the trek to the overlook of the town. The view is spectacular and totally worth the hike up!
With the expanse of the surrounding mountains, the fields of farmland, and the scattering of the local architecture, you really get a feel and sense of how this village remained so isolated for so many years. But what a peaceful place to be! Simple, beautiful, and unique.
Even on a cooler day, with the trek up the hill, it's easy to get hot and slightly overheated. Luckily, there's an ice cream stand conveniently located just around the corner from the overlook itself. And let us tell you - green tea ice cream has never been so refreshing!
Below is a map highlighting the areas we stopped at on our day trip to Shirakawa-go:
The Bus Station that drops you off on the North side of town.
Shiraogi (しらおぎ) lunch spot where we had a variety of dishes - the local regions specialty miso, soba, hida beef grilled on a hot stone and pork tonkatsu. It was fast, easy, and pretty delicious for lunch!
The location of the gassho-zukuri house we went inside of called the Kanda House. It's just around the corner from where we had lunch. It won't take you too long to see, in case you are worried of spending too much time "inside a museum".
The Tenshukaku Observatory is the overlook just a short hike up the path you see below. It's free and a nice place to sit.
And lastly, the location of the food stall with the green tea ice cream in case you need a refreshing snack - どっこらしょ.
Shirakawa-go is simple but worth the trip out to see it's uniqueness. We would highly recommend giving it a visit if you have the flexibility in your trip itinerary!
Us from the overlook with views of a good portion of the town. Simply spectacular!