Learning About the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

Japan is one of the only few countries in the world that have preserved their history in terms of structures and houses so well through centuries. A land brimming with rich history and culture, Japan is a great place to travel to when looking for remnants of what used to be.Japan houses several entities that show their old traditions and culture from centuries ago. With such a rich history, the Japanese were able to preserve some of its structures and artifacts that best represent their ancient culture. One of the structures that show this is the world-renowned Historic Village of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.

An Overview of the Regions of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

By Alpsdake [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Recognized as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the country, the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama is composed of three ancient mountain villages. The property has an area of 68 hectares, which is equivalents to 170 acres located in the Shogawa river valley. This cultural property spans across the border of both Toyama Prefecture and Gifu Prefecture in central Japan.

Also known as the “White River Old District,” Shirakawa-go can be found in the village of Shirakawa situated in Gifu Prefecture. On the other hand, the area of Gokayama is composed of two villages. Also known as the “Five Mountains,” it consists of the former villages of Taira and Kamitaira, both of which can be found in Nanto, Toyama Prefecture. Located in a mountainous area that experiences snowfall, the valley houses these villages.

The villages are famous for housing several farmhouses that were built using the architectural style called gassho-zukuri. This architectural style is composed of roofs that effortlessly shed snow, which is useful during the winter season. Both the regions of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are located along the Shogawa River Valley. Both areas were also designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1995. Their farmhouses are estimated to be as old as 250 years old.

The well-known architectural style gassho-zukuri translates to “constructed like hands in prayer.” This is because the roofs of the houses that incorporate this style, steep and thatched, look like the hands of Buddhist monks when they pray. This style of architecture was developed through the years and over several generations. The style works really well when there is heavy snowfall in the area. Designed without the use of nails, these roofs also offer a large attic space that was utilized to cultivate silkworms.

There are three villages that are quite well known in the area. The biggest, as well as the most well-known, village in Shirakawa-go is Ogimachi. Visitors can take a day trip from Takayama and tour around Ogimachi. The village can also be reached by bus that transits between Kanazawa and Takayama. However, the best method to fully experience what the village has to offer is to stay the night at one of the farmhouses in the village since most of these also serve as minshuku.

In contrast to Shirakawa-go, access to Gokayama may be a bit challenging. Visitors would have to change buses in Ogimachi in order to reach the area of Gokayama. Because the villages in Gokayama are not as developed as Ogimachi, it also means that it is less crowded. This is great for people who would not want a huge crowd when visiting these villages. The villages in this area are also smaller. Probably the nicest ones in Gokayama are Suganuma and Ainokura.

The main mountain in the area is Mount Hakusan. Since way back, this mountain is seen as a sacred summit by the locals. Both the areas of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama became a place for ascetic religious practices and ceremonies in the 8th century. During this time, Mt. Hakusan became the center of mountain worship.

After some time, the area became controlled by the Tandai sect of Buddhist Japan. At present, the tradition of Ochi-udo Dentsetsu still remains in the region. This tradition is based on the legend of defeated warriors who escape to this area due to it being remote and isolated. In the 13th century, the Jodo Shin sect replaces the Tendai sect and has since governed the primary religious influence to this day. Currently, all three villages mentioned that are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site belong to the present administrative organization of the Mura system.

Ogimachi: The Largest Village in Shirakawa-go

By Leyo [CC BY-SA 3.0 ch (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/ch/deed.en)], from Wikimedia Commons

The largest village in the area of Shirakawa-go is none other than Ogimachi. Due to its size and beauty, it is also the primary attraction in the area. The village was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1995. At present, the village houses numerous farmhouses that incorporate the architectural style of gassho-zukuri. This is what makes the village popular among other things.

Even though these farmhouses are quite simple, they are actually able to withstand the harsh winters and heavy snowfalls. Despite its simplicity, the farmhouses are a good place to live and work in no matter what the weather like. However, they look their best when covered in snow. Through this, one is able to witness how effective their roofs are in shedding snow. Another great view of the farmhouses is when it is surrounded by green fields. Today, most of these farmhouses also serve as museums, restaurants, and minshuku.

There are several places to see in the area of Shirakawa-go. First and foremost is the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen. It is an open-air museum located across the village center. It houses exhibits on farmhouses, as well as other structures, that moved to Ogimachi in order to avoid destruction. The museum is open from 9 AM to 4 PM on the months of December, January, and February and from 8:40 AM to 5 PM on the remaining months of the year. However, it is important to note that admission ends 20 minutes prior to closing time. It is also closed on Thursdays from December to March the following year. Admission to the museum costs 600 yen per head.

Another must-see in the village is the Shiroyama Viewpoint. It is located to the north of the village center. Visitors are treated with great views of the whole village and its farmhouses. Visitors must have to take the walking trail going to the viewpoint or take a shuttle bus. Taking the trail would take 15 to 20 minutes to reach the viewpoint. On the other hand, taking a shuttle bus would mean taking a stop close to the Wada-ke House.

Speaking of Wada-ke House, it was the home of the Wada family. The Wada clan is among the richest families that also served as village leaders of Ogimachi. The house is also the biggest gassho-zukuro farmhouse in the town. Today, the house serves as a museum and is open to the public from 9 AM to 5 PM. It has irregular closing days. Admission costs 300 yen per head.

By tsuda from Tsushima, Aichi, Japan (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another house that is a must-see is the Kanda-ke House. This house is recognized as among the best-preserved farmhouses in the area. At present, it serves as a museum located in the town center. From here, visitors are also able to enjoy a great view of other houses that surround the Kanda-ke House. It is open from 9 AM to 5 PM. The house/museum is closed on Wednesday from the month of December to the month of February. Admission costs 300 yen per head.

Another family well-known in the area is the Nagase family. Their clan was composed of doctors that served the Maeda lords residing in Ishikawa Prefecture prior to their relocation to Ogimachi. Similar to the other prestigious farmhouses, their house was also turned into a museum. It showcases a number of medical tools and presents received from the Maeda family. Other tools that can be found inside the museum include those used for farming and raising silkworms. The museum is open from 9 AM to 5 PM and has irregular closing days. Admission costs 300 yen per head.

For people looking for a religious structure, check out the Myozenji Temple and House. The temple is unique in comparison to other temples in the country due to its thatched roof. It is linked to the Myozenji-ke farmhouse. The farmhouse serves as the home of the priest of the temple. The proprietor is able to speak English, which works great for foreign tourists who can only speak English.

Both the house and the temple are open from 9 AM to 4 PM from December to March the following year. In the remaining months of the year, they are open from 8:30 AM to 5 PM. They also have irregular closing days. Admission fee for both structures combined is 300 yen per head. Other places to see in the area include the Doburoku Festival Museum and the Shirakawa-no no Yu.

Ainokura Village: The Biggest Farmhouse Village in Gokayama

By そらみみ [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Heading over to Gokayama, the largest farmhouse village in the area would be Ainokura Village. Despite it being the biggest one in Gokayama, Ainokura is also the most remote village in the region. It consists of almost 20 farmhouses that incorporate the architectural style gassho-zukuri. Unlike in Ogimachi, most of the farmhouses in Ainokura are still private residences. However, a few of them have already transformed into museums, restaurants, and minshuku.

In comparison to Ogimachi, Ainokura has not been fully developed. Because of this, it is harder to access compared to Ogimachi. However, what makes this village more enticing is its offer of peace and serenity. The area is much quieter due to less tourist traffic. The village houses similar attractions as those that can be found in Ogimachi. Staying overnight in a farmhouse in also highly recommended to fully experience the village and its beauty.

Because the village is remote and isolated, its traditional culture has been maintained well through the years. Its folk music and dances still incorporate the ancient style that the locals used from way back. There are also traditional instruments that are unique to this village such as the sasara, which is a musical instrument composed of more than 100 wooden clappers. The sasara also serves as a symbol of the region; hence, it is a famous souvenir when visiting the area.

The must-see places to visit include Folk Museum Number 1 and Folk Museum Number 2. Museum Number 1 shows the everyday life of the locals living in the region during the Edo period. On the other hand, Museum Number 2 shows the industries of the region including washi paper making. Both museums have no closing days and are open from 8:30 AM to 5 PM. Admission to each museum is 200 yen per head. However, admission to both museums is cheaper and costs 350 yen per head. One can also check out the viewpoint when in the area.

Suganuma: Another Popular Village in Gokayama

Another village to check out in Gokayama is Suganuma. It consists of two areas, namely, the Suganuma Village and the Gokayama Gassho no Sato. The two areas are linked by a tunnel. Suganuma Village consists of 9 farmhouses that incorporate the architectural style gassho-zukuri. Aside from making washi paper, another industry that this village is proud of is its saltpeter industry. On the other hand, the farmhouses in the Gokayama Gassho no Sato no longer serve as residences. Instead, they serve as accommodations for visitors who wish to experience the traditional Gokayama life.

The place to see in this area is the Saltpeter Museum. Saltpeter is an ingredient that is used in gunpowder. It was among the most important industries in the region during the Edo period. The museum shows the history, the tools, and the procedures in making saltpeter. The museum is open everyday from 9 AM to 4 PM. However, it is closed from the 29th of December to the 3rd of January the following year. Admission to the museum costs 210 yen per head. Other places to see in this area include the Folk Museum, the Gassho Cottages, and the Takenaka-ke House.