Hidden in the mountains of the Japanese island of Honshu are the picturesque areas of Shirakawa-Gō and Gokayama. The regions are home to charming traditional houses, known for their steep thatched roofs that peek up from the landscape like little triangles. These villages of thatched-roof houses, designated as UNESCO World heritage sites, are examples of the Japanese building style of gasshō-zukuri.
Largely untouched by modernisation, these family homes have retained their traditional ways of life for centuries. Situated amongst the still waters of rice paddies glinting in the sun, and with stunning snowy mountains in the backdrop, Shirakawa and Gokayama are wonderful places turn back time and see Japan’s social and cultural history before your eyes.
A traditional Shirakawa-gō house is instantly recognisable for its steep, triangular roof shape. Gasshō-zukuri translates to “constructed like hands in prayer,” and are built in that particular shape to withstand heavy snowfall during the winter months. The region has been known to receive 2-3 metres of snow, and the roof design helps it slide off the top. The design style was developed over many generations, and some of the houses are over 250 years old. Due to their perfect adaptation to their environment, and their encapsulation of the traditions and history of the region, three villages were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995.
Inside Gasshō-Zukuri Houses
The houses are built of strong cedar beams, bound together with rope and without any nails used in their construction. Despite this, they support the high ceilings, forming roof angles up to 60°. The houses face from north to south, to regulate the amount of sun the interior receives, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer.
Inside, the houses have 2 or 3 stories, originally intended to houses large families of up to 30 people . The attic spaces were used for the keeping of silkworms, supported by a diet of mulberry leaves and kept warm from the heat rising from the house below to create optimal conditions. Silk was a valuable commodity in the pre-war years, and Japan supplied much of it for international export.
Originally, they were used as farmhouses, but today, the houses have been converted into restaurants, museums, and minshuku, a traditional Japanese bed and breakfast. Staying in a minshuku usually has traditional Japanese-style rooms. For dining, the minshuku serves local food such as fish and sansai (a collection of local mountain vegetables) around an irori, a square firepit used for cooking, sunk into the floor and often with a kettle suspended from the ceiling. Some minshuku even have their own onsen for bathing.
One of the great risks to these old wooden houses is fire, and all houses have elaborate fire-fighting systems installed to help combat any potential accidents. Residents are also trained in fire fighting techniques to deal with emergencies.
Located in Gifu prefecture, the Shirakawa-gō region is in the Shogawa River valley. The largest village in the region is Ogimachi village, perfect as a day trip from nearby Takayama, or as an overnight stay.
The largest and most accessible village of the three UNESCO-listed villages is Ogimachi in the Shirakawa-gō area, which contains 117 gasshō-zukuri houses. Just 15 minutes walk up the trail to the viewpoint gives a great panoramic view over the entire village, to see the houses from above. In any season, it makes for a stunning sight to behold.
Gokayama in Toyama prefecture is more remote, and less touristy than Shirakawa-gō. The two most significant historic villages are Suganuma and Ainokura. Situated along the bends of the Sho river, these two villages have beautiful examples of traditional architecture.
Suganuma Village is about 15km north of Ogimachi Village, and is the smallest of the villages, with 14 farmhouses. Suganuma is a great place to learn about local culture, with two museums to check out. Gokayama Minzoku-kan displays local crafts, and Ensho no Takata is a museum displaying the history of potassium nitrate (a key ingredient in gunpowder) production and transport, which was a former industry in the village.
Ainokura Village has 23 gasshō-zukuri houses in the village, most of which still function as farms. In addition to staying the night in a traditional farmhouse, visitors can take to the surrounding hiking trails, or relax in the onsens.
Gifu Soba Noodles
One of the specialities of the regions is soba, a healthy buckwheat noodle. The spring mountain water, free from impurities, make the soba especially tasty. In Gifu prefecture, soba noodles are traditionally eaten with sansai or hida beef (an award-winning Wagyu beef from Takayama).
Significant efforts have been put into the preservation of these national treasures. The villages of Shirakawa-Gō and Gokayama regions are beautiful reminders of a different era of Japan, and not only represent a fascinating style of building, but also of the way families and communities were organised. Staying overnight in one of the region’s minshuku is a wonderful way to learn more about this part of Japan.