Hidden Japan: Getting off the beaten track in Shirakawa-go and Takayama
Updated: Apr 23, 2020
Picture a traditional Japan, where the streets are peaceful with the quiet buzz of locals going about their day, and the streets lined with large wooden homes that are hundreds of years old. Where you are the only foreigner in town and finding someone who speaks English is a refreshing challenge. Where you truly feel immersed in Japanese history and tradition. If you consider yourself more of a traveler than a tourist, this pictured experience of Japan is what you have been seeking.
I searched long and hard when planning my second trip to Japan, to find out how to could discover the true history and traditions of the Japanese culture. I had planned to be in the snow for 2 weeks to feed my snowboarding itch, then I had another week to explore Japan. This is when I discovered Shirkawago, I instantly had to go, so then began the process to figure out how to get there.
When we were in the snow for two weeks we met many locals who asked about where we were traveling to, and every single time I mentioned Shirkawago and Takayama, no one knew about these places. These were born and breed Japanese locals, so at first I thought I was miss pronouncing the names. After the 5th time, the person were were taking to was very insistent that these were not places! I became worried and confused so I got my papers out and showed him, he had never heard of it or anyone going there.
Takayama and Shirakawago are located deep into the mountains of Japan, west of Tokyo. Not only will you find some of the best scenery around but also the rare locally preserved ancient culture.
To get to Takayama, take the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, from there transfer onto the express train to Takayama. The train into Takayama is an experience in itself, the views are absolutely stunning and you wind through towns, rivers and mountains. There is also some great food options of the train to keep you entertained on your trip. Takayama is a town with a quiet charm. It was originally built as a Samurai town in the 16th century, so the history in this area is rich. The old district of town contains the original old streets and buildings that are remarkably untouched by the passage of time. The district called San-machi Suji, of Takayama merchants and sake brewers, has been preserved in almost exactly the same state as it was 200 or 300 years ago.
You can enter a number of these merchant homes and see how centuries of families lived in these huge homes. While most of the workers in these homes won't speak English they will have English brochures which they will provide to you which explain it's history and who had lived there. As with all Japanese homes you will need to remove your shoes before entering. As I was there in winter, I spent most of my days with frozen feet, so don't forget thick woolly socks!!
There are a number of waking tracks that you can do which wind you through the town and up into the famous samurai burials on the hill side. The main streets are dotted with great eateries and shops filled with local crafts and goods. You will see that there are a number of tourists in the town however they are all Japanese tourist, generally of an older demographic.
Shirakawa-go is reachable by bus from Takayama. It is located along the Shogawa River Valley in the remote mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. This district's towns were first built in the 11th century and due to its remoteness remained cut off and therefore unchanged from everywhere else for centuries. For reasons like these in 1995 it became a UNESCO world heritage site. They are famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer", as the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The architectural style developed over many generations where the whole town comes together to help re-thatch the large roofs, all by hand and with no nails. These roofs are designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter.
A number of houses have been turned into museums so you can go inside and see the beautiful craftsmanship and local artifacts close up. The sheer size is incredible.
This area is known for the farming of mulberry trees, sake and silkworms with a selection of locals shops to browse through.
There is a walk around the back of the town that takes you up to the beautiful look out over the town. I highly recommend walking up to it. It's a stunning view.
You can also sleep in one of the traditional farm houses, which I have heard is an amazing experience, however you can only stay one night maximum. Since I had all of my snowboarding gear with me we decided to opt for just visiting for the day. There are regular buses running all day to return to Takayama when you please. We were here in winter which was just magical, my experience was it was very authentic, peaceful and quiet. I have read that there are larger numbers of tourists in summer and especially on summer weekends, so try go mid week or in the cooler months. Again though, these are all Japanese tourists of an older demographic, which would make sense that would prefer the warmer months. You are unlikely to see many or any other westerners there and you will feel like you have been transported back into a lost town.
I have since been back to Japan another two times and this is by far my most treasured memory. It's so rich in culture and history. A beautiful contrast to the cities and must do. Pull out your bucket list and add this to it, I whole heartedly promise you that you will not be disappointed.