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Japan: Shirakawago

Located in the Shogawa River Valley some 347 miles northwest of Tokyo, in the remote mountains of Gifu, Shirakawago is a moderately popular tourist  destination. The area which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, is known for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which  were constructed over 250 years ago. Gassho-zukuri means “hands together” and the steep thatched roofs of these houses resemble the hands of  Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. These large houses are the only examples of their kind in Japan.

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The gassho-zukuri architectural style was developed over many years and is designed to withstand the large amounts of snowfall that blanket this region  during the winter months. Due to their location and harsh winters, the villages were cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time and the  residents subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The roofs, constructed without nails with only sturdy rope holding  the frame together, provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms. The houses provided the villagers with a place to both work and live. The scarcity of land required that the homes be built large enough to hold extended families, with as many as several dozen family members living under one roof. Irori (open-hearth fireplaces) in the middle of a communal room were used for cooking, warmth, and light during the long winter months. Because there were no chimneys, smoke from the irori simply rose to the levels above, helping to ward off insects in the thatch and to keep the ropes taut. The old roofs are replaced every April, when one to four roofs are changed on successive weekends. The entire process involves about 200 people, who can  replace one roof in a couple of days.

Although some people still live in these houses today, many have been converted into restaurants, souvenir shops and minshukus (a Japanese-style Bed &  Breakfast). There is an open-air museum that depicts life in the region before roads opened it to the rest of the world.

Shirakawago’s inhabitants live in several small villages with Ogimachi being the largest and the main attraction of Shirakawago. Visiting the village is a  good day trip for those traveling from Takayama. However, the best way to experience Ogimachi is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses, which  serve as a minshuku.

Renting a car is highly recommended if you want to visit the many different areas around Shirakawago which include the Hirase Onsen (hot springs), Kawai Village, Mt. Haku (one of Japan’s three famous mountains), and the Hakusui Falls.

Do keep in mind that if you visit during the winter months, some roads may be closed due to excessive snowfall.

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Gifu-shirakawago-14, Kanda's house

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Gifu-shirakawago-14, Kanda's house-7

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Photo Credits: Mika Panzaroni

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