Shirakawa-gō is an area in the village of Shirakawa famous for its collection of gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り) style buildings. Gasshō-zukuri is a style of architecture of minka (民家)—literally, “house of the people”—that is unique to the villages. The steeply inclining thatched roofs (gasshō means “clasped hands” in reference to hands in prayer) are designed to deal with heavy snowfall the area receives as the villages are located in the mountainous Shogawa River Valley and the large attics that resulted from the steep roofs was also used in the cultivation of silkworms. This general seclusion is also thought to have played a part in the development of the unique architectural structures. Together with the Ainokura and Suganuma in Gokayama, Toyama Prefecture, Shirakawa-gō was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
The villages can be visited in a day trip from Kanazawa or Toyama (they are about a 90-minute drive from either city); however, care needs to be taken if visiting in the winter as the roads can become icy and visibility poor due to frequent snowfall. Many tourists choose to visit as part of a bus tour package.
Staying in the gasshō-zukuri is also popular and there are over 40 inns and guesthouses in the village. All will require reservations but please note that some guesthouses may only be able to communicate in Japanese. You can find a list of guest houses that can take bookings in English here.
Although winter is the most popular time to visit the villages because the snow-laden roofs make for an almost fantastical scene, the thatched homes are equally scenic during the summer months when access is easier.