Shirakawa-go gassho village in the north-western tip of beautiful Gifu Prefecture is the largest and most spectacular example of the amazing traditional thatch roof A-frame style found in this region and a few other mountainous areas of Japan.
The name ‘gassho’ comes from the buddist upturned cupped hands prayer gesture, which the houses’ steep 60° gradient A-shapes resemble.
The shape, and their thatch rooves, came from neccesity. Using locally available straw the Shirakawa-go villagers developed an excellent insulation method against the elements, especially the harsh winters. Massive snowfalls of more than a metre a storm are common, and in fact the whole village lifestyle and cycle has developed over the centuries to use the snow as resource, especially the melt water.
Access to Shirakawa-go is super easy now. The Tokai-Hokuriku expressway pops out of an 11km long tunnel high above the village in the steep sided Sho River valley. Just take the exit and in 5 minutes you are there. There are numerous daily express bus services from Takayama in Gifu, Kanazawa in Ishikawa, and Toyama in Toyama – more details below.
But back in 1600, when the Shirakawa-go gassho villages first developed, this was truly lost Samurai territory, a place to hole up for winter virtually cut off from the outside world down the valley and over the mountain passes.
Shirakawa-go’s gassho houses were more than dwellings though. No one sat idle through those long, cold winters. The houses contained at least three levels (occasionally a fourth or even fifth in the largest ones), with the ground floor for living quarters and the upper levels for the local industries.
Shirakawa-go traditional craft activities
- Silkworm farming: On woven straw shelves stacks and stacks of silkworms were reared, chewing away on mountains of mulberry leaves, their threads gathered and woven all through the long winters.
2. Paper making: A principal activity was making Washi, traditional Japanese paper made from kouzo bark. Apart from the best quality ‘white’ paper they used the leftovers bound together to make Schichou, a thicker, coarser type of paper used as insulation around the shelves on which the silkworms were kept.
3. Potassium nitrate for gunpowder: Perhaps the most remarkable of the three main crafts, making Ensho, potassium nitrate or saltpetre/saltpeter, a key ingredient in gunpowder, was ingenious and somewhat complicated. And a very efficient use of resources – the droppings from the silk worms, urine and charcoal were mixed in layers under the central hearths in each house where the fire was kept constantly burning. The Maeda clan’s Kaga domain in nearby Kanazawa to the west was one of Japan’s richest and most powerful feudal areas, and the secret Shirakawa-go gassho villages ensho production kept them supplied with gunpowder. It was a tax the villagers had to pay.
The smoke from the hearth fires constantly burning helped keep bugs out of the timbers and thatch roofs – they were designed without chimneys for a good reason.
The surviving gassho houses need to be re-roofed more frequently nowadays since the fires are no longer kept burning so often.
Gassho house construction – the Yui spirit
Raising a gassho house was a community effort a bit like barn building in Amish communities. Everyone got together to help the very labor intensive process.
The system of neighbourhood collaboration and co-opertion is known as Yui, which played and continues to play, a vital role in village life. Today the spirit of Yui has been co-opted to incorporate the collective effort required to maintain and preserve the unique traditions and culture of the gassho villages.
The foundation laying was a festive affair, or virtual festival, residents from Shirakawa-go and nearby villages coming together for the “ishikachi” or stone-pounding technique used to hammer the foundation stones into the ground. Rice balls and plenty of sake rewarded the throng’s efforts.
Next the first floor was built by craftsmen, who were specialists in heavy timber work like shrines and temples.
Then the villagers took over the upper floors. The A-frame timbers were always left leaning outwards at the ends, so in case of a fire they would fall away from the rest of the structure. The timbers were bound together with straw ropes.
With the frames in place the thatching could begin, another all-hands-on-deck community effort. Altogether it took several years to build a large structure, but they were designed to last – and did and have, for 300 or more years. Reroofing an expensive exercise without the population of the old days to assist, and needs doing every 20-25 years.
Exploring Shirakawa-go village
As the largest of the gassho villages, and being just off the freeway, Shirakawa-go is not surprisingly also the most popular. At busy times you will share the experience with lots of other tourists, but with 114 thatch roof structures that sprawl out over a wide area on both sides of the Sho River, there is plenty of space to get around and explore what interests you most at your own pace.
An upside of being popular is the variety of restaurants, coffee shops and souvenir shops available too.
We started with a very traditional lunch at Masuen Bunsuke, with the freshest fish you will ever eat. They raise char, dwarf rill trout and rainbow trout in the streams and ponds surrounding the houses, and the owner fishes them out as needed with a cheerful “Come on fishy, it’s your turn now!”
This is tucked away from the main village off the road up to the lookout spot, and is often chosen therefore as the perfect postcard spot. The owner took us to see exactly that, and the normal winter postcard look as below.
Starting or finishing with the lookout overview and obligatory selfie – either your own or the commercial one who will print it out in the time it takes you to come down the steps off the selfie platform – is not a bad idea to put the scale of the village in perspective.
In fact it’s not 100% historically accurate. Quite a few of the buildings here have been salvaged from elsewhere, suffering either from neglect or from being inundated by hydro power lakes on the river. They have been moved to their current locations, but that won’t worry most people.
On the plus side, to qualify for World Heritage Status the village needs to be inhabited, and many of the buildings are. Several function as guest houses, and are bookable on the link below. Staying right here allows you those early morning and late afternoon windows when most day trippers depart to enjoy a more serene experience here.
On the western side of the river at the southern end of the village the outdoor Gassho Folk Museum offers a collection of 26 fascinating buildings including houses, a water mill, storehouses and more, without modern distractions, so it’s the best place to get the old school feel for how life would have been like. You can go inside the houses, and upstairs in several to see up close the rope and beam construction techniques. A ￥600 adult, ￥400 child fee applies, well worth it.
Strolling down from the museum area – it’s a compound of buildings, not a single museum building – you come to the footbridge over the Sho River to the main central Shirakawa-go area.
Many of the gassho houses here are converted into commercial establishments, from guest houses to restaurants and coffee shops. For the weary sightseer who has worked up a thirst some have draught beer too.
The Myozenji Temple at the south eastern end of the village is impressive, like the rest of the Shirakawa-go gassho buildings built without nails, and like them with a thatch roof.
The changing seasons will change the surroundings. In a normal snowy winter it all has a magical fairytale look, as snow melts it can be a bit drab but as the padis surrounding the houses go green it looks delightful in summer, while autumn colours on the surrounding mountain sides are as impressive as winter.
You can pay for a guide, or day tours will usually include one, but it’s super easy to stroll around at your own pace spending time exploring what takes our fancy. Coffee, beer, tea, sake, snacks or delicious meals are readily available.
How do you get to Shirakawa-go gassho village?
Access is super easy via the Tokai-Hokuriku freeway with frequent express buses. If self-driving hop off at the Shirakawa IC.
Day trips operate from Takayama, or you can visit en-route from Gifu to Ishikawa or Toyama. Come on a morning bus and continue on an afternoon one, store your bags at the Tourist Office in the bus station where lockers are available. Tours may include combinations with the gassho villages not far away in Toyama Prefecture like Ainokura and Suganuma.
It’s also easy to visit from Nanto City in Toyama.
For timetables and booking check Nouhi Bus
More info and links
The Tourist Office are very helpful, and plenty of info on their official website here
Hida Takayama tourism site
Official Hida City tourism site Visit Hida
Official Gifu Prefecture tourism site