Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are two scenic and secluded mountain village areas famous for their traditional architecture and are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Though the villages are actually quite close to each other, and are connected by the Shokawa River, they are within the bounds of different prefectures: Gokayama is located in Toyama Prefecture and Shirakawa-go is located in Gifu Prefecture. Both of these villages can be reached from Kanazawa by bus or car.
Both Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are famous for their traditional farmhouses with steep triangular framed gassho-zukuri roofs. “Gassho” means the act of prayer, and the roofs get their name because they resemble two hands in prayer. The thatched roofs are built so steep (between 45 and 60 degrees) so that snow won’t pile up on them in winter. The houses were built without any nails and are between 100 and 400 years old.
Some of the houses are still lived in as homes, whereas others are occupied by guesthouses or souvenir shops. There are also some gassho-zukuri houses that are open to the public as museums. Today this style of house is very rare in Japan but they have been preserved here because of the villages’ remote valley locations surrounded by steep mountains and forests. The best time to visit these areas is in winter when they are covered in snow and in early spring during the cherry blossom season.
Gokayama consists of two villages: Suganuma and Ainokura. There are 9 gassho-zukuri houses in Suganuma and 23 in Ainokura. In Suganuma the Gokayama Minzokukan is a folk museum with displays of the traditional farming lifestyle and local folk crafts. Just outside the folk museum is Ensho-no-Yakata which has an exhibition on the local gunpowder industry. A combined ticket for both museums is just 300 yen. Ainokura also has a folklore museum called Ainokura Minzokukan. This consists of two buildings, one dedicated to folklore materials and old farming tools and the other displaying traditional washi paper production materials. Entry to the museum is 200 yen. Minshuku style guesthouses in Gokayama include Gassho Minshuku Nakaya and Minshuku Goyomon in Ainokura. The gassho style restaurant Gorobei in Suganuma is recommended for its local rustic meals.
Ogimachi is the largest village in Shirakawa-go and the main area of interest as there are 59 gassho-zukuri houses here. At Ogimachi you can also find the open air museum Gassho-zukuri Minka-en which has 26 farmhouses, a watermill, shrines, a temple, and horse paddock. The buildings in this museum were all relocated here from other areas in order to preserve them. Entry is 600 yen. Other attractions include the thatched roof temple of Myozenji, the Doburoku Festival Museum where you can sample local sake, and the Shiroyama observation point which is the site of a castle ruin and the best place from which to view the whole village. Popular minshuku guesthouses here include Koemon, Furusato, and Gassho no Yado Magoemon.
How to Get There
Gokayama and Shirakawa-go can be reached by bus or by car. It is also possible to travel by rail to Takayama and then take a bus or car from there. However, renting a car is probably the easiest way to explore this area.
The Hokutetsu Bus company runs regular highway bus services between Kanazawa Station and Shirakawa-go. There are also services to Sugunuma in Gokayama from March to November. The bus to Gokayama takes just 1 hour. Buses to Shirakawa-go take between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 1 hour and 25 minutes depending on the service. A one-way ticket to Gokayama is 1,540 yen for adults and 770 yen for children. A one-way ticket to Shirakawa-go is 1,850 yen for adults and 930 yen for children. Buses depart from bus stop #2 at Kanazawa Station’s East Gate bus terminal. You can book tickets directly at the Kanazawa Station Transport Information Center.
Gokayama can be reached by car via the Hokuriku Expressway and Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway. The journey should take around 56 minutes and cost 1,500 yen in toll fees. Driving from Gokayama to Shirakawa-go via the Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway takes just 26 minutes and costs 570 yen in toll fees. For more information on local driving check our article on Car Rental in Kanazawa.
Article and original photos by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.