Shirakawago may be considered the starting point for Japanese residential architecture. It is a town once hidden away from greater Japan. A place of thick columns and beams, where the roofs are made from thatched grass.
The village is located within one of the few regions of Japan that experiences heavy snowfall in the winter. In order to make it easier to clear off the snow, the thatched roofs of Shirakawago’s over 100 ancient wooden dwellings have been built at an approximately 60 degrees angle.
Because the shape of each of these roofs resembles two hands coming together in prayer, a motion known as ‘gassho’ in Japanese, building of these types are called gassho zukuri (gassho-style). Although traditional buildings are disappearing elsewhere in Japan, the residents of Shirakawago continue to live in these valuable architectural land marks, much like people in Amsterdam on the canal belt live similarly in houses that are on the world heritage list. Recognizing the importance of this village, in 1995 it was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
As soon as my husband and some of his friends and I arrived in the village, the first place we visited was the Wada House. Built over 300 years ago, the house has been beautifully preserved by each successive generation of residents. Looking at the house from the outside, one really gets a feel for how Shirakawago must have looked like in ancient times. The isnide of the building is open to the public so if you go there it is definitely worth a look.
The most amazing thing about this style of architecture is that it is like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Alle the pieces are fit together and held in place by fitting exactly or by using rope made of straw to hold things down. No nails are used in the construction process. Enough space is left to allow the wood to expand and shrink according to the seasons because the weight of the house is spread out over the entire frame, it continues to stay strong regardless of the heavy snow and wind that might ravage it each year.
The pillars and beams of the house shine with a black luster, having been exposed to years of smoke from the ‘iroiri’ hearth on the ground floor. This coloring gives the house a magical quality like you have just stepped into a fairy tale and at any moment an evil witch or maybe a fair maiden might pop into the house.
One side of the roof is replaced every 30 years, a process which is said to require enough straw to fill 20 four-ton trucks. This difficult work is done by a village cooperative called a ‘yui’or “connections”. This feeling of brotherhood and helping eachother out in times of need seems to be alive and well in this quint little village.
A secluded area preserved by local cooperation
If you happen to visit this region, I can highly recommend the beef fried in Magnolia leaves with miso. It is a local delicacy of the Hida region. When you have had your fill, walk over to the Heritage museum. Built in 1967 as a model town intended to preserve the architectural style of Kazura village (which was at the time on the brink of becoming a ghost town as all the villagers were moving away), the Heritage museum is home to a number of small and large gassho-zukuri houses and watermills. Inside the Park, you may experience first hand many aspects of traditional Japanese village life, such as soba (Japanese buck wheat noodles) making or straw work.
Shirakawago is dotted with many inns where you can experience what it’s like to sleep inside a gassho zukuri home. Take your evening meal around the irori, and you will no doubt experience how easy it becomes to strike up a conversation with the owner of the inn or other guests that are there.
If you should take a stroll around the area, the only sound you will hear is the creaking of frogs in the night sky. Looking around you can see the silhouettes of nearby gassho-zukuri buildings making a stark contrast with their surroundings in the moonlight. The entire town gives off an even more magical sensation when you walk around at dusk or at night compared to the day time.
If you don’t already have plans, I suggest that you go to the Ogimachi-joshi Tembodai Viewpoint. Located on a plateau once home to the Ogimachi Castle (Ogimachi-joshi in Japanese), the viewpoint offers a maginficent view of the village many gassho-zukuri buildings and the nearby mountains and for a minute you will feel like what it must have been like to have been the ruling Daimyo (land lord) in ancient times.
It is said that the reason why the ancient houses of Shirakawago are so well preserved is in fact due to the many high mountains that surround the village on all sides, cutting off it from the outside world.
Another famous site in the neighbourhood is the Myozenji temple, a Buddhist temple with a history dating back to the 18th century. Each building in this Temple was constructed in the gassho-zukuri style. This includes the main hall, which was built out of the wood of the zelkova tree and is said to have been constructed by a force of over 9,000 people, as well as the Temple’s Shoro Gate, which is adorned with truly beautiful and delicate designs. Even the priest’s quarters, which supposedly took a team of local and Hida mountain carpenters three years to build, utilizes the gassho-zukuri style. It is quite rare in Japan to find a temple with a thatched roof.
To watch the way a community lives and views the architechture of its houses is to know its lifestyle. Looking at the gassho-zukuri buildings, I understood how the people there have survived within a harsh natural environment by conbining their knowledge and strength, perservering thanks to a unique lifestyle of mutual cooperation.
Getting to Shirakawago
From the Meitetsu Bus Center in Nagoya Station, take the Gifu Bus Express Shirakawago Route and get off at Shirakawago (route operates between April 1 and November 30). the journey takes 2 hours and 50 minutes.