Shirakawa-gō

Japan Shirakawa-gō
By Jordy Meow (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Japan Shirakawa-gō

白川鄉 合掌村 白川鄉之冰河 1694小

Japan · Shirakawa-gō

Shirakawa-gō (白川郷, Shirakawa Village) is situated at the foot of Mt. Haku-san in northwestern Gifu Prefecture and is a historic UNESCO World Heritage Site with marvelous Gassho-Zukuri (prayer-hand construction) farmhouses. It is a Japanese mountain settlement in what was once considered a wild and unexplored region. Because of the area’s natural environment, with high mountains and heavy snowfall, interaction with neighboring regions was limited. However, this also created the conditions for the development of unique cultural practices and lifestyles.

“Gassho” in “Gassho-zukuri” comes from the Japanese word for prayer. With enough imagination, the angular rooftops could be seen as akin to two hands, palm against palm, in prayer. This kind of construction makes them well suited to the climate in this part of the valley, with hot and humid summers as well as winters with heavy snowfall. These houses are built entirely without using metal nails or other artificial materials.

One downside with this kind of structures however, is that they do require quite a lot of maintenance. In order to keep the inside of the house comfortable, a fire has must be burning at all times. In addition, about every 20 years or so, the grass roof has to be entirely replaced. This is also done by hand, and requires a lot of labor. In the past, the villagers usually helped each other out with this. However, since the number of families living in this kind of traditional houses has dwindled, the remaining ones have to ask dozens of volunteers for help these days.

Shirakawa-gō is a leading area of heavy snowfall in the world. The snow turns Shirakawago into an idyllic winter landscape. To make it even better, the village organizes special illumination events on selected Sunday and Monday evenings in January and February that attract plenty of tourists.