Designated a World Heritage Site in 1995, the picturesque villages of the Shirakawa-gō (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) areas, northwest of Takayama, were among the many fabled bolt holes of the Taira clan after their defeat at the battle of Dannoura. Until the mid-twentieth century, these communities, with their distinctive, thatched A-frame houses, were almost entirely cut off from fast-modernizing Japan. The damming of the Shō-kawa in the 1960s, together with the drift of population away from the countryside, threatened the survival of this rare form of architecture called gasshō-zukuri. In 1971, local residents began a preservation movement, which has been so successful that the trio of villages – Ogimachi in Gifu-ken, and Suganuma and Ainokura in neighbouring Toyama-ken – is now in danger of being swamped by visitors. It is still worth braving the crowds to see these remarkable thatched buildings, in idyllic valleys surrounded by forests and mountains, but to feel the full magic of the places, arrange to stay overnight in a minshuku in a gasshō-zukuri house.
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In the shadow of the sacred mountain Hakusan, OGIMACHI (荻町) is home to 114 gasshō-zukuri houses, the largest collection within the Shirakawa-gō area of the Shō-kawa valley. Many of the thatched houses were moved here when threatened by the damming of the Shō-kawa, and this makes for rather a contrived scene, not helped by the major road that cuts through its centre, bringing a daily overdose of tourists. Even so, this is a real village, populated by families living in most of these houses, farming rice and other crops in the surrounding fields.
Suganuma and around
Suganuma and around
Route 156 along the Shō-kawa valley tunnels through the mountains, running for the most part alongside the frequently dammed river as it meanders north. Some 10km from Ogimachi, the road passes the quaint hamlet of SUGANUMA (菅沼), featuring nine gasshō-zukuri, beside a sharp bend in the river. Pop into the Gokayama Minzoku-kan (五箇山民族館), made up of two houses, one displaying artefacts from daily life, the other detailing the production of gunpowder, made here because the remote location allowed the ruling Kaga clan to keep it secret.
Some 4km from Suganuma, the modern village of Kaminashi is worth a stop to inspect the Murakami-ke (村上家), one of the oldest houses in the valley, dating from 1578. The owner gives guided tours around the tatami rooms, pointing out the sunken pit beside the entrance where gunpowder was once made, and finishing with spirited singing of folk tunes accompanied by a performance of the bin-zasara, a rattle made of wooden strips.
The last of the three World Heritage Site villages, and perhaps the loveliest, is AINOKURA (相倉), 4km further north of Kaminashi. The bus will drop you on the main road, a five-minute walk from the village, which nestles on a hillside and will not take you more than an hour to look around – make sure you hike up the hill behind the main car park for a great view. You could also while away a little more time in the Ainokura Minzoku-kan (相倉民族館; daily 8.30am–5pm; ¥200), a tiny museum of daily life, including examples of the area’s handmade paper and toys.
Appealing as it is, Ainokura’s charms can be all but obscured as you battle past yet another group of camera-toting day-trippers. To experience the village at its best stay overnight, making sure you reserve well in advance – they don’t like people just showing up here. Seven of the gasshō-zukuri offer lodging, including Nakaya (なかや) and Goyomon (五ヨ門). If you’re just visiting for the day, Matsuya (まつや), serving soba, tempura and sweets, is a friendly place for lunch and they’ll look after your bags while you wander around.
If you’re heading to Ainokura from the Sea of Japan coast, take a train from Takaoka to Jōhana (城端), where you can pick up the bus to the Gokayama area.
Gasshō-zukuri means “praying hands”, because the sixty-degree slope of the thatched gable roofs is said to recall two hands joined in prayer. The sharp angle is a way of coping with the heavy snowfall in this area and the size of the houses is the result of generations of the same family living together. The upper storeys of the home were used for industries such as making gunpowder and cultivating silkworms. The thatched roofs – often with a surface area of around six hundred square metres – are made of susuki grass, native to the northern part of the Hida region (wooden shingles were used in the south), and have to be replaced every 25 to 35 years.
Since it can cost ¥20 million to rethatch an entire roof, many of the houses fell into disrepair until the government stepped in with grants in 1976, which enabled the locals to keep up their house-building traditions. The local preservation society decides which buildings are most in need of repair each year and helps organize the yui, a two-hundred-strong team who work together to rethatch a roof in just one day. Despite these initiatives, however, there are now fewer than two hundred examples of gasshō-zukuri houses left in the Hida region.