Japan day 8: Shirakawa-go

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May 13th 2019
Published: May 19th 2019
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Sleeping on the floor was not as difficult as I thought it was going to be. Our problem was that at 5.30 am the sun was streaming through the blinds and we were awake! Breakfast for us was served at 8 am in the Banquet Hall. It was off with our shoes as we padded across the tatami mats to our waiting table. Breakfast was a salad, fruit and a couple of croissants. This was a continental breakfast. The coffee was incredibly weak! Thankfully Don had made me a coffee in the room before we came down or I wouldn’t have been able to function!

Then we went down to reception to get the shuttle bus to the bus station where we had tickets for the one hour drive to Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa-go is a world heritage village located up in the mountains. It was chosen to be the Important Preservation District in 1976. In the winter when it snows the villagers are confined to the village and therefore they are very close knit. They help each other with their livelihood and many of the young stay rather than leave.

This village, although hundreds of years old, is the epitome of an eco village. Many still live in houses known as Gasso-zukuri. These are a unique Japanese style. They are houses built with steep rafter rooftops. When seen from the outside, the shape of the roof resembles the hands of a prayer, so it is called Gasso in Japanese. Whilst there are houses built in this style in other parts of Japan the ones built in Shirakawa are a most special type. They were built in a triangle shape like an opened book. This design prevents the weight of snow in winter from crushing the rooftop. The houses are built facing north-south direction to alleviate wind resistance and to adjust the intensity of solar radiation in summer. The people living inside feel warm in winter and cool in summer.

Many house owners use the loft as a workplace which is often divided into two to four floors. The sericultural industry was the main source of income from the late Edo period (1603-1868) to the Showa era ( modern times) with both the production of silk and its weaving. In order to effectively utilize the space of the loft, it was often divided into two to four floors for the feedlot of the silkworms.

Traditionally the rooftops would last for between 50 - 80 years, but due to environmental conditions in modern times they are changed every 30 years. The downside to these houses is that they are highly flammable and any activity that involves fire are prohibited in case of a large scale conflagration. A full community scale fire drill is held at the beginning of November every year.

We were hoping to get stunning views of the scenery but instead we got views of the insides of the tunnels that haven been cut into the mountains. This begs the question of how did the people of Shirakawa-go communicate with the outside world and it also makes it easy to see why this community is so close knit.

We walked through the village and crossed the suspension bridge which wobbled with the number of people walking back and forth. It was not a pleasant experience.

We decided to visit the Gasso-zukuri Minka-en - the open air museum, folklore park. The first thing we saw was a stone with the following inscription:



To live in the steep mountains is to live in Paradise on Earth. Even when the lamplight grows dim, we talk fondly of the unending good old times. The young men don’t leave the village, but stay on and support the elderly. When we build roads, we do not sell the trees for lumber. The old trees grow thick on the mountain, enriching our hearts, even if we have no other wealth.

To clear the land and till the soil and support oneself is to obey the laws of nature.

He who sells his forebears’ estate loses his native place and brings ruin upon himself. Let him who would hear the song of the birds in the mountains endeavor with all his strength to grow fruit trees there. He shall pass his days in joy gazing at the stars. Happy days still come to the lonely woods in the steep mountains. The light of peace glows on in the eyes of the horses and cattle.

Translation by John T. Toomey


We saw a number of original houses that have been moved into the museum after having been restored. In one house they showed a cross section of the roof to illustrate how the roof is repaired or renewed. Some of the houses had family heirlooms from their previous owners. In the middle of the village museum is a water mill.

Surrounding the area is a forest of pine trees. The whole setting is very much at one with nature, tranquil and peaceful. We were even warned by a fellow tourist to be careful of a snake which was lurking around a house.

Once we left the village museum and went back into the “real” village we could see that apart from the myriad of tourists and real people getting on with their lives, there was little difference between that and the museum.

We walked back to the bus terminal and returned to Takayama. We decided to walk back from the station and this time we didn’t get lost! We used the time until dinner to write up the blog. And then we were shown across the road by a member of staff to “Sushi Cho”. This is a sushi restaurant within the sister hotel to the one we are staying in. Here we were treated like royalty and had an amazing sushi banquet.

Back to the hotel and bed and asleep by 9.30 pm. Unheard of usually but we were exhausted.

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