If you look at this photo and think it doesn’t look like anywhere else in Japan, you’d be right. Shirakawa-Go, a mountain settlement in Gifu prefecture, was once considered an unexplored region. The treacherous mountains and snowfall restricted outside interaction, preserving the unique cultural practices and lifestyles.

The village was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old.

The striking sloped thatched roofs are called 'gasshozukuri', which means 'constructed like hands in prayer', in reference to the similarity to Buddhist monks' hands while praying. These roofs can withstand the weight of the heavy snowfall expected each year. Another feature which gives the houses the cosy-looking winter atmosphere, is that the windows are built high up in the roof, originally to accommodate the silk worms that were often housed in the attics for silk production.

According to the region's website, the remote village was first brought to overseas attention by German architect and scholar, Bruno Taut. The characteristics of the townhouses which were so different to other Japanese architecture caused him to remark, “This landscape is not Japanese. At least it is scenery the like of which I have not seen here before. This is surely Switzerland, or otherwise an illusion of Switzerland”

The inhabitants of this village still live ordinary lives there, and the coolest thing about Shirakawa-Go is that you can too for a few days. Some of the traditional houses are now guest houses which can be booked by visitors.

Despite being beautiful all year round and enjoying the same seasonal fixtures as the rest of Japan (i.e. cherry blossom and autumn foliage), it’s Shirakawa-Go’s winter which has become iconic. The charming snowy landscape and traditional houses are such a draw for tourists that they even light them up during this period. The 'light up' only happens on certain days, so be sure to check before you travel!

But in order to witness these enchanting scenes, visitors must brave punishingly cold weather, far below freezing. The roads will also be icy, and Shirakawa-Go's website contains safety advice as well as manners you should abide by while in the town. But for those who adore snowscapes, these guidelines should be easy to follow and no obstacle to seeing this winter wonderland!


By - grape Japan editorial staff.