After the first day in the alps we headed back to Takayama as planned for dinner, some rest and then to travel up to Shirakawa the next morning. We took the first possible bus and after about an hour and a half, we arrived in the village. The village’s area is 95.7% mountainous forests, and its steep places are characteristic of such difficult terrain. In between the mountains flows the Sh? River. The region was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, and during that time the village subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms.
Even though Shirakawa is surrounded by nature, there were much fewer hiking options than Kamikochi. The main attraction was indeed the Gassho-villages – these large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer”, as the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. The architectural was designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter. There were around 300 Gassho style houses in 1924, but by 1961, the figure had plummeted to just 190. Today the village is part of UNESCO World Heritage.
We visited Shirakawa in the middle of the summer, but it’s apparently a nice place to be in winter as well. Shirakawa is one of the snowiest places in Japan and the snow can be as high as 3 meters!
Picture by Jeffrey Friedl
Having all the general information from the city guide, we left to explore the village. The surroundings are full of rice plantations and you can visit most of the Gassho houses’ interiors. We found it a bit expensive to get in the houses (around $5 to $7 depending on the house), and it’s not like there was so much to see in them, so we picked 3 and considered it done.
Two of the houses we visited didn’t allow us to take any pictures. The third one did, but it was too dark inside for any good shots. They had a kind of exposition/museum with the old tools that were used to farm back then as well as some photos from the old days.
During the visit we found ourselves a bit alarmed when thinking about how easily these houses could burst into flames. The construction material is all very flammable and they still have an open fire in the centre of the building for heating. As fire is a major hazard for the property, elaborate fire-extinguishing systems have been installed in the village zones nowadays. Fire-fighting squads of residents are also organized.
Finishing the tour, we went to a hot spring nearby and relaxed for some hours. We got something to eat in a restaurant nearby, tried some amazake – which was totally not for my taste – and took the bus back to Takayama.