Japan Winter Itinerary Part 5. All You Need to Know about Winter Wonderland in the Japanese Alps
Shirakawago, Japan is a small town located in the remote Shogawa river valley in Gifu Prefecture. Until Shirakawago, together with Gokayama, was recognized as a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site in 1995, not many people paid attention to this small farm village tucked in the Japanese Alps. Since then, the historic town is no longer a hidden gem only traveled by Japanese in the know. Now, it is a popular destination that attracts 1.7 million visitors annually.
* Updated on: November 8, 2022 to include critical updates in Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival. This post was originally published in 2018.
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This post is part of Winter in Japan Series:
- Part 1. Things to Do in Kanazawa in Two Days
- Part 2. Behind the Closed Doors of Geisha House in Kanazawa
- Part 3. Where to Stay in Kanazawa: Kanazawa Hotel Review
- Part 4. Things to Do in Toyama: Toyama City Guide for the First-timers
- Part 5. Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival
- Part 6. Where to Stay in Takayama: Takayama Hotel Review
- Part 7. What to Expect from Traditional Japanese Ryokan Stay
- Part 8. What to Wear in Japan: Japan Winter Season Edition
What to Do in Shirakawago
So, what is Shirakawago famous for? What is there to do in Shirakawago?
If you ask me to describe, I would say Shirakawago is like a fairytale town, especially in winter. Imagine snow-covered farmhouses in the mountain that resembles a real-life gingerbread house. Yes, this is exactly why people visit Shirakawago. (See details below “Shirakawago Winter Light Up 2023.”)
Wait, gingerbread houses in Japan? Let me explain.
Shirakawago Gassho Village has preserved 300-year-old Japanese farmhouses called Gassho-zukuri. Gassho-zukuri means “hands in prayer” because the roof looks like the praying hands of Buddhist monks. The thatched roof of Gassho houses serves to withstand heavy snowfall in winter while keeping the house cool from the summer heat. Besides its functional and historical values, its triangular shape also gives unique aesthetic characteristics that resemble the Hansel and Gretel’s fairytale house, attracting many Japanese and international tourists.
What’s more amazing is that residents have chosen to live in Gassho. Many folk villages I’ve been to are more like a museum that becomes empty when actors in costume go home at closing hours. But Shirakawago Gassho Village is a live-in museum where locals continue with their daily lives. Of course, these houses are somewhat renovated with modern amenities such as electricity and toilets. I’m still amazed by the fact that residents are committed to maintain and live in these heritage houses.
1. Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival
Shirakawago organizes an annual Winter Light-up event for a limited time. The event usually takes place in January through February during the snow season.
I heard that the event used to be held for an extended period in the past; however, it caused many issues for this small village without the infrastructure to accommodate the huge crowds the popular event attracts. I’m not endorsing over-tourism, but if this is on your bucket list, you should pull the trigger quickly before the organizer reinforces more restrictions or potentially closes down (who knows?).
And let’s please be courteous when visiting Shirakawago. As I said, locals still live in this village. When I was there, some residents were yelling in Japanese at a rude group of tourists. They were pretty loud and went into residential houses to take photos. (There are some historic houses open to the public. More below.) Can you imagine how disturbing it would be for residents in otherwise peaceful farm village?
Important Updates for Shirakawago Winter Light Up 2023
- January 15 (Sun), January 22 (Sun), January 29 (Sun)
- February 5 (Sun), February 12 (Sun), February 19 (Sun)
Light Up Time: 5:30 pm – 7:30 pm.
If you are heading to Shirakawago for Winter Light-Up, you should plan early and thoroughly. Due to the influx of tourists, the organizer has made the following changes:
- In 2020, only guests who made reservations in advance can access the village during the Winter Light Up Festival.
- In 2019, only 1,700 people were allowed at the observation deck and 580 inside the village.
- To reserve your spot or for more details, visit the official Shirakawago Winter Light-Up website.
2. Explore the Winter Wonderland in Japan
Before the Light-Up officially kicks off at 5:30 pm, explore the snow-covered village during the day. Without a doubt, it is scenic and Instagram-worthy.
While it is a small village, it took me about two hours to make a full circle on foot. I took time to take photos and enjoy the snow. At the Shirakawago station, I picked up a map, which helped me navigate through the village completed buried in snow.
As said earlier, the thatched Gassho roof is designed to protect the house from heavy snow. Once in a while, accumulated snow from the roof will slide onto the ground when it no longer can withstand. Be aware that it makes a loud noise as if an avalanche is approaching. I was startled because I had no idea what it was at first and where it was happening.
3. Visit Historic Japanese Farmhouses in Shirakawago Gassho Village
A few Gassho houses have turned into a museum and are open to the public. If you are not staying at Shirakawago farmhouse, this is the second best opportunity to look at how residents live in the historic home.
- Hours: 9 am – 5 pm, Admission: 300 Yen (each house)
- Wada House: The Wada family was one of the wealthiest families in the village. This house is the largest Gassho farmhouse in town.
- Kanda House: Located in the center of the village, this is one of the best-preserved farmhouses.
- Nagase House: The Nagase family were doctors. This farmhouse displays medical tools as well as farming tools. I visited this house (see photos below).
4. Stay Overnight at Gassho-zukuri Minsuku
If you want to fully experience Gassho, or choose to stay in town for Winter Light Up, you will be delighted to know that a farmhouse stay is an option.
A handful of Japanese farmhouses in the village is open for homestay (“Minshuku” in Japanese). The experience would be somewhat between hostel and Japanese Ryokan stays. Guests can expect to sleep on futon beds on the tatami mat and share a bathroom with other guests. Breakfast and dinner are served with the local dish, similar to kaiseki ryori at a traditional ryokan. I imagine it to be a simple lodging but a great cultural experience.
See below Where to Stay in Shirakawago for booking details.
5. Enjoy the Fairy Tale Village from the Observation Deck
If you would like to see the illuminated view of the entire village, then plan to go up to the observation deck (Shiroyama Viewpoint). While the viewpoint is 15-min walk up the hill from the village center, the walking trail is closed during the illumination event. Instead, visitors are asked to take a shuttle bus.
Usually, you can get the shuttle bus tickets (200 yen, payable in the bus) near the Wada House. However, in winter, walking to the observatory is forbidden due to safety concerns. During the Shirakawago Winter Light-Up event, it is required to reserve your ticket and pay in advance (1,000 yen per ticket) via Shirakawago Tour Association’s website. Some tour packages include a ticket for the shuttle bus, so check with your tour company if you choose to travel with a tour group.
*2023 Updates: On the Winter Light-up Festival days, only event participants can get the observatory tickets. Other day-time tourists can only access the village.
Practical Tips: How to Prepare for the Winter Light-Up
Store your luggage in the coin locker inside the Shirakawago bus terminal. Don’t even think about dragging that luggage into the village because it will be challenging to do so. Space is limited; however, it shouldn’t be too bad as most tourists keep their bags in their tour bus.
Pick up a map at the terminal. Shirakawago Gassho village is small enough to explore on foot. But it is easier to navigate if you have a map in hand. Don’t rely on Google map as wi-fi reception is weak.
Check the boarding time before leaving the terminal. Japanese are punctual. Whether you are back or not, the bus will leave on time. If you miss your bus, you will most likely be stranded without lodging and alternative transportation as they are completely booked during the illumination festival. Make sure you give yourself enough time to walk back to the station then get your luggage from the locker.
Public restrooms are available in town. Don’t be pressured to use the restroom at the terminal. There are public restrooms available throughout the village although the line can be long.
Prepare yourself with appropriate winter gear. Temperature drops below the freezing point even during the day. Appropriate clothing and protections are highly recommended, especially for those planning to stay overnight to fully participate in the Winter Light Up. See how I packed, prepared and survived the record-breaking cold winter in Japan >>
Bring a plastic bag with you. All guests are asked to bring home any garbage they created. No one checks on you whether you follow through or not. But as responsible travelers, it is least we can do to help relieve the beautiful small town suffering from over-tourism.
↡↡Book Your Shirakawago Tour Here↡↡
How to Get to Shirakawago
1. Public Transport: JR Train + Bus
If not during the Winter Light Up Festival, the best way to get to Shirakawago is to take JR train to the nearby cities (fully covered by the Japan Rail Pass “JR Pass”), then take a bus to Shirakawago:
- Tokyo to Shirakawago: Take JR Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kanazawa, then take a Nohi bus to Shirakawago.
- Nagoya to Shirakawago: Take JR Hida limited express train to Takayama, then take a Nohi bus to Shirakawago.
- Osaka (or Kyoto) to Shirakawago: Take JR Thunderbird limited express train to Kanazawa, then take a Nohi bus to Shirakawago.
- Kanazawa to Shirakawago: Take a Nohi bus from Kanazawa to Shirakawago.
- Takayama to Shirakawago: Take a Nohi bus from Takayama to Shirakawago.
- Toyama to Shirakawago: Take JR Hokuriku Shinkansen from Toyama to either Kanazawa or Shin-Takaoka, then take a Nohi bus to Shirakawago.
Purchase your JR Pass here. Here is the link to check Shinkansen timetable. (I recommend this site because it supports in English and easy to use.) You can also check schedule and make a Nohi bus reservation here.
If you’re flying in and out of (or traveling to and from) other cities outside of the Hokuriku region, most likely it would be more cost-effective to purchase a JR Pass.
However, if your itinerary mainly covers the Hokuriku region, there are a few other great discount passes for international travelers:
- Both JR West Hokuriku Pass (4 Days) and JR Hokuriku Arch Pass (7 days; covers wider areas between Tokyo-Osaka-Hokuriku) provide unlimited access to all the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Express Trains, Rapid Services, and local trains!
- For international travelers who want to experience the best winter in Japan, take advantage of this JR Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Pass (5 Days). Besides the scenic Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, you can go skiing at Nagoya.
- Get Shoryudo Highway Bus Pass (3 or 5 days) to travel around the Takayama, Shirakawago and Nagoya.
2. Join a Private or Group Tour
It is not easy to get to Shiragawago because there is no direct connection to this village from major cities like Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka. If you prefer less hassle, you can join a private or group tour from Nagoya, Kanazawa or Takayama. Click the below links to reserve your tour.
From Nagoya/Kyoto/Osaka to Shirakawago:
- Shirakawago & Takayama Walking Tour: Take this private tour to fully immerse yourself in the World Heritage villages, Shirakawago and Takayama. Departs from Nagoya, Osaka or Kyoto.
From Nagoya to Shirakawago:
- Shirakawago and Takayama Day Trip: A same-day roundtrip from Nagoya to Shirakwago and Takayama.
From Osaka to Shirakawago:
- Shirakawago, Takayama & Kanazawa Tour: A 2-day trip from Osaka to see highlights of three historic cities in Gifu Prefecture.
From Kanazawa to Shirakawago:
- Shirakawago, Gokayama & Takayama Private Tour: A full-day tour from Kanazawa to visit all three popular towns in the Japan Alps. A private car picks up guests from Kanazawa hotels.
- Weekend Bus Tour: Hop on a bus from Kanazawa Station to stop by at Ogi-machi Castle Ruin Observation Area to enjoy the incredible view of the UNESCO Heritage village.
From Takayama to Shirakawago:
- No tours at this moment
3. Travel for Shirakawago Winter Light Up
If you like to travel on your own term, like me, you will be disappointed to learn that it is NOT possible to participate in the light-up event without joining a tour group or staying overnight at Shirakawago Minshuku (or guest houses). That’s because the last bus on a regular schedule departs Shirakawago before the illumination starts.
Don’t be disappointed yet, though. During the Shirakawago Winter Light Up event, the special Shirakawago tour packages and special bus tours are available.
Option 1: Shirakawago Tour Packages for the Winter Light-Up
You can join a tour group from Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka or Takayama to Shirakawago. It is the easiest way as it saves you from all the headache that comes with planning and communicating with different local parties. Click the below links for more information.
NOTE: It appears that these routes have stopped due to the pandemic.
- Tokyo to Shirakawago
- Nagoya to Shirakawago
- Osaka to Shirakawago
- Takayama to Shirakawago
Option 2: Shirakawago Illumination Bus Tour
Some bus companies organize special bus tour plan only for the Shirakawago Winter Light Up event dates. These tour programs mainly offer round-trip transportation in time for you to enjoy the illumination display and come back to your hotel outside of Shirakawago. Click the below links for more information:
- Takayama to Shirakawago: Nohi Bus tour offers various programs to Shirakawago to serve the route that normally would not be available. This is the only bus tour program with an option for a traditional dinner plan.
- Toyama to Shirakawago: Toyama Chihou Railways offers two round-trip bus plans – with or without shuttle bus tickets to the Shiroyama Viewpoint (a.k.a. observation deck).
- Takaoka to Shirakawago: Kaetsunou offers three bus routes from Takaoka Station.
Option 3: Hire a Taxi
Travelers staying in nearby cities might want to travel by taxi. Make sure to reserve a taxi through your hotel in advance. We stayed at Takayama on Shirakawago Light-Up event day. There was no available taxi in the entire town as they were completely booked for guests visiting Shirakawago. Also, note that Japanese taxi fare is among the highest I’ve seen in the world. It would be wise to get estimates when you book. Reserving a parking pass is required for everyone traveling in a taxi.
It appears that Nouhi Bus has no longer offered Shirakawago Illumination Display Taxi plans since the 2020 festival.
Option 4: Drive on Your Own
If you are not local, I would not recommend driving your rental car in winter for safety. Not to mention the Japanese vehicles drive on the left side of the road, which is the opposite side to most of the countries, the road conditions require some serious winter driving skills.
However, if you are determined, you could drive as a last resort. Because the village is tucked in the heavy snow regions in the Japanese Alps, you will need to have snow tires and other gears necessary for the slippery road. Also, keep in mind that the mountain roads to Shirakawago are narrow and often congested during the event.
Parking space is limited, and reservation is a must. Without the light-up festival tickets, daytrippers can park until 3 pm and must leave after that. Parking is 1,000 yen per vehicle.
Where to Stay in Shirakawago
I’m not surprised there is no hotel in Shirakawago. After all, it is a UNESCO heritage site with 300-year-old houses. Regardless, you can find a few accommodation options in Shirakawago and nearby cities like Takayama. If you are curious about how it’s like to live in Shirakawago Gassho houses, you CAN fully experience it by staying at one of them! Or, there are a limited number of guest houses in Shirakawago. These options sell out very quickly for Shirakawago Light Up festival days, so book in advance. Nearby city Takayama has more ryokan or hotel options.
How to book Shirakawago Minshuku
Keep in mind of the limited availability. For the Winter Light-up, booking opens from August on a lottery-based reservation system due to the high demand. Overnight visitors get the first dip at parking passes and shuttle bus tickets to the observation deck. The reservation can be made through the Shirakawa-go Tourist Association, Japanese Guest Houses, or Shirakawago Tourist Association.
Shirakawago Winter Light Up Festival 2023 Update: The application period for Gassho Minshuku starts from noon on September 10, 2022. Reservation is on a first-come, first-served basis (as opposed to a lottery system). Room rates include an observatory ticket.
Japanese Ryokan or Hotels near Shirakawago
Make sure you reserve your festival spot first. Then, you can plan transportation and accommodation accordingly. If you have a difficulty handling transportation on your own, it’s a good idea to book accommodation then reach out to your host to help reserve transportation.
↡↡Where to Stay in Shirakawago? Book Your Shirakawago Guest House or Takayama Hotel Here! ↡↡
Alternative to Shirakawago Winter Light Up
1. Shirakawago Day Tour without Reservation
It is possible that you will not be able to reserve your spot for Shirakawago Winter Light Up. Good news is that you can still visit Shirakawago and enjoy the scenery on your own. If you are debating whether it’s worth to visit or not, the answer is yes in my opinion.
Although the reservation system was not reinforced yet in 2018, I was not able to participate in the official Light-Up event. I was still able to access the village and freely roam around on one of the Winter Light Up days. However, due to the reservation system starting in 2019, you will have lots of limitations without reserving your spot. Therefore, I recommend visiting Shirakawago on other days during the snow season!
2. Gokayama Gassho Village
Gokayama is another UNESCO Cultural Heritage Gassho village near Shirakawago. As the entire region typically enjoys heavy snowfalls in winter, the scenery here is similar to Shirakawago. The town is even smaller and less-traveled than Shirakawago. If you like to avoid the crowds, you might like the more intimate environment in Gokayama. On the other hand, Gokayama is a bit more challenging to get to via public transportation as you will need to transfer in Shirakawago. Check the World Heritage Bus schedule by Kaetsunou Bus here.
3. Illumination of Hida Folk Village
Hida/Takayama is a town close to Shirakawago, which takes about one hour by bus. As Shirakawago doesn’t have enough accommodation for every visitor, many travelers choose to stay in Takayama. I ended up at Takayama hotel as well.
If you somehow miss out on Shirakawago Winter Light Up, you will be glad to learn that Hida Folk Village (Hida no Santo) is illuminated every day from 5:30 pm to 9 pm in mid-January through mid-February. For more information, visit Hida Folk Village official website.
Hida Folk Village is located in Takayama city, 10 min by bus from Takayama Bus Center next to JR Takayama Station. Just like Shirakawago, the village features gassho farmhouses. I’d imagine the scenery would be similar. If you opt to visit Hida Folk Village on Shirakawago illumination event dates, make sure to book bus or taxi in advance. I had to miss this event as well because all the taxis in town were reserved for the Shirakawago event and our timing, unfortunately, didn’t work out with the bus schedule.
4. Kanazawa Castle Park Light-Up event
Kanazawa Castle Park Light-Up is not a Gassho-zukuri farmhouse illumination event, meaning the scenery will be much different. However, if you can’t secure the spot for the Shirakawago event and are staying in Kanazawa, visiting Gyokusen ‘inmaru Garden or Kenrokuen Garden would be a great alternative. For more details, read my Kanazawa Japan Guide.
Shirakawago is a gorgeous small town woth visiting in any seaon in my opinion. But if you can participate in the Winter Lightup Festival, take the opportunity!
It took so much effort to organize my trip to Shirakawago. I hope this complete guide to Shirakawago in Winter save you time and effort to plan your trip. If any of the information is outdated, please let me know so I can update.
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>> How to Rent a Kimono in Asakusa: Wear a beautiful traditional Japanese dress and take photos of a lifetime for the ‘gram!
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