On the bucket list of many travellers to Japan would be this historic village untouched by time. Here, sweet clear water flows down the steep precipices and into the valleys. Shrouded in mist and traditions, it seems to be more myth than reality. However, such a place does indeed exist, and this would be the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-gō in Gifu Prefecture. Its mythical, otherworldly beauty has led to a steady increase in popularity amongst travellers, however, consequently leading to a few reminders (like many tour buses) that we have not yet left Earth for paradise.
While it is possible to get a guided tour to this mountain village if you’re short on time, you may find it best to explore the place at your own leisure. Its beauty is one attraction: the other is a contemplative experience of the mountains. There is a good lookout point, and it takes just a short hike to get up there. It may be a little cloudy, misty and cold at the Shiroyama Viewpoint, but it’s well worth the effort for an unobstructed view of the gorgeous valley below. Also, there are plenty of opportunities for photographs. The most popular image of Shirakawa-gō would be the postcard-perfect view of the village blanketed in pristine white snow. It truly transforms the village into a winter wonderland, straight out of a fairytale. Nevertheless, if you visit during other seasons of the year, you can still fully enjoy the otherworldly loveliness of Shirakawa-gō. It's a magical view all year round!
In fact, when the houses are not covered in snow, visitors have the opportunity to observe the Gassho-style architecture of these preserved houses carefully. Many of them have been converted into museums to showcase traditional life there. The architecture of the house features deeply sloped roofs to allow snow to slip off the roofs in winter rather than crushing it under the heavy weight. These houses provide their inhabitants with a residence and also a workspace. They are generally large enough to encompass a barn and quarters for processing their harvest. There is also sufficient space for the people to carry out other tasks such as the making of traditional Japanese washi paper or raising silkworms. The most famous of these houses would be the Wada House. It was built in the mid-Edo period and is still occupied as a residence, but open to visitors for viewing as well. There is also a charming open-air museum, Gassho-zukuri Minkaen, which has farmhouses, a temple, and a watermill.
A specialty of Shirakawa-gō would be Hoba Miso, and it is soon clear to visitors why this dish is so popular. It’s simply delicious! A typical meal of Hoba Miso would include some famous Hida beef marinated in a miso paste on a dry magnolia leaf and grilled over a little charcoal stove. The lunch set I tried at Irori restaurant also featured traditional dishes such as grated yam omelette, grilled tofu, mountain vegetables, small potatoes, and a bowl of miso soup with soba noodles in it. Vegetarians can also enjoy Hoba Miso with a grilled vegetable selection instead of beef.
The mountain water is known to be clear and sweet, such that large fish can even live in the storm drains of the village. Little wonder then, that the cattle raised on this sweet water, fresh air and grass give high-quality meat. This translates to high-quality dairy products and melt-in-your-mouth beef. There is a good selection of snacks available for visitors who feel peckish, from creamy milk and ice creams to tasty potato and beef croquettes.
When visiting Shirakawa-gō. I’d been looking for beauty, which I easily found in this otherworldly mountain village. But the essence of my experience at Shirakawa-gō can be distilled into an almost-spiritual deep sense of calm. Perhaps it was the effect of feeling so small next to majestic mountains. It was rainy and misty when I left. As the bus sped away from the village, the mountains gradually grew smaller and smaller, and I drifted off from one beautiful Shirakawa-gō dream into the next…
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