Autumn Breaks at the UNESCO World Heritage Village of Shirakawa-go

With a couple of mornings already under my belt, my Japan experience continues to defy my expectations. Expecting to be greeted by towering skyscrapers that dots the skylines of Tokyo and other cities in this country of the rising sun, our trip so far, impresses me with endless postcard-like countryside scenery. Directing my gaze outside our bus window, I see the gleaming landscape in the process of changing hues  as the lush forests from the distance starts to adapt to the incoming autumn season. As a newbie traveler in Japan, I am also experiencing for the first time the forthcoming fall season.

I enjoy the stunning backdrop so much I would not mind sitting for a few hours on a lengthier bus trip. However, as I listen intently to our tour guide Tomoko-San, our next destination sounded like a humdinger of a visual feast. While she is explaining the cultural and architectural significance of Shirakawa-go Village in the Ōno District, Gifu Prefecture, I smile at the series of good karma that gifted me with an opportunity to visit this country for the first time.

A couple of months prior, I was chosen along with eight other travel writers, by Cebu Pacific Air to partake in their familiarity tour of Nagoya City and its surrounding Prefecture. Every moment that pass by seem like a gift from the travel Gods for me to discover the fascinating culture prevailing in this part of the globe.

Mr. Kando poses in front of his house
There is no better way than visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, a small traditional village known for its centuries-old wooden houses designed in a unique architectural style known as gasshō-zukuri. These houses are characterized by roofs resembling a figure of how a Buddhist monk would merge his two hands in prayer, sloped downward to withstand the heavy downpour of snow come winter season.

As the centerpiece of each Gassho-zukuri houses, the thatched roofing is built in an intricate and laborious manner. The concept of “YUI” -- a labor exchange system almost similar to our local ‘bayanihan’ tradition, participated by volunteer neighbors, is practiced during the construction of the roofs. The meticulous process starts when the workers drew straws from crops. It is then used to thatch the roof during autumn and spring time. After it dries up it can be then used as snow shield surrounding the Gassho-style houses. It is interesting to note that these roofs are constructed without the use of a single nail. Everything were hand sewn together and because of its triangular shape it creates a spacious attic where residents cultivate silkworms.

Since the materials of the more than 100 Glasso-zukuri houses in the village are highly susceptible to fire, neighbors take turns going around to remind residents to make sure their stoves and other fire-based household items are under control.  

As our bus rolled into a complete stop and Tomoko-San told us to alight, a bevy of cool wind emanating from the clear afternoon sky embraces my whole body and further introducing the autumn season to me. A few steps later I found myself standing at the edge of Shiroyama Viewpoint, where down below spread a spectacular sight of the entire settlement. Surrounded by rolling hills and lush greenery, the town appear like a setting from a fantasy tale. Highlighted by the slanting thatched roof, the houses forms a series of rows along intertwining patterns of lawn walkways and paved streets.

As surreal as the scene from the viewpoint, the best way to experience Shirakawa-go is to stroll into the village itself which we did afterward. The feeling of striding over the streets where these houses stood and are still inhabited by the descendants of its original residents, brings forth a perception of shifting to a different era.

I would compare the experience to my trip to the small village of Chavayan in the island of Batanes where old stone houses still lord over with the residents, who refuses to surrender to the pull of modernity. There is an undeniable charming vibe that exists all over Shirakawa-Go. All of a sudden the idea of bringing my girlfriend and staying here became an attractive notion (update: no more girlfriend *sad*). Reading my mind, I overheard my friend Kezia asking Tomoko-San if travelers can stay at one of the Glasso-styled houses. “Yes, in fact there are a few inns here inside the village” replies Tomoko-San.

“Awesome, I wanted to stay here for a few days” Kezia countered. “I can live here for weeks” I told her in a toned down voice. Who wouldn’t be? Especially I heard that once winter breaks, the sight of the houses covered in blinding white snow turn into notches more visually captivating.

Enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, Shirakawa-go encompasses an idyllic village setting where a whole community thrived in a sustainable environment without relying on outside interference – which the village has achieved for more than 100 years until the onset of curious travelers yearning a peak into their world started arriving. Today, a few gift shops and tourist inns exist catering to outsiders longing for the tranquil vibe the village has been enjoying for centuries.

Colorful fishes swim in small ponds around the village - some are even seen in the clean canals
Apart from the renowned Glasso-zukuri homes, the village is also popular for its abundance of mulberry trees which is grown in and outside the village. The residents used to strip this tree of its components to create and trade sanchu paper, which was once considered an extremely expensive type of paper in Japan. Today, only a few residents continue to make this kind of paper.

Continuing our walk I catch a glimpse of some gift shops selling dolls with blank faces. I later learned that these are called “Sarubobo dolls” (faceless dolls). These dolls are created in such manner so the owner of the doll could perceive whomever they want to represent the face of the doll. There is a long tradition in the village of grandmothers sewing these dolls from scrap materials as a gift for their grandchildren to bring good luck in marriage and fertility in the future. 

The spacious attic
Continuing our walk, our group entered one of the Glasso-Zukuri houses, the Kanda house where the amiable 60 or 70-something Patriarch cheerfully motioned us to come inside “Welcome to our home, it is not the biggest but it is the most majestic house in the village” he declared with a smile. The first floor consisted of the living room, dining room, kitchen and an Irori fireplace laid out at the center of the house. We huddled around it while Mr. Kanda narrated the brief history of the house and not soon after, the heat emanating from the fireplace instantly warmed our cold bodies.  

the Irori fireplace
A tour of the rest of the Kanda house took us to the second floor and the attic where we saw various apparatuses used for farming and fermenting sake wine displayed as if it’s in a museum. Peeking out the attic window I am again reminded of the sheer beauty of the village’s neighborhood. A mixture of the changing colors of the trees foregrounding the other Glasso-Zukuri homes surrounded by lawn gardens dotted with colorful flowers, meets my eyes. I imagine what mornings would be like to awake in such visual banquet.

with my fellow travel bloggers and Mr. Kanda
Our whole exploration of the village of Shirakawa-go lasted for almost a couple of hours. Too short to fully immerse in the impressiveness of the village’s setting, but more than enough to left an imprint in my mind of a fantasy-like world coming alive in real life.

How to Go:

By Land:
Take a train from Nagoya to Takayama (2 hours) then take the shuttle bus from Takayama to Shirakawa-go (50 minutes).

By Air:
Cebu Pacific Air flies direct flights from Manila to Nagoya four times a week. To book a ticket and be updated on their seat-sale offerings, please "Like" their Facebook Page and visit their Official Website