I usually research a destination to death. But Japan was different. Partly because it was an impromptu trip on the invitation of my sister, where I decided to just go with the flow.
Was I surprised? You bet. My knowledge of Japan was limited to the capital and the atomic bomb sites, apart from sketchy bits about Samurai, Shoguns and Geishas absorbed from James Clavell novels.
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 spied these ‘chalets’!
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.
You’ve got to admit, that in my groggy state (and without those signs in Japanese), I could be forgiven for thinking I had been transported to the Swiss Alps!
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 however, with busloads of tourists converging on the town during peak season. Boards warning people to keep off private property, were being flagrantly violated. They must hate tourists. I would.
Gassho-Zukhuri roughly translates to ‘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 silkworm. 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 snowfall in winter!
We didn’t have much time here sadly. And 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 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 these traditional homes that are run as specialty lodging called Minshuku.
No, language isn’t a problem, and buses are plentiful. To be able to wander around this gorgeous village after the tour buses depart and experience the local way of life would be absolute bliss.
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