When I decided to visit Shirakawago, I tried to find a very old Gassho-zukuri House to understand the construction using woods and ropes. Shirakawago is located in the northern part of Gifu. This area gets over 2 meters of snow in the winter season. This severe weather and environment created special features of the Gassho-zukuri House. While staying an old Gassho-zukuri House, I could see details of it.
Each Gassho-zukuri House has a sloped roof to withstand the heavy snow. The beams are made from trees that grow on the mountainsides and develop the curve naturally. No nails are used. The roof frame is lashed together with rope and twisted hazel boughs. The roof is constructed by oak beams curved at the base. You can see the details of the Gassho-zukuri House at Gassho-zukuri Minkaen Museum exhibiting about 26 Gassho-zukuri Houses.
“Gassho” means the grasping of hands in front of gods in Japan. The Gassho style started from the end of Edo era to the Meiji era (mid 19th century). The first floor was built by carpenters specializing in temples and shrines. The second and third floors were made with ropes, timber and built by the cooperation of villagers.
All logs were joined together only with straw or ivy ropes. Those ropes helped to preserve the house for a long time because they accumulated soot from the smoke of the hearth and became as hard as steel, thus developing insect-repellent and preservation effects. Additionally, the warm air went up to the attic, making it possible to cultivate silkworms on the second floor.
On the first floor, all daily life, including cooking, eating, spending time together with the family and welcoming customers, took place in a big hall with a hearth fireplace. The Kaga clan promoted the production of saltpeter for gunpowder under the floor, Japanese paper and silk. Gassho-zukuri House was the best place to produce those products as tributes to the Kaga clan during the Edo era.
Where to stay in Shirakawago
There are over 100 Gassho-zukuri Houses in the Shirakawago area, so I had several choices and we stayed at Magoemon ryokan which had more than 280 years of history. Guests had supper together at its dining room to share memories of the journey. We had dinner with 4 tourist groups together in a circle.
Gassho-zukuri Houses need to have their roofs retouched every 15 to 20 years. The retouching used to be done by the efforts of the local residents to preserve the house for future generations. We had a chance to see the retouching of the roof of the Gassho-zukuri House at Shirakawago.
It takes 4 hours to see around in Shirakawago, but it is better to put aside one whole day including travel. You can take a tour bus to visit Johana town, Ainokura and the Suganuma area in the Gokayama region and Shirakawago from Takaoka Station in Toyama Prefecture. The distance between Ainokura and Suganuma is 11 km. The Shirakawago area is much bigger than the Gokayama region.
When it comes to coffee
There are several cozy restaurants and cafes in Shirakawago. Cafe Hina was one of my favorite places to stay for reading a book.