Experience Old Japan by Staying the Night in Gokayama - Japanspecialist

Experience Old Japan by Staying the Night in Gokayama

07 Mar 2023

Is there a real Japan? Not quite, but there are many facets to this country that you can discover during your stay. Far away from the buzzing Tokyo, you can find the stillness of Shirakawa-Go.

In Japan, the UNESCO World Heritage sites list grows by the year. With currently 25 sites registered, there are tremendous other Japanese places that deserve this recognition and Japan aims to include and protect even more locations in the upcoming years.

Among these already-awarded places, Shirakawa-Go is at the top of the list of many tourists coming to Japan and we understand why! Eerie, full of traditional lodgings, preserving old customs, and following the rhythm of the seasons… A dreamy travel destination as it is! Although, a lot of tourists choose to stay only a few hours in the village, making it a one-day trip from Kanazawa and that’s a shame – because a few kilometres from there, you can actually stay in one of these UNESCO-protected centuries-old lodgings.

Traditional Gassho-Zukuri Houses Are a Jewel of Craftsmanship

In 1995, the gassho-style villages were registered to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the distinction of “The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama – Traditional Houses in the Gassho Style”. This style was developed in response to the particularly snowy and cold weather of this valley, the triangular shape of the nail-free thatched-roof buildings would allow an optimum dispersion of the heat inside, but also would not collapse under the weight of the meters of snow that can fall during the winter. Bonus: when the snow piles up and bury the entrance, you can exit by “side doors” on the upper levels of the house. Is winter the only time you should be visiting? Definitely not. Gassho-Zukuri houses of Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go never go out of style – they’re so photogenic it’s almost disturbing. Our favourite seasons to visit would be spring – for the flower-filled landscape – and winter – for the meters-high snow walls!

Old traditonal thatched roof style farmhouse at Suganuma Gassho-zukiri village, Japan

One Village? A Few Villages!

Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go is a network of 8 sightseeing locations scattered among the Shō River, 3 of them – Ainokura, Ogimachi, and Suganuma villages – being registered as World Heritage Sites, and two others as Important Cultural Property. Needless to say, this area is a must for anyone willing to deepen their knowledge of traditional and cultural Japan.

Ogimachi is part of the Shirakawa-Go village and is the most popular among tourists for its delicate and preserved atmosphere but also because its accessibility is way easier compared to the other locations thanks to a direct bus from Kanazawa city. However, we would recommend you rent a car or take a bus up to Ainokura. Secluded, with fewer tourists, and the cherry on top: you can actually sleep in a gassho-style house! You could consider Shirakawa-Go as a life-size museum with display houses – even though they are real houses, still maintained thanks to old-centuries methods – that you can visit, to learn more about the daily life inside these houses. Gassho's way of life is so well documented that you can fully understand what living in Shirakawa-Go entails by visiting the place.

A few kilometers away, Ainokura is a place for you to experience this style of life! A lot of warnings come with a stay in a gassho-zukkuri accommodation but it’s worth the hassle: no smoking near the houses, no plant picking, take your trash home… Mostly common sense. Although kindly note that these are strict rules, set to protect the fragile yet centuries-old heritage that is Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama.

Staying the Night Will Highly Enhance Your Experience

Like most places that are popular among tourists, it can get crowdy. It’s almost antinomic to try embracing the calm and the stillness of a secluded place when it’s packed with fellow tourists. Like many other places – in Japan and the world – staying the night will allow you to stroll when the last bus has gone, and before the first one arrives… If you’re courageous enough, our most favourites outing recommendation would be a stroll after dark during winter, when the snow is covering the landscape. Simply Magical.

Staying in a gassho-zukkuri house is also a way to travel in the past, and dive into the Japanese culture: the dark wood creaking, sharing a room with your whole family, the deep smell of firewood used to protect the thatched roof, eating your Japanese meal on your knees around the family fireplace… Gassho-zukkuri accommodations are often family businesses and houses: you will share their daily life for a few hours. If a ryokan stay is an experience of the business omotenashi – Japanese sense of hospitality – gassho-zukkuri stays are much closer to a Bed and Breakfast.

The snowy historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, Japan, Winter

More Experiences in Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama

Of course, you won’t come to Gokayama and Shirakawa-Go only for a stay! Here are some complimentary reasons to make the trip.

The region is preserving and putting the spotlight on many traditions and natural treasures, that are available for tourists to experience in many ways. Camping is highly recommended as the valley is flourishing with lush nature and amazing locations. The food comes in second with local tofu – that you can make – and soba, buckwheat noodles. The river fish and local vegetables are also delicious, and you can find many restaurants that will serve traditional meals in the area.

In Gokayama, you can experience Japanese papermaking and in Shirakawa-Go you can have a look at the silk farming industry that was huge in pre-modern Japan. When it comes to souvenirs, you will have plenty of choices: from gourmet packages to sasara traditional wood instruments, rice, Japanese paper… There is a little something for anyone you know – or yourself! Souvenir shops won’t be hard to find as they are close to every village or sightseeing entrance.

We love Shirakawa-Go and Ainokura so much that we included them in our Japanese Alps tour, don’t hesitate to have a look and ask our consultants to create your perfect tailor-made Japanese tour!

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