Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are slowly gaining fame throughout Japan and the world as the home to a unique, and until recently under publicised part of Japan’s culture. Located deep in the mountains of northern Gifu and Toyama prefectures, the Shirakawa-go and Gokayama districts were cut off from the rest of Japanese society because of their extremely isolated location in remote mountain valleys, and as such developed a very unique culture and lifestyle different from any other area of Japan.
Three of these villages, Ogimachi village (Shirakawa-go district, Gifu prefecture), along with two other villages located in Toyama prefecture – Ainokura and Sugunama (Gokoyama district) were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1995 in part because of the traditional ‘Gassho-style’ houses found there, and in part of the various intangible cultural assets (such as the distinctive dances, festivals and traditions that the villagers developed in their relative isolation). These villages, along with numerous others, are located in a steep, mountainous area of the Sho River Valley in the Chubu mountain range. Today, only the three villages mentioned above remain reasonably true to their original state in terms of their architecture and atmosphere.
German architect Bruno Taut is said to have found Gokayama during his travels through Japan in 1939, and introduced it to the rest of the world.
Gaining fame for Gassho-style houses
The houses, built in Gassho-zukuri style (the name referring to hands folded in prayer), could be seen scattered throughout the Sho River Valley between terraced fields for wet rice agriculture and dry crop lands and are unique to the Shirakawa-go and Gokayama areas. The main difference between these thatched houses, and those of other thatched houses such as those in the village in Kourankei in Asuke, is the impressive steepness of the roof and sheer scale. These dwellings are considered to be some of the most efficient farmhouses in Japan. “Gassho-zukuri” is a style of house which is comprised of a thatched gable roof made with sasu structure and steep enough as to allow for adequate space for activity in the area inside the volume of the roof. The term “Sasu” structure refers to the extensive use of triangular frames as opposed to posts and beams crossing throughout the structure of the roof. In this structure, two beams called sasu connect to the bottom part of the triangular frame by wooden pin connections. Of course, this style is used in some traditional Japanese houses in other parts of the country as well, but what is unique to Gasshozukuri style houses is that the angles of the roofs are much steeper.
Most thatched house communities have a lot of rustic charm, but the steep roof lines of a gasshozukuri village and striking and elegant. The elegance of these rooves is part of what makes any gasshozukuri village beautiful, but it should be understood that the roof is primarily designed this way for practicality, the elegance being a side benefit made necessary by the extremely heavy snowfalls and long winters of this region. If you visit during the summer it is hard to imagine the climate, but if your really want to understand the culture of these communities and how difficult life must have been priod to the arrival of such modern amenities as electricity (unknown to many families in the region until the 1960’s), it is worth trying to make a mid-winter visit – staying overnight in some of the traditional farmhouses that now operate as minshuku.
These houses were designed so that the area inside the roofs could be used for other activities such as raising silkworms, so the roof usually contained two or three seperate floors. In many cases, the roofs were taller than the main part of the house! While the construction of the roof was done by the villagers themselves, the main part of the house could only be built by professional carpenters. There are a several cosmetic differences between the Gassho-style houses of the Gokayama and Shirakawa-go districts, but the structure is generally the same.
At a time, there were over 1800 Gassho-style houses, but presently there are less than 150 remaining. Fortunately, they are being preserved as active communities by the villagers who live there. The houses used to hold 40 to 50 people, and at night time the inhabitants would gather around the hearth on the first floor of the house, eat, and share stories with one another. The fire would not only warm the bodies of the villagers, but the silkworms being raised above would benefit from the heat, as well. In addition, the smoke from the fire would coat the wooden beams of the structure, repelling insects.
Ogimachi is the largest of the three preserved villages with 152 households (59 of these being Gassho-style houses). Many of the Gassho-style houses here were not originally in Ogimachi – they were moved there from Sho-kawa during the construction of the Miboro dam. As Ogimachi has more Gassho-style houses than any other village, they receive more visitors than any other area – reflected by the souvenir shops that line the main street. But Ogimachi is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and it is definitely worth a visit.
Wada House. Prime Ministers and crown princes. great photos. Very different to Tsumago – as there are powerlines, satellite dishes, large and increasing number of houses that aren’t gasshozukuri – looks like a suburn in some places. Not magic. Living village. Pork barrel, LDP.
If you visit Ogimachi by bus, you will probably get dropped off at the Gassho-shuraku bus stop in the centre of Ogimachi. The tourist information centre is located next to this bus stop – if you go there, you can get information, maps and leaflets about the area. There is English information, as well. The best view of the area can be obtained from Tenbodai Lookout, north of the bus stop. It takes about half an hour on foot from the bus stop to reach the top.
Gassho-zukuri Folklore Park
After getting one’s bearings, a good place to start exploring the area’s culture is Gassho-zukuri Folklore Park. This is an open-air museum of the 25 gassho-style houses which were collected from the surrounding region, reconstructed and put on display. Inside these houses, you can experience the region’s culture through demonstrations of wood-working, ceramics, and painting in Chinese ink. Admission is 500 yen, and is open from 8:30-5 between April and November, and 9-4 between December and January.
This temple is located in the center of Ogimachi, and contains a museum of traditional and culturally significant items used in the everyday lives of the villagers. Admission is 200 yen, and the temple is open from 7-5.
Doburoku Matsuri Exhibition Hall
Every year in mid-October, Doburoku Matsuri Festival is held in Shirakawa at the Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine. This festival involves a parade lead by an eight-legged Shishi, or Chinese lion, with bands and people carrying banners, as well as the singing of folk songs. Doburoku is a kind of local unrefined sake, and everyone attending the parade can indulge themselves in this refreshment – hence the name of the festival. The sake is offered to the mountain gods at the shrine in return for the village’s safety and prosperity, and because of this festival this is the only area of Japan that is permitted to brew unrefined sake. The Doburoku Matsuri Exhibition Hall, located right next to the Hachiman Shrine, has a video display about the festival. Admission is 310 yen.
This is the smallest of the three preserved villages, with only 14 households. There are two museums in Suganuma: the Gokayama Minzoku-kan, which displays artifacts used in daily life by the villagers, and Ensho-no-Yakata, which explains techniques used in gunpowder producion (Gokayama was used as a secret centre of gunpowder production by feudal lords prior to the Edo period). Entrance is 300 yen for both museums (they’re located right across from each other), or 210 yen for one.
Ainokura is considered by some to be the most beautiful of the three historical sites. It consists of 27 households, of which 20 are gassho-style. There is a museum of daily life here as well, the Ainokura Minzokukan, and admission is 200 yen. It exhibits items used in daily life as well as handmade paper and toys.
There are direct buses from Nagoya, which cost about 5000 yen, but you can also travel from Takayama by bus to Makido, and then change. Between July and mid-November there is a bus from Nagoya to Kanazawa on the Japan Sea coast, which stops in Ogimachi.
The infrequent buses that run between Ogimachi and Takaoka also pass by Ainokura and Suganuma. The JR Johana line runs from Takaoka to Johana, where you can also pick up a bus to the Gokayama area.
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