Why the village of Shirakawa is considered one of the “100 best sustainable destinations” in the world


The idyllic village of Shirakawa in Japan has strived to alleviate overtourism and preserve the integrity of local traditions and landscape by limiting visitors to those who respect the city’s heritage and embrace the spirit of caring that animates the local culture.

Between the rugged mountains and the deep forests of Shirakawa Village, In the center Japan, there is a spread of gassho-zukuri houses – unique Japanese-style houses with steeply pitched thatched gable roofs. The inhabitants of these traditional houses are the original inhabitants of the village.

In 1995, the area around this village turned into one of the most popular tourist destinations in Gifu Prefecture, when the village was registered as World heritage site by
UNESCO. This certified the universal value of the historic landscape showcasing these distinctive thatched-roof houses and the traditional way of life and culture that has developed in this rural community – all of which remain essentially intact. And in 2020, a quarter of a century later, the village of Shirakawa (known in Japanese as “Shirakawa-go“) received renewed interest from many tourists when it was selected as one of the”Top 100 sustainable destinations in the world»By a Dutch association Green destinations.

With that as a backdrop, let’s dive deep into the secrets of the success of Shirakawa Village transforming itself into a sustainable tourist destination that has managed to maintain its traditional way of life amidst a beautiful rustic landscape.

Become a sustainable tourist destination by rebuilding the economic base

The village of Shirakawa has long been called a “recluse”: 95.7% of the surrounding area is forested area surrounded by steep mountain slopes. Because much of the land in this area was state owned, it was difficult for the private sector to develop industrial forestry in this area. But in 1995, when UNESCO chose Shirakawa-go as the third village to be certified as a World Heritage Site, this small rural community of barely 1,600 people suddenly found itself establishing a global brand that could attract up to to 2.15 million tourists per year from around the world.

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However, the growing popularity of the village as a prime destination has resulted in overtourism and “zero dollar tourism”, which are typical problems often encountered by tourist hot spots. As a growing number of Shirakawa-go residents set up tourism-related businesses, they rushed for a small slice of the pie, which ultimately led to the vicious cycle of trying to widen the pie by attracting more. tourists to meet excessive economic needs. In other words, these villagers found themselves trapped in the pitfall of “mass tourism”, so to speak. But what is remarkable about the village of Shirakawa is that the local community has managed to change things quite drastically – to the point of being named one of the ‘100 best sustainable destinations in the world’, the all amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. .

“We want to evolve towards a sustainable destination. For this we must rebuild the economic base on which we still rely mainly for mass tourism. Rather than attracting more tourists, our priority is to retain the value of our local community. We need to redefine our brand, ”says Tatsuya Ozaki, the deputy director of the tourism promotion section of Shirakawa village.

A reservation-only policy and strict fire prevention measures

A mass water spray drill using water guns | Image credit: Japan Rail and Travel

There are two initiatives in the village of Shirakawa that Green Destinations has found particularly impressive. One is the implementation of a reservation-only policy which has proven to be very effective in avoiding overcrowding of tourists. The village first introduced this policy as a seasonal measure several years ago, when nighttime illumination events in winter began to attract excessive numbers of visitors. As of January 2019, the village applies this reservation-only policy throughout the year, also applying it to tourists visiting by car and making the village of Shirakawa a year-round reservation-only destination.

Another initiative well received by the Dutch NGO concerns the strict fire prevention measures in the village. the gassho-zukuri the houses are very vulnerable to fire, as they are old buildings mainly made of wood and thatch. In addition to conducting water spray drills and regularly inspecting water sources used to extinguish fires, residents routinely patrol the village four times a day to check for fire hazards. In fact, when a fire broke out in one of the thatched-roof houses in 2019 (which was coincidentally the year that Shuri Castle in
Okinawa and Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, two historic monuments also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, burned down), residents of all ages voluntarily mobilized with water guns to help the firefighters put out the fire. Thanks to their concerted efforts, the villagers were able to prevent the fire from spreading to other houses nearby.

A winter illumination event | Image credit: The door

Another factor that led the NGO to highly assess Shirakawa-go’s fire preparedness was the newly installed booth inside the village for tobacco smokers to heat without burning. This installation was part of a collaboration agreement between Shirakawa Village and Philip Morris Japan, which provided a stand for rolled-cigarette smokers outside the village.

It is interesting to note that these kiosks also act as unmanned tourist information centers. While the smoking cabin installed inside the village is reserved for smokers of tobacco to be heated without burning, the idea of ​​installing another cabin for smokers of roll cigarettes outside the village was adopted as a response. the needs of both types of smokers and considerably reduce the risk of fire in the village at the same time.

“I can clearly see that these stands have brought about significant changes in the safety and environmental aspects of the village,” said Ozaki. He went on to explain that a rule was once enforced to make the village a completely non-smoking area, but that didn’t help to eliminate smokers from rolled-up cigarettes – there were still violators blowing in hidden places. At one point, villagers even found visitors smoking paper-rolled cigarettes under the eaves of a fire-prone thatched-roof house, which made Ozaki understand that the app A total smoking ban or even placing ashtrays in designated areas would not help reduce the risk of fire, but could actually increase the risk.

The spirit of ‘yui” integrated in tourism, local education

The spirit of “yuiWhich is a traditional system of mutual assistance that locals practice from generation to generation in literally every aspect of their lives. Yui was originally conceived as a local term to describe the unique connections and bonds built between the inhabitants. In recent years, it has been reinterpreted in the context of a cultural heritage seen, for example, in the traditional roofing work by villagers helping each other in the process of cutting straw to bundle fresh straw for use. as new thatch. This annual ritual has been included as one of the programs of the village tours designed to provide tourists with the opportunity to look, feel and experience directly the concept of yui in action.

Residents use straw to re-roof famous thatched roofs | Image courtesy of Sustainable Brands Japan

The updated version of the spirit of yui can now be felt in the local academic environment, as well. from Japan Ministry of the Interior and Communications has designated the village of Shirakawa as a pilot site to test the functionality of 5G mobile communication systems. In addition to the organizers of this village using state-of-the-art ultra-fast communication technology to disseminate information and disperse the number of incoming tourists, the benefits of 5G are also shared with a total of around 110 students enrolled in Shirakawa-go Gakuen, a primary to middle school run by the local government. Here, they seriously discuss the future of Shirakawa Village and exchange new ideas to find solutions to the challenges facing the locals.

Ozaki said, “The natural bonds established between the villagers, regardless of their generation, are another form of blessing driven by the spirit of yui. “

Become a destination where locals can interact with visitors as equal partners

To appreciate the real value of Shirakawa Village as a World Heritage Site, visitors should focus not only on the traditional landscape and the famous
gassho-zukuri buildings, but should also fully embrace the concept of yui, that is to say the spirit of mutual aid that animates the local culture. For the people of Shirakawa-go, attracting mass tourists is not their priority; they place more importance on welcoming visitors wishing to understand the region’s cultural heritage.

Ozaki says: “We need to develop some form of sustainable tourism. To achieve this goal, we want to welcome visitors with whom the inhabitants can interact as equal partners sharing the same sense of values ​​and the awareness of preserving this territory. While we do not intend to completely deny the benefits of mass tourism – since it supports the livelihoods of villagers today – we would like to evolve our tourism in the direction of offering personalized experiences that can enhance the value of Shirakawa Village as a tourist destination, through interactive programs designed to allow visitors to experience the village lifestyle. This will be our mission for the future.

Since the start of 2021, municipal authorities, including the Gifu Prefecture government, have remained vigilant and taken strict precautionary measures to prevent tourists from bringing in
in the village of Shirakawa or by spreading from this region. If you want to visit Shirakawa Village, make sure you choose a suitable time when you can feel safe – reaching this destination as a traveler who not only appreciates the scenery but also appreciates the rich culture and fully respects the policies. security, so that to help keep the village of Shirakawa sustainable.

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