This Valentines Day I opted to do as the couples do and went on a weekend getaway to one of the most picturesque winter places in all of Japan, Shirakawa-Go. My friend and I were not going to miss out on seeing the Romantic sights in Japan just because we were single!
I’ve previously written about how I felt Nara was the Paris of Japan and I still feel that way. However, there is something undeniably romantic about seeing the quaint village town of Shirakawa-Go covered in snow.
Shirakawa-Go is a Unesco World Heritage Site located in Gifu prefecture a short train or bus ride from Kanazawa, Takayama, and Kyoto.
It’s famous for the gassho-zukuri farmhouses. They are old traditional wooden Japanese homes with grass-thatched roofs. The town is located in a mountain valley near a river.
As you can imagine and see from my pictures this village looks like you have stepped into a storybook or into a snow globe. It is that fantastic. On Saturday and Sundays in January and February they also offer a winter light up that made the whole town glow with warmth.
Laura and I wanted to get the most out of our one day in Shirakawa-Go so we arrived right before lunch. It took us longer to park than we expected and we were starving by the time the shuttle bus dropped us off in the village town center.
We headed straight for the closest beef restaurant. The beef in the Takayama/Shirakawa-Go area is quite expensive and famous. It’s called Hida beef. I have had it before on a trip to Takayama and I went ahead and splurged again because it really is that good. I highly recommend miso Hida beef if you ever see it on the menu!
After eating, we walked around and went into the Wada House, which is a kind of museum of the history and culture of the town. The Museum is actually inside one of the farmhouses and allows you to go up to the roof to see how the famous grass-thatched roofs are made and supported.
We walked around the town looking at all the houses and taking pictures. Then walked up the hill to see the town from the observatory point. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the edge of town. Unfortunately, there were already hundreds of tripods set up by professional photographers because they wanted to stake their claim on the best spots once the light up started. It was near impossible to get a picture of the town that avoided getting a tripod in it.
If you book in advance it is possible to get an overnight stay at the farmhouses. During the winter light up the owners of the homes usually only allow family to stay the night but they may have a few spaces for guests (you must try at least 6 months in advance!) It costs about $100 per person a night but I think the experience would be worth it.
There were a few bad things about our trip to Shirakawa-Go. Apparently it was the last day of the year for the winter light up and while we did expect to see tons of Japanese couples, we didn’t expect the hundreds of Chinese families. The weekend happened to fall directly before the Chinese New Year holidays. There were so many Chinese tourists!
I don’t mind crowds too much, but it being crowded ended up being the main cause of how cold the day became.
Shirakawa-Go is not very large and I think they only receive a handful of visitors during days that do not include the winter light up. When the town started filling up with people in the afternoon, there weren’t enough indoor places for people to take a break from the cold. Many of the small cafes and restaurants closed for multiple hour long breaks without any posted schedule as a way to not have to deal with the crazy crowds of people. This made the few open restaurants and cafes’ indoor spaces extremely crowded with people trying to find a place to stay warm until the light up.
Since Laura and I had been walking around outside since mid-morning we were FREEZING. We desperately looked for a place to buy a cup of coffee and defrost our fingers and toes without much success.
If you are worried about the crowds you could visit the smaller and less famous grass-thatched house mountain town of Gokayama in Toyama prefecture. They also do a winter light up. However, there is less development and help for non-Japanese speaking tourists because it is less famous.
All in all, it was a fantastic day and highly recommended if you are interested in a place in Japan very different from the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto. You really only need a day in Shirakawa-Go since it is so small. I think it could be a nice day trip during a stay in Kanazawa or Takayama.
My friend Jessie previously wrote about her experience visiting Shirakawa-Go under different circumstances than mine. She wrote about her overnight stay in winter here (not during the light up) and her day trip with her brother in the summer here. If you want more information on this lovely town please read her posts!