555km (347 miles) NW of Tokyo

With its thatched-roof farmhouses, paddies trimmed with flower beds, roaring river, and pine-covered mountains rising on all sides, Shirakawa-go is one of the most picturesque regions in Japan. Unfortunately, it also has more than its fair share of tour buses (especially in May, Aug, and Oct), with about 1.8 million visitors annually. Still, because of its rather remote location, accessible only by car or bus, Shirakawa-go remains off the beaten path for most foreign tourists. A visit to this rural region could well be the highlight of your trip.

Although Shirakawa-go stretches about 39km (24 miles) beside the Shokawa River and covers 229 sq. km (88 sq. miles), mountains and forest account for 95% of the region, and Shirakawa-go's 1,800 residents and cultivated land are squeezed into a valley averaging less than 3km (2 miles) in width. Thus, land in Shirakawa-go for growing rice and other crops has always been scarce and valuable. As a result, farmhouses were built large enough to hold extended families, with as many as several dozen family members living under one roof. Because there wasn't enough land available for young couples to marry and build houses of their own, only the eldest son was allowed to marry; the other children were required to spend their lives living with their parents and helping with the farming. But even though younger children weren't allowed to marry, a man was allowed to choose a young woman, visit her in her parents' home, and father her children. The children then remained with the mother's family, becoming valuable members of the labor force.

Before the roads came to Shirakawa-go, winter always meant complete isolation as snow 2m (6 ft.) deep blanketed the entire region. Irori (open-hearth fireplaces) in the middle of a communal room were used for cooking, warmth, and light during the long winter months. The family lived, therefore, on the ground floor, while upper floors were used for silk cultivation and storage of utensils. Because of the heavy snowfall, thatched roofs were constructed at steep angles, known as gassho-zukuri in reference to the fact that the tops of the roofs look like hands joined in prayer. The steep angle also allowed rain to run off quickly, and the thatch (Japanese pampas grass) dried quickly in the sun, preventing decay. Remarkably, the massive homes were constructed without nails; rather, sturdy ropes held the framework together and helped withstand earthquakes. Because there were no chimneys, smoke from the irori simply rose into the levels above, helping to ward off insects in the thatch and to keep the ropes taut.

Today, there are about 115 thatched farmhouses, barns, and sheds in Shirakawa-go, most of them built about 200 to 300 years ago. The thatched roofs are about .6m (2 ft.) thick and last some 40 years. The old roofs are replaced in Shirakawa-go every April, when one to four roofs are changed on successive weekends. The entire process involves about 200 people, who can replace one roof in a couple of days.

Shirakawa-go's inhabitants live in several small villages. Of these, Ogimachi, declared a UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage site in 1995, boasts the greatest concentration of thatched-roof buildings. With just 600 residents, it's a delightful hamlet of narrow lanes winding past thatched-roof farmhouses, which stand like island sentinels surrounded by paddies. Many of the farmhouses have been turned into minshuku, souvenir shops, restaurants, and museums, including an open-air museum that depicts life in the region before roads opened it to the rest of the world.