Today’s tour was to the quaint little village of Shirakawa-go in the remote mountains that span from Gifu to Toyama Prefectures. The town, and a couple more similar ones nearby were declared UNESCO world heritage sites in 1995. They are famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
Gasho-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 style developed over many generations and is designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy show that falls in the region in winter. The roofs are made without nails and provide a large attic space used to cultivating silkworms.
But first, a visit to the ladies room, where there was a speaker build into the wall playing toilet flushing sounds. Apparently, if I’d pressed the button there on the right it would have given me a selection of music and other sounds to mask the actual sound of me being in the toilet.
And then you got to wash your hands here.
Ok, on with the tour before the rest of the tourists catch up!
We crossed the Sho River to get to the village. The water was crystal clear and presumably freezing!
There were monuments covered in these teepee style sticks which we learned were to save the statues from the heavy snow. It also occurred to us that the trees we saw back in Kawaguchiko with the strings attached to the branches were there for the same reason. The things you learn about snow when you come from W.A!
Most of the houses had water streams running past their houses which catch the snow as it falls off the roof and melts away.
This is our lovely guide, Hiso. He was awesome! He had lived in New Zealand for 6 years and spoke perfect English and not even with a Kiwi accent although he did say his favourite food in NZ was fush and chups – don’t try and tell me the Japanese don’t have sense of humour!
The man hole covers we learned are different in every region. This one is all about the mountains and the thatch roof tops.
All the houses fave north to west length wise to take advantage of the wind that blows north – south through the valley and also to maximise the sun going east – west. They were pretty cluey way back when.
People still live in this village, so most of the houses have plots of land near them where they grow vegetables and rice. They must detest their homes being gawked at by tourists every single day, but Hiso assured us that it is the tourist yen that pays for the upkeep on the roofs – which run into the hundreds of millions of yens.
The construction of the roofs is quite incredible as the roof is not actually attached to the bottom of the building. The triangular shaped beams that hold the roof up merely nose into a hole in the floor and the weight of the thatch is enough to keep it on there, even in a strong breeze! And here’s how much snow they get – about 2 metres.
It was quite a magical place and definitely a highlight for me.
Look how thick the thatching is.
Next month there is a special “Boy’s Day” – If you remember, back in Tokyo there was a display of dolls in our hotel which were for “Girl’s Day” or “Daughter’s Day” – well, they also have a day for the boys. It’s called Tango no Sekku and it’s been celebrated for a millennium. Originally it was celebrated in the houses of warriors. It celebrated boys’ courage and determination.
After WWII, Boys’ Day became toned down. This holiday officially became known as Children’s Day or Kodomo no hi. It’s supposed to be a day to celebrate the health and happiness of all children. But many people still see it as Boys’ Festival.
Large carp windsocks, called koinobori, are displayed outside houses of families with boys. There’s one windsock for each boy in the house. The largest windsock is for the oldest son of the house.
The carp is a symbol of Tango no Sekku, because carp are considered strong and determined. They’re able to swim upstream against the flow of the water. This is a day for families to celebrate their sons’ strength and character.
Warrior dolls and helmets, armour and swords are also displayed in houses with boys.
The symbolic flower of Tango no Sekku is a type of iris called shobu. The shobu has long leaves that resemble swords. Boys traditionally take shobu leaf baths on this day.
One traditional food eaten on this day is kashiwa mochi. It’s a rice cake steamed with sweet beans and wrapped in an oak leaf.
Hiso got to this spoke and told us that this was the best view in the village…..
Then I turned around and saw this – snow capped mountains!
Me Jenny & Hiso
After winter this is where you bring your car to have your tyres changed over.
Even the shed roofs are thatched…. this one has probably seen better days
And this is what the thatch is made out of – lucky there’s lots of it!
The weather forecast the other day had predicted rain today…. but I tell you what, we couldn’t have been more lucky – just look at this day.
You only have to turn around 90° and you have a totally different view. Now it looks like we’re in the wilderness, stumbling upon an abandoned cabin – such adventure.
This was a fresh water trough complete with serving spoons for what you might assume are used to scoop out water for a well earned drink after planting your rice, but I’m not sure I’d be game….. it’s probably the cleanest water there is – straight from the mountain, but it’s the rusty barrels that is doing it for me.
This chap has made a garage specifically for his snow plough.
What do you think this extra shed could house?
This man was taking it all in with his pencil.
This is what he was drawing.
There is a fire hydrant on nearly every corner as their whole village is highly flammable and they have open fires inside to smoke out the bugs in the thatch.
Every now and then they test the hydrants…
In the village, to help raise money some people open up their homes as hostels and two houses are open to the public to just come in and have a look at what it would have been like to live there. The open fire where the smoke goes straight up through the vented ceiling and right up to the thatch. It was so smokey that we had to “Febreze” all of our clothes on our return and we’ll be doing a bit of hair washing as well. I’m not sure how they live in it, it was very hard to breath.
Now, this was an interesting story.
The family who owned this house were mainly engaged in raising silkworms, but to make a bit of extra cash on the side, they began making “fuming nitric acid’ which is an ingredient of gunpowder under the floor.
How did they do this? I hear you ask…
Well apparently, they put layer upon layer upon layer of fertiliser, wood ash, soil, straw and urine, then they left it there for a few years and waited for a chemical reaction.
Now, wouldn’t you think you’d try the first batch user a shed or somebody else’s house?
So, they were able to sell what would become ‘saltpeter’ up until Japan opened it’s doors to trade internationally and the government started to import saltpeter from Chile, so luckily they had their silkworms to fall back on.
Again – obviously designed for the shorter person…. Jenny asked it the first sign said “mind your head”, but no, the ‘mind your head’ sign was after you’d walked past the first head bumping beam.
This was another piece of ingenious engineering – to build these houses, they got their bendy beams from the trees that grew on the mountain and had survived the weight of the snow on its lower trunk, causing it to curve.
When building a house like this, they go in search of the strongest bendy tree
to make beams like this.
Inside the house on the second floor, there were old woven shoes and bags and whatnots that people had made to wear in the snow.
I don’t think these are used anymore…
but apparently these are! They’re the things that you strap on to your snow boots to walk in the snow. They look more like a torture device or perhaps a trap.
Although we haven’t seen a single cat on our travels, they are apparently a very popular pet here in Japan.
These are the massive needles they use to stitch up the thatch.
Because Hiso knew the lady who owned the house – she was the grandmother in the three generations that lived in the house, she ran up to me and grabbed my phone/camera and grabbed my arm and said, “I take picture”. She then placed me in the window and grabbed Jenny and placed her next to me.
This is what came about. Not bad hey Nanna?
We then sat and had a cup of green tea whilst watching a video starring the grandfather of the house, it was a documentary showing how the houses were built. Very interesting, especially as Hiso translated the whole thing. We then flicked through a booklet on the table – a school project on the history of Shirakawago, by: the grandson of the family.
Check out how many people it took to get the thatch on – there were this many people again on the inside passing the big needles back and forth to each other. OH&S anyone?
As off the grid and slightly backwards as this place seemed – there were quite a few satellite antennas about the place. They weren’t missing a thing!
Never let it be said that masking tape and a bit of chug can’t fix anything and everything. Again – this would come from the school of use what you’ve got.
We were a bit early – again for Sakura in these parts – it’s a bit too cold, but this little tree put on a small show for us.
Hiso took us to this little place with one table and a small room where you sit on the floor. There is only two things on the menu and you usually get whatever they are cooking for that day.
This place was run by an older Mum & Pop team who just keep bringing out plates and plates of different food. This was the speciality for this area – the dumpling soup. You’ve also got sesame coated potatoes, tofu, pickled something, shredded radish and carrot and then something else – maybe a wildflower something with something?
Anyway – it was all delicious!
This was the room where you sat on the floor, but we’d already taken our shoes off once to go inside the smokey house and Jen’s not too flash at getting up off the floor. Honestly, these mattresses on the floor have been a killer!
So we said sayonara to Shirakawago as we crossed over the Sho River once more.
But not before catching a glimpse of this adorable puppy. Look at his tongue!
If you’re ever coming to Japan and looking for a guide – Hisa was fantastic. He works all around the Hida Ranges, speaks perfect English, hikes, knows stuff and is a ski instructor, so whatever you want – he’s your man.
Hisa Matsuo – email@example.com