The Gassho Zukhuri Houses Of Ogimachi

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’!

 

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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.

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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!

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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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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

79 thoughts on “The Gassho Zukhuri Houses Of Ogimachi

  1. Hi Madhu. I’m just now writing my post about Shirakawa-go (I was there in May) and doing a little research. This post popped up in my google search. I guess 2012 was before I started following your blog. Too bad you didn’t have more time there 😦
    I allowed 2 days because I knew I’d want to explore, and because I knew I’d need a break after Tokyo. I spent the second day in Ainokura, another of the gassho villages.
    Alison

  2. BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA on the Google part! esp. with the intro you just had.
    Ahhh, true that it is very Swiss Alps-like. Though, I wouldn’t be so surprised that it’s in Japan.
    That bridge is loooong…….. and low.
    Bwahhahahahahahahahaha …. sorry still laughing out loud.

  3. And thanks for that new word – Carcolepsy. I think I have that too – I consider it a favor to my husband who would otherwise be subjected to my endless yakking and complaining. 😀

  4. It is so charming and idyllic – except for the busloads of tourists coming in. 🙂 How wonderful it is that places like this have been preserved.

  5. Hi Madhu,
    You’ve done it again! Now i have another destination to put on my to-go list! BEautiful photos, and intriguing storytelling!

  6. Beautiful! Your photos of the “Japan Alps” are truly lovely… I had to laugh at your Carcolespsy reference… At least, you didn’t miss this one. 😉

  7. Avery informative and wonderfully escorted journery to a place that looks so peaceful. A village out of a story book. Pretty little houses with thatched roofs that are named – “Gassho-Zukhuri means ‘Hands folded in prayer’ – along with a speical meaning – in reference to the shape of the roof, and the scale and steepness of the thatched gable is certainly impressive. I will remember that one. Very nice …..

  8. The farm house, bridge, shops, mountains…I’d love to stay there for days. Beautiful photos!

  9. That’s always the conundrum, isn’t it? To want to explore an authentic place like this without it becoming a tourist trap. I wouled imagine these people must hate tourists, too, and would hate to be viewed as an intrusive tourist. But I would be an intrusive tourist because I’d want to see it so badly. I never know how to act in instances like these. I try to keep a respectful distance, but since I’m gawking and zooming in with a camera, does it still count? 😦

    1. You are so right, and it was my guilt speaking when I said I would hate tourists if I was them. Have no doubt they all spill into the town square when it falls silent in the evening.

  10. I’m currently researching Japan to death, and there are just so many interesting places to visit. You’ve just added another one to the list!

    1. How long are you going for Denise? Try and fit in Takayama as well, you will not be disappointed. And Yokohama seemed lovely, would have loved to stay a night or two. 🙂 Never enough time is there?

      1. I’m thinking about 10 days, which is definitely not going to be long enough. I’ll just have to look at the list and make some decisions 🙂

        1. 10 was VERY rushed Denise. For our itinerary, I would have given a couple more days in the least.

        2. Unfortunately the length of time is governed by the amount of annual leave I can get, so I need to work within that. It may be a good excuse for a second visit at another time!

        3. Then ten days it is 🙂 Try and restrict the number of places in which cases. Too much is never good from my experience. Whatever you decide have a great time!

  11. I know nothing about Japan, but what an unusual village this is. What a disappointment to not tour one of the houses which could also serve as a museum. It would make the tour more complete and satisfying. Carpolepsy…I have just learned something new.

    1. It certainly would and I have no doubt their future tours will be planned better. Carpolepsy was new to me as well. The word I mean, not the condition 😀

  12. Looks like it’s a screen set, doesn’t it? Obviously not the same, but it could have been the village from The Last Samurai – one of the most picturesque villages I’ve ever seen on film. And yes, it does have the feeling of a Swiss village too, doesn’t it?

    I was quite getting into the period when the car parked outside, and the air conditioning units above the shop in #11, gave me a rude jolt back into the present. Are there lots of thatched buildings left in Japan, I wonder? Hopefully enough to keep the craft alive because at 40 years, it’s really only a once in a generation job, isn’t it?

    Such a shame you weren’t able to go inside. When I lived in England I always wondered what it must feel like, with all that insulation. Quiet, I thought, and cozy in the winter. But nowadays the first thing I think of is it being the home for small animals, and insects (I’ve been too long in the tropics?) and couldn’t cope with the house full of rustling at night!!

    I I suffer from Buscolepsy – that’s for sure. There’s nothing to do except crane your neck to the side – you have no control over where you’re going, and how you’re getting there – awful! Now, as to people who submit to Carcolepsy – they’re rotters in my opinion. It’s the passenger’s job to keep the driver entertained and alert … I’m with R, you need a round of Cognitive Response Therapy! Well, perhaps not in India, and Sri Lanka – there’s just so much going on on the roads the driver never gets the chance to be hypnotised by the white line … 🙂

    Lovely post dear. Soooo good to have you back!

    1. Yes the trappings of modern conveniences do spoil the atmosphere a bit. The evidence could have been concealed to perpetuate the myth of traditional life at least. They apparently did not have power connections up until the mid sixties!
      And R says thank you for suggesting therapy for my ‘condition’, but says the prognosis can’t be good with a hopeless case like mine. Nasty man 🙂

    1. if i ever return, it will surely be during Cherry blossom season, so you are most welcome to come along Jo. But er, who is Richard? If you are referring to Mr Gere, I will pack my bags now! 😀

      1. Ah, sorry to disappoint. (what a lovely thought! Don’t suppose you have any influence there?)
        Sadly A Bit of Culture was the Richard I was referring to. He commented just before me, and has a lovely wife who would undoubtedly be coming too.

  13. Such a fascinating place that I would have never known existed if it hadn’t been for you. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos and beautiful story.

    1. Thank you! And you are most welcome Bella Remy. I had no clue before I went either 🙂

  14. There are pros and cons of everything – including both thorough preparation and improvision on travel – I usually prepare myself thoroughly at home and then improvise during the journey… 🙂

    Great shots… 😉

    1. Us too LeDrake. The free and easy only works when you have a lot of time on your hands.

    1. Yes, I felt very bad for them, but I couldn’t stop clicking pictures either. The Cotswolds have similar thatch roofed structures, don’t they Gilly?

  15. You know that I KICK Myself for not coming here more frequently 😕

    Thank you SO Much for sharing 🙂

    LOVED This Trip, thanks for taking me 😉

  16. If money was no object, I’d go on a big tour of Japan tomorrow. You’ve just added ogimachi to my itinerary even though I’d never heard of it. Whereabouts is Gifu?

    1. if money was no object I would return tomorrow 🙂 Gifu is in Honshu island, about midway between Kyoto and Takayama.

  17. I would definitely want to spend a few days in this place, on my own, not part of the tour group.

  18. Looks like a lovely quaint village! ( hadn’t heard of carpolepsy before- is that a real condition?:-) )

    1. Hadn’t heard of it before either, but looks like it is!! R thinks I should name my condition Vehiclolepsy 😀

  19. So beautiful, Madhu. I’ve never been to Japan, so don’t know what i would expect, but certainly not this. 🙂

    1. Never expected this either. And from R’s reaction to my photos, i can see he is regretting having said he wasn’t interested in visiting Japan 😀

  20. Oh Madhu, you make any place you visit come alive with your words and photos. Hope you are feeling better this day. 🙂

  21. Looks gorgeous Madhu! I actually have gone to hardly researching at all when I travel now. I love to be surprised and go crazy taking everything in when I’m there. Can’t wait to hear more about your trip. How long were you there and where did you visit?

    1. I doubt I can give up completely! But it does have its merits 🙂 This was a rather rushed ten day visit cross country, the highlight being the night festival in Takayama. Still haven’t sorted those pictures yet. Appreciate your stopping by Nicole.

  22. Oh I’ve heard of Shirakawa-Go before, but looking at your pictures really made me understand why it is one of top destinations in Japan. Love those houses and the landscape!

    1. I never sleep during the day on terra firma! in fact when i had hormone related sleep issues a few years back, R – at his sarcy best – suggested I should get a simulator 😀

  23. Pretty! You are right, I see a Swiss influence in the architecture. Or maybe it was the Japanese who influenced Switzerland!

    🙂

    1. Someone must have made that up, but describes me perfectly 😀 I am always awake on terra firma! Did I receive an award? Thanks anyway!

  24. A beautiful place. “Hand folded in prayer”, what a wonderful thought from a place nestled in the valley between mountains.

    BE ENCOURAGED! BE BLESSED!

  25. It´s a double-edged sword, tourism, isn´t it? We all want to see beautiful places, yet crowds of people arriving on tours create chaos at times and encourage souvenir shops (and McDonald´s restaurants) that look totally out of place in such beautiful villages.

    1. It is sadly. And there is no way to stop that. People living in those pretty villages need to make a living too. At least these souvenir shops looked pretty. Didn’t check to see if they carried the usual Chinese tat that you find in the rest of the world 🙂

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