Visiting Shirakawa-go and staying in a 120-year old thatched roof farmhouse was easily the highlight of this visit to Japan. We stayed in Ogimachi, the largest village in Shirakawa-go, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. I’d never seen so much beauty in one place before, everywhere I looked I felt like I was inside a Japanese painting.
For my part, I can’t imagine why anyone visiting Shirakawa-go wouldn’t want to stay overnight in one of the farmhouses. Granted, the rooms are basic; with tatami mat floors, paper walls and not much else (our paper door even had a hole in it). Baths and toilets are shared, and the wall dividing our room and the next didn’t go up to the ceiling, so we could always hear the family next door.
But it was a chance to experience life, if only for a night, inside a traditional Japanese family home. Dinner and breakfast are served around an open fireplace inside the common dining room, and it was nice chatting with our host in my broken Japanese (she spoke little English, so I did as much translating as I could for my wife).
We were going to miss the Shirakawa-go Winter Light-up Festival, which was happening on the day we were leaving. It’s hard to book a stay on the festival nights, apparently once the dates are announced the farmhouses are all booked within moments.
But while talking with our host, she confessed that she didn’t enjoy the festival very much; there’s a flood of visitors and the roads get congested. After hearing her thoughts on the festival I was glad to miss it; I’m sure Ogimachi is beautiful lit-up at night, but my wife and I aren’t much for crowds.
I was surprised (naively so) at how many tourists flood this little town in the daytime. But the last buses leave around 5 p.m., and then the town quietens down. It also means there isn’t much left to do, as the few shops around close, but my wife and I enjoyed taking a quiet walk around without the crowds.
Staying overnight also means you get to experience it in the mornings before everyone comes. I woke up at 6 a.m. and decided to take an early walk outside. I’m so glad I did; it was snowing and Ogimachi looked breathtaking, blanketed in white. Best of all, the roads were empty, except for a few other photographers out. It was a delight; you would never be able to see the town like this even if you come in on the first bus.
The practice is that you can only stay a night in one of the farmhouses. If I were to do it again, I’d stay a night in Ogimachi, and then head to Gokayama for the next night. Gokayama is an even smaller village than Ogimachi, but also quieter with less tourists. Would that have made it boring? Perhaps. But I was starting to learn something about my relationship to boredom in Takayama and Ogimachi, a realisation which would fully crystalize on the next leg of our journey to Kanazawa.
Note: I benefitted from reading fellow travellers’ experiences as I was planning this visit, and these posts are my way of paying it forward. However, I’ve realised that reading about what to do in a foreign land isn’t complete without knowing the people writing about it.
My wife and I don’t enjoy hurried visits, we’re travellers who prefer to take our time getting to know a place. We’re not big on shopping, and prefer cultural to party places. We love standing in nature, and would give up a day in the mall for a day in the mountains. If you’re planning for your own visit while reading my recommendations, I hope you’ll keep these caveats in mind.