Thursday, January 22, 2015


While Takayama is a charming town, we visited it this time primarily as a gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go.

Here's what UNESCO has to say:
 Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people's social and economic circumstances.

Basically, though, the houses are just darling. B and I both felt that the site got UNESCO status primarily because it was so cute. The setting is pretty beautiful too, though: the main village is surrounded by lovely mountains. The main point of access for visitors is on foot, crossing a long bridge spanning the nearby river.
Bridge to Shirakawa-go
R and B on the bridge
It had snowed heavily the day before, so we got to see the houses in their native element: their design is primarily a response to the winter conditions of the region, where snowfall can easily top 32 feet annually (or over 415 inches), with two meter high snowbanks developing. The snow may be a nuisance (Japan's government gives subsidies to areas with extremely heavy snowfall to help them with snow removal, etc.) but it also looks magical.
The Village
Buddhist temple entryway covered in snow
 The houses are quite interesting architecturally. They were built primarily without nails, metal being too expensive, and are held together with rope lashings as seen in the picture below. As the area was a silk producing region, the houses are designed in multiple stories: the lower for living quarters, and the open upper stories for storage and silkworm areas (the rising heat would provide the high temperatures silkworms need to thrive).
Shirakawa-go is a bit of a victim of its own charm, though, being heavily touristed and occasionally full of tour groups. To experience the same buildings in a less crowded environment, Takayama has a "folk village", where historic buildings from across the prefecture have been transported. It was almost deserted when we were there.
I still preferred seeing the buildings in their original environment, though. The crowds weren't terrible despite our visit on a holiday Saturday, and since most visitors come in a tour group, are fairly easily avoided.
One of the gassho-zukuri houses
Closeup of the thatched roof: it's easily two feet thick

Visiting Shirakawa-go, at least if using public transportation as we did, is an all day trip. The Hida Folk Village can be visited in a few hours (it's also accessible via bus). R was tired after our full day touring "ancient buildings" (what she calls them), but not too tired to request a present from the gift shop. It was Hello Kitty toy piano and here she is serenading us to her own accompaniment.
I love this little person.

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