Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture

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Pic : Idyllic beauty of the Shirakawa-go village from the Shiroyama viewpoint, gassho houses dotting the landscape  of Ogimaci shrouded in the white blanket of winter.

UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Gassho-Zukuri Villages consist of 3 historic villages in Central Japan:  Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go in the Gifu Prefecture; Suganuma and Ainokura in Gokayama in the Toyama Prefecture.  I feel lucky that I am able to visit all 3 of these historical world cultural heritage villages in the span of 3 days. Most tourists would either skip Gokayama or cover them all within a day, one hour at each village.

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I’m so thankful I have more than an hour at these places. I guess, to most people, one gassho village is no different from another, and all gassho houses look alike, and the white snow looks the same everywhere, don’t they? Well to me, they are most definitely not alike. One snow mountain is different from another. One snow covered village is different from another. In fact, each snowflake that fell on my face is unique! And most importantly, the feel is so different at each village! 😉

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Gassho literally means praying hands and zukuri means construction. They give the name to these unique thatched roofed houses with shapes of roofs resembling arms positioned at angles with hands clasped in prayer. This architecture was specially designed and constructed in such a manner unique to the harsh regional climate and farming traditions of this mountainous region with heavy snowfall. All the gassho houses here are between 100 to 400 years old.

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Some fun facts about Gassho-zukuri houses :

  • All the thatched roof houses in the village face the same direction. Roof face east and west to get maximum sunlight during winter to melt off the thick snow accumulated on the rooftop. Windows face north and south to allow the wind to pass thru the house for the best possible ventilation.
  • The roofs have a steep 60 degree angle – this is to lessen the pressure exerted by the massive amount of snowfall by allowing the heavy snow to slide off easily, hence preserving the durability of the thatched roofs. They are only rethatched once every 30-40 years.
  • No nails and almost no metal used in the construction. Natural materials are used instead, like straw braided ropes and softened tree branches (neso). They give the structures more flexibility, enhancing the durability and resistance of the structures against strong winds, earthquake and harsh weather.
  • At the centre of the house there is an irori, a sunken hearth in the floor. This serves as a natural heater for the whole extended family who gathers around it to eat and relax, at the same time the smoke emitted from it acts as fumigation to the wood in the entire house.
  • The houses are large, with 3 to 4 storeys, they serve a double function of residence and workplace, enabling extended families to live and make a living by producing silk, paper or “ensho” gunpowder ingredient (especially in Gokayama). Usually the upper floors and the big attic were used for sericulture (silk farming).
  • The houses were each 100% handmade by the cooperation of all the villagers who worked together to construct one house at a time.

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Now this is what I call teamwork! 🙂 (Photo credit : Japanweek.us)

OGIMACHI VILLAGE, SHIRAKAWA-GO

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This village really has good fengshui – mountain ranges at the back and the beautiful emerald Shogawa River right in front of the entrance to the village, which is accessible through a long suspension bridge.

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When we first arrived here from Takayama on a day trip, we took the opportunity to locate our minshuku (guesthouse) which we will be staying on the following night. Holding a map in one hand, we walked towards the gassho houses from the bus stop. All of a sudden, the skyline turned foggy and grey. There was a loud siren in the air. Something was on fire.

Now a fire is a big deal here. This entire village is made from wooden structures and straw, thus highly flammable. Added by the fact that this is an important national cultural property and a World Heritage Site, and the unique gassho houses with history dating back to the Edo period….., a fire is indeed a big cause for alarm! There are posters and warnings all over the village, that smoking is strictly prohibited in almost the entire village, except a very few designated smoking areas; precisely due to the risk of fire.

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As we walked towards our guesthouse, fire engines roared past us heading towards the same direction. And then we paused in our step, checked the map again, and confirmed the location was correct. It seemed that we have reached our destination. One of the 3 gassho houses right in front of us was our minshuku. And the thick grey smoke looked like it’s coming directly from there! Holy cow! We hoped that our guesthouse did not catch fire! From the thickness of the smoke and the number of fire engines and panicked firemen and officials running around, it seemed like a rather big fire.

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Squeezing through all the tourists paparazis, we finally reached the big pile of snow behind the 3 gassho houses, where all the firemen were gathered and busy putting out the fire. Phew! The fire wasn’t from our minshuku after all! What a relief! 🙂

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Ogimachi at Shirakawago was like a tourist trap! There was a day-time population and a night-time population to this place. Tourists flocked to this village in bus loads starting from about 9.30am, each bus staying for about 2 hours until about 4.30pm when the village is officially “CLOSED”. And then……., you could start observing the night-time population here, which is…… eerily close to none left on the streets.

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One day, we came back at 5.45pm, it might as well be 11.45pm; it was as dark as midnight and there was not a soul in sight (no kidding!). It was snowing with cold chilly winds. A vast difference from the pretty fairy tale setting in the day time, it looked like a ghost village now. We couldn’t see the way at all though we were quite familiar with the place by then. We have to use our mobile phone for some backlight to find the way and walked across the long suspended Deai Bridge into the village in pure darkness with only the ferocious sound of the raging Shogawa River beneath us to guide the way, in the cold freezing night with heavy snowfall and strong chilly winds whipping our faces. Fortunately, we already knew exactly where our guesthouse was located, I’d imagine having to hunt for it in pitch dark and hostile weather with heavy bags would be a rather undesirable experience!

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I heard the voice before seeing the dark shadow, someone was calling out loudly: “Tadaima!” (Welcome home!). It was the owner of Kidoya Minshuku standing outside the guesthouse in the snow holding 2 umbrellas, waiting anxiously for us at exactly 6pm, the time we told her we would return. She must have thought that we have gone lost in the pitch darkness of the village at dusk and decided to come out looking for us to bring us home!

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Phew! (Panting! Panting!) Do not miss dinner at 6pm, it starts very punctually! And no, you wouldn’t want to miss this yummy meal of Hida specialties! 😛

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After the delicious fulfilling dinner, a good long hot bath in the uchi no ofuro helped to relax the muscles after a long cold day’s walk, followed by a nice pot of green tea in the room. Ahhhh……. 😀

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One Response to Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture

  1. Denise says:

    thanks for such a personal description of this beautiful place. Having just visited during the brilliant autumn foliage and weather, i cannot imagine the place in the cold of winter. You are adventurous souls!!

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