What Kind of Place Is Shirakawa-go?
Shirakawa-go’s Location and Climate
Location within Japan
Shirakawa-go is located in the north-western part of Gifu Prefecture, in the approximate center of Japan. The name “Shirakawa-go” is taken from the traditional Japanese name for the region used in ancient times. It equates to the modern administrative area of “Shirakawa Village”. Additionally the village is situated in a wider historical region known as “Hida”. Today, the names are often combined, giving the name “Hida Shirakawa-go”.
Shirakawa Village is a typical mountain village, surrounded by mountains. 96% of the village area is forested, while agricultural land only accounts for 0.4%. The village also contains places such as Hakusan National Park and Amo Prefectural Nature Park, where nature has remained undisturbed for many years. Within the Hida region, villages are found in particularly rugged areas of mountain folds. Between the steep slopes flows the Shogawa River, with settlements developing in its basin.
One of Shirakawa-go’s key climate features is that its snowfall is some of Japan’s heaviest. Snow falls from December to March, depositing around 2 to 3 m over the area (record snowfall of 4.5 m). Shirakawa-go has been geographically described as an “isolated island”, and also referred to as an “unexplored region”, not just because of the surrounding mountainous terrain, but also due to the fact that links with the surrounding areas could become blocked by snowfall.
Additionally, precisely because of this heavy snowfall, the people were especially grateful to see the first buds of spring, have a great love for the cherry blossoms, look forward to the fresh green fragrance of summer, and are joyful at the harvest in fall, holding festivals to express their gratitude. It was never a wealthy village, but our ancestors lived well by looking forward to the changing of the seasons, and utilizing this climate to the fullest.
Average monthly temperature (2015)
The oldest traces of human life in Shirakawa-go are artifacts dating back to between 7000 B.C. and 2300 B.C. Multiple articles of pottery have been excavated, painting a picture of an independent Hida interacting with the surrounding areas.
Also excavated are a mirror dating from around 600 A.D., documents from 700 A.D. have been found that appear to mention Shirakawa-go, although it is not certain.
The name “Shirakawa-go” first appears clearly in history in around 1176. The name is thought to have been in wide use at this time as it appeared written in the diary of an aristocrat living in Kyoto. Following this, the name has made a large number of appearances throughout the history of Japan.
The distinctive large roofed gassho style houses, named in Japanese for their resemblance to hands joined in prayer, are a charachteristic feature of Shirakawa-go today. Early prototypes were built from around 1700, as silk and gunpowder production in the village flourished during the Edo era. The design evolved into the form currently seen around the village in around 1800.
Shirakawar-go’s sightseeing spots can be largely divided into two areas. The Unesco World Heritage registered Ogi-machi Gassho Style Village makes up the “World Heritage Area”, while the region around Hirase hot spring village is known as the “Southern Nature Area”.
In the “World Heritage Area”, gassho style houses built from around 1800 still stand to this day. In this area, even now, the people continue going about their daily lives, surrounded by the unique and beautiful scenery.
Centered on Hirase hot spring village, the “Southern Nature Area” is an area brimming with rural beauty, where nature can be enjoyed to the full. The waters of Hirase hot springs are drawn from the foot of Mt. Haku, one of Japan’s three famous mountains, and are said to promote beautiful skin, making them particulaly popular with female visitors.
Travelling between the “World Heritage Area” and the “Southern Nature Area” takes about 15 minutes by car (or bus).
What Are Gassho Style Houses?
The Gassho Style Houses of Shirakawa-go
Gassho style houses are residences built from wooden beams that support their charachteric, steeply sloped, thatched roofs, that meet at a high peak, and are said to resemble hands meeting in prayer. They are a large form of the architectural style of thatched gabled roofs known as “sasu” structure.
While similar buildings are seen in other provinces, in Shirakawa-go this style of building known as “gabled gassho style”, with its triangular shaped eaves resembling an open book propped up on its covers, is ideally adapted to the natural conditions in Shirakawa-go, charachterized by great weights of snow deposited during heavy snowfalls.
Addtionaly, the structures face to the north and south, taking Shirakawa-go’s predominent wind direction into account and minimizing wind resistance, while controlling the amount of sunlight hitting the roof, to provide cool summers and warmer winters.
One of the ways in which gassho style houses differ from other traditional Japanese houses is that the attics are employed as work spaces. From the Edo to the early-Showa era, sericulture (silk production) was the foundation industry supporting the people of the village. The large attick spaces under the eaves were usually divided into 2 to 4 layers and put to effective use in the rearing of silkworm.
Another charachteristic feature is the design of the sasu-kozo style thatched, gabled, roofs. The roofs of Japan’s tradition thatched roofed house often employ a gambrel or hipped roof design (supported an internal wooden frame), but the gassho style design features gabled roofs with long, individual, beams defining and supporting roofline. This creates a large spce through which light and the breeze can travel, producing ideal environment for the breeding of sillk-worms. You can feel the beauty of gassho style in the function of life guiding the form of the living space.
The Discoveries of Bruno Taut
The design of Shirakawa-go’s gassho style houses was brought to the world’s attention by the prominent German minimalist architect and architectural scholar, Bruno Taut (1880 – 1938). It is said that writing about gassho style design was the motivation behind his book “The Re-discovery of Jaapanese Beauty”.
Bruno Taut stayed in Japan for more than three years from 1933 to 1936, travelling all over the country while writing “The Re-discovery of Japanese Beauty”. He introduced the Katsura Imperial Villa to the world, and further, famously compared it with the elaborate Toshogu Shrine, declaring the former far preferable in terms of it’s traditional Japanese beauty. Additionally Taut’s evaluation that Japan’s unique artchitectural style, sukiya style, leads naturally into modernism, created a stir in the debate between tradition and modernity and had a profound impact on the world of Japanese architecture. He visited Shirakawa-go in May, 1935.
In his book, Bruno Taut admiringly wrote that “gassho style houses are architecturally rational and logical”, also noting “This landscape is not Japanese. At least it is scenerey the like of which I have not seen here before. This is surely Switzerland, or otherwise an illusion of Switzerland”. Taut’s high opinion of Shirkawa-go’s gassho style architecture drew the attention of people from all over the worlld.
About World Heritage Status
What Is World Heritage Status?
In December 1995, Shirakawa-go was registered as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the “Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama”. The specific registered areas are the gassho style settlements in Shirakawa Village Ogimachi in Gifu Prefecture, Taira Villlage Ainokura in Toyama Prefecture, and Kamitaira Village Suganuma in the same prefecture, creating a World Heritage Site with three separate locations.
Shirakawa-go took this opportunity not only as a domestic site within Japan, but also to attract attention from around the world as part of the collective common heritage of the human race. So what exactly is a World Heritage Site?
A world heritage site can be defined as; “An irreplaceble treasure, either produced naturally by the the Earth, or through the history of mankind”, “A common heritage of humanity that people currently living around the world inherited from the past and must now convey into the future”
World Heritage Sites were first defined within the World Heritage Convention, which was adopted at the 17th UNESCO General Assembly in 1972 (formally the “Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cutural and Natural Heritage”).
The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are noted for; “Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their gassho style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.”. (For more, see the Homepage of the UNESCO)
Preservation Movement in Shirakawa-go
Gassho style houses were built in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama from around 1800 until the early 1900s. The old buildings are said to have stood for over 300 years. However, from around 1940, the construction of dams for the development of hydroelectric power in the basin of the Sho River, led some settlements being submerged. Additionally, people left some small villages collectively, some houses were lost to fire, and many of gassho style houses were re-sold. There were around 300 gassho style houses in 1924, but by 1961, the figure had plummeted to just 190.
Against this backdrop, the residents of the gassho style settlement of Ogi Town, fearing that soon none of Shirakawa-go’s gassho style houses would remain, started a movement to save the houses from within the village. In 1971, the three principles of “Do not sell”, “Do not rent”, and “Do not destroy” were agreed upon with the consensus of all residents and the “Association to Protect the Natural Environment of Shirakawa-go, Ogimachi Village” was established and began to expand its preservation activities.
These preservation efforts were noticed and led to the area’s selection as a district for the protection of nationally important traditional buildings in 1976, before being registered as a world heritage site in 1995.
In 1997, the Shirakawa-go World Heritage Site Gassho Style Preservation Trust was established to conduct further landscape preservation activities in the village.