Places We Love: UNESCO Villages of Shirakawago & Gokayama

Japan has no shortage of charming mountain villages, and one of the best places to experience traditional rural Japan is deep in the Japanese Alps.

If you are traveling to the historic city of Kanazawa or the traditional town of Takayama, consider venturing deeper into the Alps with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage historic villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama.

UNESCO World Heritage village of Ogimachi, in Shirakawago, Japan

Shirakawago (photo by our wonderful traveler, Mr. Bob Bloom)

If you have done a fair amount of research into planning your trip to Japan, chances are you’ve come across photos like the one above.

Historically, the villages were incredibly difficult to access, and were thus cut off from most of the rest of Japan until relatively recent times.

Today these remote villages are among the most photographed places in Japan, thanks to their steeply-sloped thatched roofs (known as gassho-zukuri, or “praying hands”) — capable of withstanding the heavy snowfall that the region receives each winter — and beautiful mountainous surroundings.

UNESCO World Heritage village of Shirakawago, Japan

Shirakawago, Japan (photo by tsuda CC BY)

Shirakawago and Gokayama

Located in Gifu Prefecture (Gifu-ken), Shirakawago is home to Ogimachi, the most visited of the region’s UNESCO villages.

While popular with tourists (it’s conveniently located between the coastal city of Kanazawa and the mountain town of Takayama), Ogimachi is nevertheless lovely and picturesque.

Just about 20 miles (approximately 32 km) away in neighboring Toyama Prefecture (Toyama-ken), Gokayama’s villages of Ainokura and Suganuma have a slightly more off-the-beaten-path feel.

That being said, Gokayama’s villages are nonetheless also quite popular, and you can expect to see plenty of other travelers admiring the lovely scenery.

UNESCO World Heritage village of Ainokura, in Gokayama, Japan

Traditional gassho-zukuri houses in Gokayama

Despite their popularity, the villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama are worth visiting – but if you want to feel like you have the place to yourself, the best way is to spend the night.

Staying Overnight in a Minshuku

Tatami mats at a ryokan in Japan

Many of the villages’ old houses have been converted into simple minshuku, offering a truly quiet and remote Japanese experience.

A minshuku is a traditional Japanese guest house, and staying in one has many similarities to staying in a ryokan, though minshuku are generally more rustic (read: basic).

Expect simple tatami rooms, a shared bath and toilet, and humble (but delicious) meals featuring local and seasonal ingredients.

Most minshuku are are run by lovely local couples who enjoy introducing their culture and cuisine to intrepid visitors from around the world.

Traditional lunch in UNESCO World Heritage village of Ainokura, Gokayama, Japan

A traditional lunch in rural Gokayama

Traveling to Shirakawago and Gokayama

Shirakawago and Gokayama are year-round destinations. While the winters are cold and harsh, there is nothing cozier than sitting around the irori (hearth), drinking tea, taking a hot bath, and enjoying winter comfort food.

Read more about winter and the other seasons in Japan

Winter in the village of Ogimachi, in the UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawago, Japan

Cozy winter in Shirakawago

Getting There

While traveling by bus is a perfectly viable way to visit Shirakawago and Gokayama (there is no train access), for more flexibility it’s worth hiring a private driver and vehicle – or renting a car.

Shirakawago’s Ogimachi village is by far the easiest of the villages to visit, thanks to its location directly en route from Kanazawa to Takayama.

Most people travel by bus from Kanazawa to Takayama (and vice-versa), and the bus conveniently stops off in Ogimachi. When purchasing tickets you can arrange to spend an hour or more here, giving you a brief chance to explore the village.

For a more substantive experience, plan to spend at least a couple of hours, enough time to explore at leisure and enjoy a local lunch at one of the quaint little restaurants.

As for Gokayama’s villages of Ainokura and Suganuma, the most common way to reach them is by bus from Takaoka to Shirakawago (and vice-versa).

UNESCO World Heritage village of Shirakawago, Japan

Shirakawago, Japan (photo by JapanDave CC BY)

We hope you have a chance to visit Shirakawago or Gokayama during your trip!

For even more Japan travel inspiration, check out our post on Japan’s best destinations!

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One of the best places to experience rural Japan is deep in the Japan Alps with a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama.
About Andres Zuleta

Andres is the founder of Boutique Japan.

Unlike a lot of travel companies, we don't work from a cubicle!

In 2005, I first moved from New York City to Tokyo to study Japanese, and living in Tokyo changed my life, leading me to want to dedicate my life to helping others really experience Japan, the way I have been able to do so!