Japan has had an almost unmatchable ability to preserve many historical places and things within the country. One such place worth visiting is the historic villages and Japanese homes of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.
Visiting these remote villages is like stepping back in time and is one of the rarest and most intimate ways to understand how life in Japan once was and how old ways have been preserved for centuries.
Shirakawa-go And Gokayama
The charming village of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama spans about 170 acres and can be found around the borders of Toyama and Gifu Prefectures.
The land itself is made up of three small villages in the mountains in the Shogawa river valley. The villages have been traced back to the 11th century, with some traditions surviving until the present day.
In Japanese, Shirakawa-go translates to White River Old District, and Gokayama translates to Five Mountains. This region itself comprises what once was Kamitaira and Taira, two old villages in Japan.
The Remote Historic Villages
The people who once lived in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were humble, quiet people who enjoyed being away from the busier towns and cities of Japan. It was once much more isolated than it is now, as the people living in these villages didn’t make it easily accessible.
Because of the fragility of some of the structures that have been standing for hundreds of years, a lot of effort is put into keeping them intact and safe.
Homeowners take care of their homes, but how they do so is somewhat managed by Japanese laws surrounding protecting heritage sites. Furthermore, ample measures are in place to protect the older structures from damage such as fire.
Humble Japanese Village Life
The ability of these villages to survive through the many changes of the past few centuries is impressive, considering the inhabitants have always lived very traditional lives without many modern amenities.
Many outsiders could not interfere with the way of life since the area was not surrounded by many roads, and now that the area is deemed a historical heritage site, efforts are made to maintain the integrity of the homes and buildings, as well as the surrounding nature.
The Snowy Mountains
Given where the mountains of these villages sit, the village is prone to seeing a lot of snow in the winter. This turns these already beautiful villages into one of the most special areas to see in Japan during the cooler season.
In the mountainous areas of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, as many as 40 to 80 inches of snow can fall throughout a standard winter.
There are often events in the winter that celebrate the stunning snow and the atmosphere it creates in the remote villages.
Mount Hakusan, also known as White Mountain, is one mountain found in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.
The mountain is considered sacred to those who practice Japanese Buddhism, particularly the Tendai sect, which is now known as Jodo Shin. The mountain and its surrounding nature are all protected by the government.
Being one of three sacred mountains of Japan alongside Mount Fuji and Mount Tate, the mountain is actually a stratovolcano. However, there hasn’t been an eruption since the 1600s, and it’s believed that the volcano is now dormant.
Since the region of these remote villages see so much snow in the winter, it was important to construct homes that would be able to withstand harsh weather conditions. Thus, the concept of the traditional minka farmhouse, or gassho-style house, was born.
A minka home not only served as a shelter for the families who lived in the area, but the homes also allowed villagers to develop what little resources they could for trade or personal use.
Since the construction and the strength of these traditional farmhouses is so unique to Japan, the homes themselves have been deemed historical sites.
The unique construction is often referred to as having a prayer-style roof, as it resembles two hands folded in prayer.
The roof was constructed using thatching, a process that was able to help these homes stay intact during heavy snowfall. The homes were often four stories, allowing for living space and working space.
The Villages Of Shirakawa-go And Gokayama
There are three quaint little villages that are within Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, and they are all protected as heritage sites in Japan. The villages have all been under the protection of the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties in Japan since the 1950s, and in 1995, they were designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
This law ensures that the integrity of the villages is not tampered with in any way, and what can and cannot be done to maintain the essence of the villages and all their properties is under strict control.
This way, these villages can serve as a piece of history in themselves, allowing visitors the ability to get a glimpse into what life was like in a small Japanese village.
Not only are all three villages kept safely preserved through Japanese law, but the areas surrounding the village are protected as well.
This includes much of the forestry and agriculture that surrounds the villages, which are kept intact because of the Toyama Prefectural Natural Parks Regulations.
Ogimachi Village is a picturesque area with just over 150 households, many of which can be found in the traditional gassho style.
The village has seen some, but not much expansion since it was first established. Most of the houses have small areas of land that can be used to grow crops, and only a few roads run through the village.
Ainokura Village is even smaller than Ogimachi, with much less than 100 houses throughout. It’s also a much quieter and more isolated part of the area with many trees and sits higher up in the mountainous region.
This village was once known for cultivating silkworms and also has some humble rice fields surrounding homes.
Suganama is a very tiny village with very few homes within it. What’s interesting to note about Suganuma is that back in the 1800s, it was actually one of the biggest villages in its area.
Because of where the village sits in terms of elevation, there are actually slopes with trees that help the village avoid being blanketed in snow.
Visiting Shirakawa-go And Gokayama
Even though these villages have remained safe due to various levels of isolation, they are open to visitors who are interested in learning about traditional Japanese life. It can take some time to navigate the area, as it’s not accessible by a lot of public transit like many other tourist areas in Japan.
For instance, if you want to stay in Ogimachi, the largest village, you can get there by bus after arriving at Shirakawa-go. You can even stay in a traditional minka or gassho-style home.
Some of these homes have been turned into small inns, similar to bed and breakfasts, known as minshuku in Japanese.
Suganuma and Ainokura are also open to visitors, and can be found in the Gokayama area. These areas are fairly simple to get around in for the simple fact that they are so small.
Often, people will stay in Ogimachi for a day or two, while taking day trips out to Ainokura and Suganuma.
Lodging In A Suganuma Village
One of the most unique experiences you can have in Japan is staying in one of the traditional Japanese homes in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.
These homes are unlike any other in Japan, and you are offered a one-of-a-kind glimpse into what life used to be like in Japan and what life is still like for a few people still living in the villages.
The minshuku lodgings are often run by families, so you get a much more relaxed atmosphere than a typical large hotel.
Amenities are not fancy in these homes, but that’s part of what makes the experience so memorable. The only spots that are somewhat new are the toilets and baths, though they are often shared amongst guests at the minshuku.
Those interested in staying in a minshuku are advised to make a reservation as early as possible.
These are coveted spots to stay in for those visiting the remote villages, and as such, they run a somewhat high price point. When you stay overnight, you’re served breakfast and dinner, often created with local fares.