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World Heritage / Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

Criteria: (iv) (v) | Date of Inscription: 1995 | Location: Gifu and Toyama Prefectures | Justification for Inscription



Gassho-zukuri houses feature a unique architectural style designed to keep the forces of nature, particularly in winter, at bay. The houses, in fending off the heavy snow of this mountainous region are the prime reason people living in such places have been able to survive so long living in a traditional manner.

Ogimachi village
Ogimachi village
Inside of the Gassho-zukuri house
Inside of the Gassho-zukuri house
Re-thatching the roof of a Gassho-zukuri house
Re-thatching the roof of a Gassho-zukuri house
A Gassho-zukuri is a house with a steep thatched roof, far larger than an ordinary Japanese house. One of the main reasons why the locals build houses in this way is to make snow removal easier due to the amount that falls locally. Another, lesser known reason is to provide a large enough space inside the house for the cultivation of silk worms. Most house owners make the most of their inner space and use up every square inch by dividing it into several, sometimes up to five, levels.
Using the house so efficiently is quite rare nowadays in a Japanese farmer's house and the scenery surrounding the area in which these grandiose houses are set is also rare, most unique and unparalleled throughout Japan.
For the most part, the gassho-zukuri houses stand side by side and are surrounded by rice paddies and fields. Once, such beautiful scenes were commonplace along the Sho-kawa River. However, the number of gassho-zukuri houses has decreased sharply in recent decades affected by local dam construction and the fashion for more convenient modern housing. This did bring about one plus point though as all this change made people realize what they were in danger of losing. To that end, a preservation movement was started and fifty nine gassho-zukuri houses in Ogimachi village in Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture, twenty houses in Ainokura village and nine houses in Suganuma village in Gokayama, Toyama Prefecture have now been designated as World Heritage Sites - added to the list in 1995.
Bruno Taut
A German architect, Bruno Taut (1880-1938) visited Shirakawa-go in 1935 to study the Toyama area houses and in particular the largest gassho-zukuri house in the village. Recognizing the gassho-zukuri house as a rare piece of highly rational architecture for ordinary Japanese folk, he developed a high respect for this ancient form of living and architecture and ranked it alongside the Katsura Rikyu Imperial Villa in Kyoto in terms of importance. As a result, Shirakawa-go was described in his then world famous book, "Rediscovering Japanese Beauty."
The Shirakawa-go area has over 4m of snowfall in the winter months. During this time the gassho-zukuri houses in Ogimachi village are illuminated for several days between January and February and these picturesque houses stand atop the silvery landscape to fascinate visitors.
The Thatched Roof
A gassho-zukuri house needs to be re-thatched every 30 to 40 years. At this time, some 200 villagers re-thatch the roof of a chosen house in an activity that takes approximately 2 days. Amounts vary depending on the exact size of a house but in general houses usually require some 10,000 trusses, (equivalent to about twenty x four-ton truck loads).
Heavy Snowfall Areas
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are located on the steep mountains of Japan's Chubu area, one of the nation's worst in terms of snow fall. Access to the region was once extremely difficult due to such severe weather although modern transportation has now eased that predicament somewhat. Over time, one of the results of this inaccessibility was to help the locals create their own unique culture and pass on traditional social systems and customs undisturbed. Most villages in the areas along the Sho-kawa River, Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma have a similar history.
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