The best way to experience Shirakawa-go is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses.
It costs only 8000 to 9000 yen per person, including breakfast and dinner. But you need to book well ahead of time and if possible, get a Japanese speaker to help. We were able to secure two rooms at Rihei with my friend Akiko’s help.
The owner speaks just a little English to get by with minimal requests. The rooms are very basic, with shared toilet and bath.
The food is typical ryokan style with a variety of small dishes
One of the benefits of staying overnight at Shirakawa-go, is that you get a glimpse of what the village looks like after dark…
Under cold winter moonlight
The downside of staying at this particular farmhouse in the winter, is that there is no central heating in the room. They do provide a gas heater that can quickly heat up the room, however, it emits a strange chemical smell and you need to turn it off before going to sleep.
For both of our rooms, the window is covered by a sliding shoji paper panel, with privacy screens behind that do not quite close. This let the cold air in and caused the room temperature to drop quickly as soon as the gas heater is turned off. Luckily I understand Kanji characters and figured out that there was a electric blanket underneath the bedding, Turning it on helped a bit. And to prevent my head from extended exposure to the cold draft, I wrapped a cashmere scarf around it, while my friends wore their hats to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, the room temperature was 2 degrees Celsius. This is the second time in my life that I slept in such cold temperatures (the first time was on a ice bed in Ice Hotel Quebec). It was an experience for sure!
Note: The village organizes special illumination events on selected Saturday and Sunday evenings in January and February. During the light-up, many of the village’s gassho-zukuri farmhouses are lit up individually from 17:30 to 19:30, while the entire village is softly illuminated by floodlights until around 20:00. The dates are usually announced in mid-June the previous year. It is even harder to secure home stay or accommodation during that time, but several tour companies offers evening bus ride from Takayama, so be sure to make reservations ahead of time. We just missed the light-up by one day but I heard it is quite spectacular.