12 Jun Self drive to Shirakawa-go
Driving from Takayama to Shirakawa-go
Read our guide to renting a car and driving in Japan here.
We did a self-drive to Shirakawa-go, leaving from our ryokan in Takayama. We entered the phone number of Shirakawa-go Gassho Zukuri Minka-en into the GPS. As we were in a mountain area, a lot of our drive was through tunnels, some of which were several km’s long.
The drive went smoothly and we arrived at the parking spot for the historic village and museum at about 10am.
We first went to Gassho Zukuri Minka-en, the open-air museum. Minka is a traditional Japanese farmhouse and gassho means ‘to pray’ referring to the houses steep roofs resembling hands in pray. The thatched roofs are made to withstand the weight of heavy snowfall. Houses were relocated to the museum from nearby villages in order to be preserved.
The open-air museum has more than farmhouses on display. There is also family’s storage sheds, water mills, a weir and an A-frame barn that was placed in the middle of the water, accessed by stepping stones. The houses were spread out across the grounds and the museum looked like a real little village.
As we were walking around, a loud alarm sounded, followed by an announcement in Japanese. We had no idea what the alarm was, or what the announcement had said. So, we walked back down a bit to where there were other people, in no panic at all. We then saw a tour group ahead of us continuing, so assuming all was ok, we did too.
It turned out it was a smoke alarm that had been set off when a staff member lit the open fire in one of the houses. The open fire-place, called an irori, was set into the floor of the houses main living area and was used for both cooking and heating. The house that had set off the smoke alarm was one in which the top-level could be entered. When we did go up into the roof area it was clear why the alarm had gone off as the whole roof was filled with smoke.
Inside the farmhouses
Most of the farmhouses were able to be entered, with some displaying items the family would have used. In some of the houses, we were able to use the ladder-like stairs to view the top floor and see the roof from the inside.
The exhibits on display included tools for hunting and farming, clothing that was worn and shoes including snow boots. Most of the items were made from woven straw. In one of the houses top floors, there was a really great photo display. Two large boards were filled with black and white photographs from the villages, showing the land, houses and people.
After reaching the end of the museum trail we walked back past the parking area and crossed the long pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the river. Stopping to have a look at the view. Looking out from one side we could see the rooftops of the Gassho style houses in the museum.
Over the bridge is a real village, where people live. A number of the houses are set up as exhibits and can be entered for a fee, we chose to skip them as we had just been to the museum. We wandered around the village and felt kind of awkward looking at the houses and taking photos, I’m sure the people living in them would be used to it, as it is such a popular tourist spot and is set up to be one, but they are still people’s homes and we felt like we were invading their privacy.
Alongside the houses, there is also farming land, a small shrine and several stores in the village. The stores were mostly selling souvenir type items and food. Not all of the buildings were Gassho style but most of them still fit into the village scene. The one thing that did stand out was the modern cars parked at the homes.
Japanese souvenirs, food and coffee in a can!
After strolling around the village, we crossed back over the bridge. Before getting back in our car, we bought some snacks and drinks to enjoy while driving. I seriously considered buying a rice farmers hat but it would have gotten squashed in our luggage, so I left it. I guess I could have worn it everywhere instead.
The photo below is of a gift pack of biscuits I bought in a Shirakawa-go store. The smallest character on the box is a Sarubobo, the mascot of the Hida region. They are traditionally made by mothers and given to their daughters as charms for good luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth. I bought a little doll the next day at the morning market in Takayama.
As well as the biscuits, we bought a bag of rice crackers and some dried sour plums. When walking back to the car I decided to buy my first (of many) hot drink from a vending machine. I chose a can of hot coffee. At first, it seemed strange to be consuming something hot out of a drink can, but for coffee in a can, it was pretty good. Boss coffee is from the brand Suntory which featured in the movie Lost In Translation. We left the car park, after paying a small fee and headed for the Hakusan Shirakawa-go White Road.