People Who Live in Gassho Houses Shouldn’t Stow Thrones

The weather was wonderful Friday, the day we went by bus to see the Gassho-style houses 40 miles north of Takayama in the Shirakawa-go region, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1995. Here’s how UNESCO describes the area:

Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.

The bus ride generally followed the Sho River north, passing numerous dams and bridges along the way.

Our first stop was Ainokura, a village of 60 people in 27 houses, 20 of which are Gassho-style, that is, steep, thatched-roof houses designed to shed snow, mostly built in the 1800s.

At the gable ends these thatched roofs form an equilateral triangle with each connecting point having a 60° angle. “Gassho,” by the way, supposedly translates to “hands folded in prayer” in Japanese.

We were able to climb up into the second-story attic of the Gassho house that now serves as the Traditional Industry Museum to see the interior bracing. The beams are made from oak, lashed to the rafters and cross-supports with ropes and twisted hazel boughs. No nails are used. The houses are typically re-thatched every 15 to 20 years, a process that often involves as many as 200 people.

The ground floor is the living area of the house, the upper floors being reserved for sericulture, that is, silkworm cultivation. There is a central hearth for cooking and heating, but no chimney. The smoke simply rises into the attic where it dries, blackens and strengthens the roof beams, lashings and thatch, as can be seen above.

From Ainokura, we traveled south, stopping for lunch on an overlook with a great view of the largest settlement in Shirakawa-go, Ogimachi village, below in the valley:

Buses to Ogimachi stop in a parking area on the west side of the Sho River opposite the village, although local residents are able to drive directly into the village from the east side. We crossed the Sho on a pedestrian bridge together with a multitude of other tourists visiting Shirakawa-go. We were happy that our bus had first stopped at Ainokura where we pretty much had that village to ourselves for the hour we were there.

Ogimachi is much larger than Ainokura with over 600 residents and 59 Gassho-style farmhouses. It is also the more popular tourist destination. We quickly walked to the northernmost end of Ogimachi to avoid the crowds and to see the Wada house, the largest Gassho house in the village. On the bluff above and to the right is the restaurant we stopped at for lunch.

I’m sure these former farmers make far more from turning their house into a tourist attraction than they ever did in the fields and they maintain all four floors of it in pristine condition.

Up in the third-floor attic they had an exhibit of the silkworm cultivation that these people engaged in until the industry collapsed on them a few decades ago.

Silk worms are raised on Mulberry leaves (photo below, top left) then encouraged to spin cocoons on racks that are handmade for that purpose (top right). The cocoons are transferred to boxes as they grow (lower left) and when mature, the worms are killed and the cocoons soaked to loosen the fibers which are then spun into thread (lower right):

Many of the buildings in Ogimachi are oriented north-south to catch the prevailing winds, a somewhat contrived arrangement since a number of the Gassho buildings in Ogimachi were relocated here as a result of dam construction in the region.

Here’s an example of a Gassho barn:

We were amazed at the thickness of the thatching of these buildings; it must be nearly 3 feet thick on some of them!

Near the parking area is an outdoor history museum consisting of relocated and reconstructed Gassho buildings. Dale noticed that the oldest of them had thatch – rather than wood – gables. She also pointed out the “venetian blinds.”

The cherry trees are blooming here, too, as are the magnolias.

We were in Ogimachi for about two hours, followed by an hour bus ride back to Takayama for a Hida beef dinner. It was an interesting day.

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