Taking advantage of the fact that Monday, March 21st is a public holiday in Japan, I went for a three-day weekend to visit the regions of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Stretching along the Shogawa River in the remote mountains of northern Gifu Prefecture to Toyama Prefecture, the place has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995. Its particularity comes from the fact that these areas are home to villages with many Gasshô-zukuri, traditional houses in mountainous environments and some of which are over 250 years old. These houses are built of wood without any nail, with a very steep roof made of straw to withstand the snowfall. Their name “gasshô-zukuri” means “construction in the form of hands in prayer”.
After 3 hours of train to the north, here I am arrived in Takayama, where I booked a hostel for Saturday night. I hop on the bus that takes me in an hour to the first World Heritage Village: Shirakawa-go.
Shiragawa-go is the largest of the three UNESCO World Heritage villages. It is also the most accessible and therefore the most touristy. He owns about fifty Gasshô-zukuri.
I arrive at 2pm in the village with a cohort of tourists and a gray weather. Fortunately the mountains covered with mist give the place a special atmosphere. I spent the afternoon walking around the village and raving about the particular architecture of the Gasshô-zukuri. The thickness of the straw roof is impressive: almost one meter thick! The windows made of white paper add to the peculiarity of architecture.
Some sunbeams illuminate the end of the afternoon and then I go back to Takayama, to spend the night.
Sounds of Shirakawa-gô – Home concert :
Sunday morning, I leave Takayama early. My visit to Takayama was a quick visit but it does not matter since I’m going back on April 14th and 15th for the Takayama Matsuri (Takayama Spring Festival), considered one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan. I leave the city without regret. Again the bus, that takes me this time in 2 hours to the village of Suganuma.
Further back in the valley and located in Toyama Prefecture, Suganuma is home to about fifteen Gasshô-zukuri. I go around the village and attend an operation to renew the roof straw of one of the houses. Carried out by the Gokayama Owners Forestry Cooperative, the operation is done every 15 to 20 years. A dozen men perched on the roof, make bales of used straw they throw down to be crammed into a truck. The work is not easy because you need good muscles and a good balance.
I take the bus again that brings me in thirty minutes to my last destination of the weekend where I will spend the night: Ainokura. The village is located far in the valley in a beautiful mountain and is almost exclusively composed of Gasshô-zukuri (twenty homes). It is the most beautiful of the three World Heritage villages. The snow still carpets the rice fields and fields making the place quite magical. I walk in the village but the few rays of sun disappear quickly to give way to a time more and more gray that turns into heavy rain that does not stop. At 3pm it feels almost at night and it is freezing cold.
To escape the flood, I go visit the Folklore and Traditional Arts Museum located in a Gassho-zukuri. The museum is very interesting, allowing to see the interior of a house and the objects used and clothes worn by the inhabitants at the time. The ground floor of a Gasshô-zukuri is composed of “Maya” </ em>: entrance of the house also used to store tools and firewood, “Niwa” : the kitchen also serves as a bathroom, “Oe”: the living room with the hearth in the center where the meals are cooked, “Dee”: the room for the ceremonies where the Buddhist and Shinto altars are located, “Chouda” : the family room with a small window and “Benjo” : the toilets originally located next to the entrance to the outside. The first floor “Ama” and the second floor “Sorama” are used for the storage, raising silkworms used for produce the “washi” paper or the creation of gunpowder. The visit of the first floor is particularly impressive since we can see the interior of the structure of the roof completely made in a natural way with the only element : braided cords.
The villages of the Gokayama region, of which Ainokura is part, were famous during the Edo period (1603-1867) for their production of gunpowder. They are also famous for the production of paper ” washi “ still active. Manufactured since the 7th century in a traditional way from silk, the technique was introduced in the Gokayama region at the end of the Heian period (around 1185) by the survivors of the Taira clan who were refugees in the area after their defeat by the clan Minamoto.
The museum tour also allows you to see and listen to traditional music and dance performed at festivals today. The many instruments used are found only in this region such as the “sasara” an instrument made of a hundred wooden taps strung on a string and producing a particular sound.
Sounds of Ainokura – Traditional music :
I come out of the museum satisfied with my visit. Alas, the weather is still bad. I therefore go to my hostel: Chôyomon, a Gasshô-zukuri located in the first houses of the village. In front of the hostel is a stone with a footprint whose legend tells how it was left by a “tengu” (legendary popular creature both man and bird and having a very long nose) .
The hostel and its manager are very friendly. But as the interior is laid out, it looks more like a traditional Japanese inn than a real Gasshô-zukuri. I console myself by watching the sardines for dinner cooking in the fire and chatting with Zee, a Nigerian woman on vacation in Japan for a month. The air smells of wood fire and we hear the rain falling on the straw roof. The dinners and breakfasts are very good (the best tofu I have eaten since I was in Japan) but almost too big for my little stomach.
After dinner I go for a walk in the village. At night the atmosphere is really quiet and the light emanating from the Gasshô-zukuri gives me the impression of being back in time. Sounds of drums emanate from a small building next to the sanctuary in the center of the village. Residents must be rehearsing traditional music for the next festival. I listen for a little while but the rain and the cold shorten my ballad and I go back, running, to the hostel.
Monday morning, I leave Ainokura around 9am to catch the bus that takes me back to Takayama in two hours from where I take the train back to Tajimi. Where a beautiful sun is waiting for me. I’m almost too hot on my way to the dormitory. If only I had that weather for my walks among Gasshô-zukuri, it would have been perfect. Finally, despite the bad weather, the weekend was still nice and interesting.
Sounds of Japan – Preview – Bus announcements:
(In Japan, buses, trains and subways broadcast regular announcements to warn passengers of the stop names, information on the journey, the fact that one must put one’s seatbelt on, one must not move when the vehicle is running, transportation may be delayed, transportation will stop, etc. and even commercials! The bus I took to return to Takayama ran ads almost continuously during the two hours of travel! Hard to enjoy silence! Compared to France, where there is almost no information delivered, in Japan it is the opposite situation. Passengers are always aware of what is happening. It’s good to be aware but sometimes I think it’s really too much).