Roadtrip to Gifu: Charms of Shirakawago (Pt. 2)

Central Japan can be described loosely as being a synonym to traditional villages, full of snow. The most popular one is, uncontestedly, Shirakawago (白川郷). The name refers to the traditional, preserved old-town of the village Shirakawa, located in the valley of river Shogawa, at the border of Gifu and Toyama prefectures. Shirakawago, together with neighboring Gokayama, are remarkable due to their folk heritage, both being registered as Unesco World Heritage sites.

The distance from Takayama to Shirakawago is about 40′ by car, via a well maintained toll road. The view of the mountains along the route was especially pleasant during winter. Because the village is preserved, cars are directed towards a large parking lot next to Deai bridge. This suspension bridge was carefully designed in order to suit the traditional architecture of the village. Deai bridge (probably meaning meetup bridge) managed to win the 2003 civil engineering award of JSCE. Although it does match the landscape perfectly, it is unfortunately paved with a material that is easily frozen and slippery. Still, crossing the bridge offers an excellent view of Shogawa and the village houses. A small Akiba shrine is located next to the bridge, with its torii gate marking the entrance to the village.

The specialty of Shirakawago is an architecture style called Gasshodukuri (合掌造り). The main feature of these wooden houses is the steep thatched roof, covering every house and structure in the village. The name of the style comes from the triangular shape of the roofs, which look like two praying hands, as 合掌 means ‘pressing one’s hands together in prayer’ or the Hindi namaste. A couple of houses in the village were built 100-200 years ago. A thatched roof, being an organic material, can get moldy as the years go by. Usually a roof is repaired every 30-40 years, so you can spot the new ones easily from their bright yellow color.

The person who first discovered the importance of gasshodukuri was Bruno Taut, a German minimalist architect who visited Japan in the 1930s. The shape of the roofs, called sasu-kozo, is designed in order to be able to hold large amounts of snow during heavy winters. The orientation of the houses, on the north-south direction, is also selected in order to minimize wind resistance and help managing the temperature inside. Because almost all structures in the old-town are made of wood, there is a sophisticated system in place in order to prevent fires. There are signs indicating fire hazard, as well as elegantly hidden fire hydrants all around. Most of the houses operate as souvenir shops or restaurants, while some function as museums.

The largest house in Shirakawago is Wada house, built around 1800. The first floor is occupied by tatami rooms, the main room and the kitchen, while the large attic used to be a storage space. The distinctive thatched roofs are made without nails, using a refined alignment of large pillars and elegant ropework. The end result is a huge amount of usable space in the attic, that can be used for everything from drying materials to storing equipment. Or maybe it was utilized in the large silk and gunpowder production that allowed Shirakawago to prosper during Edo period.

From the two faces of the roof, Wada house offers a great view of both the rest of the village and towards the observatory at a nearby hilltop. The first floor is decorated using paper doors made from traditional washi (和紙 japanese paper) from the city of Mino.

Soon, we started walking to the hill at the outskirts of the village, where the Ogimachi Castle Observation Deck is located. I didn’t see any castle or remains (possibly because of the snow). Bruno Taut, when describing Shirakawago, said that the landscape certainly does not look Japanese, and it could be an illusion of Switzerland. Indeed, viewed from above especially during winter, Shirakawago feels different, not like the Japan that I am used to.

Walking around the village, I tried a croquette with hida beef at しあわせ屋 吉兵衛 . There are also a couple of restaurants, offering usually handmade soba. At some point, I came across a house with a hundred grasshopers made of straw decorating its wall. I am not sure if this is an equivalent to making a thousand of cranes so that a wish comes true, or just plain boredom.

If you have read my blog before, probably you know that I try to obtain unique stamps from shrines at every place that I am visiting. So, I went to Myozenji, as Buddhist temple at the other side of the village. The temple is now functioning as a museum, so there are no goshuin available. However, it does have a distinct bell tower, unique because its roof is the traditional gassho roof. Hitting that bell during New Year’s Eve must be a fulfilling experience, for sure. Next, I tried my luck at the nearby Hachiman shrine, which was cute, but devoid of a goshuin.

Finally, leaving the village, we headed south to have a look at the Miboro lake and dam. Around 1940, the Japanese government started building dams to use as a hydroelectric power source in the area. The flooding resulted in some small villages submerging, while at the same time people were moving away, reducing the number of preserved houses in the area. Luckily, the residents understood the uniqueness of their folk culture and banded together in order to save the traditional houses from falling into decay. They decided that they “Do not sell”, “Do not rent”, and “Do not destroy” and eventually managed to get the area registered first as national and then as international heritage site.

On our way back to Takayama, we stopped at Roadside Station Hida Hakusan and tried to find an onsen with an open-air bath to enjoy the snow together with steaming water. There are lots of onsens in the area, some of which put apples or other fruits in the bath. Be sure to grab the chance and visit one, rural onsens are always more relaxing than the ones in the city.

Up next, we will talk about the geisha district and the castle of Kanazawa.

Note: Photo credits go to myself, as well as my dear friends Dyah and Sabina.

Other posts from this trip

Roadtrip to Gifu: En route to Takayama (Pt. 1)

Have you ever wondered what is there between Tokyo and Kyoto, especially on the west side? The old and the new capital are 461km apart, so there are a lot of places worth visiting in between. Most people are familiar…

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