I usually research a destination to death. But Japan was different. Partly because I was caught up with an excessive number of births and engagements and weddings in the community before I left, and partly because this was an impromptu trip and I decided to just go with the flow.
Was I surprised? You bet. I knew very little about Japan, apart from sketchy bits from James Clavell novels about Samurais and Shoguns and Geishas and of course my fascination with the romance between the crown prince and princess Masako. And I knew much less about the country’s cities, other than the capital and the atomic bomb sites.
Little surprise then, that I thought I was dreaming when the bus braked to a halt outside this village, and I jerked awake (Yes I suffer from Carcolepsy, and slept through the coach journey across Japan despite my sister’s barbed references to the fabulous scenery I was missing ) and saw this!
Without those signs in Japanese, you have to agree, I could be forgiven for thinking I had been transported to the Swiss Alps! We were in the Shirakawa-Go district in Gifu prefecture known for its Gassho farmhouses. Three of the many isolated villages in this region – Ainokura, Suganuma and Ogimachi – have been designated Unesco World Heritage sites.
Nestled between lush green mountains and across a swaying footbridge is Ogimachi – a living, traditional Gassho village – the largest and most picturesque of the three heritage sites, with 59 original Gassho-style houses.
Their fishbowl existence must be hard though, when busloads of tourists descend during peak season. I saw boards warning people to keep off private property, that were being flagrantly violated. They must hate tourists. I would.
Gassho-Zukhuri means ‘Hands folded in prayer’ in reference to the shape of the roof, and the scale and steepness of the thatched gable is certainly impressive. The distinctive feature of these Gassho houses is the use of triangular frames for the gables in place of beams and posts, in order to maximise the use of space under the volume of the roof. This space was traditionally utilised to rear silkworms. Like all ancient construction, no nails are used and the Susuki thatch is fastened to the frames with rope. The thatch is incredibly said to last a period of 30 to 40 years, despite heavy snow in winter!
We didn’t have much time here sadly. Our guide couldn’t figure out how to get into one of the houses!! Strange, because I found out how in a few minutes on Google! To be fair, we were already running late, and she was likely concerned about missing the night festival in Takayama that this trip had been planned around.
Whatever the reason, that we missed seeing the interior of a Gassho house, was a huge disappointment. If I were to return, I would certainly plan on spending a night at one of the Gassho Zukhuri homes that are run as specialty lodging called Minshuku. No, language isn’t a problem and buses are plentiful, even if you don’t have a private vehicle, as is evident from these reviews. To wander around this gorgeous village after the tour buses leave would be absolute bliss!