It was a typical August day. The sound of cicadas filled the air and it was hot and humid like the build up to a summer storm. Only, I was not in Tokyo, or even remotely near any city for that matter. I had found myself deep in the mountains of northern Gifu Prefecture, at a place that very much looked straight out of a fairytale.
With a river on one side and rugged mountains on the other, Shirakawa-go remained isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years. Each winter, the region saw up to four metres of snow, and the local people were forced to learn how to survive in this harsh environment. They created a unique style of farmhouse, which is what the villages are now known for. In 1967, the local government decided to preserve the historical villages (Ogimachi in the Shirakawa-go region, and Ainokura and Suganuma in the Gokayama region), and in 1995, they were designated as UNESCO world heritage sites.
Exploring Ogimachi Village
Flowers everywhere! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen hydrangeas blooming simultaneously with sunflowers and in the same location as the tropical hibiscus. What a mix! The colourful flora made the whole village so picturesque.
Summertime also means there are lush green rice paddies surrounding all of the houses. Rice seedlings are planted at the end of May during an official ‘rice planting festival’. The old men and women of the village sing folk songs while the workers dressed in traditional clothes and straw hats plant the seedlings by hand. The fields are flooded with water to help the rice grow, and which also creates some stunning reflections of the houses. By September, the rice turns golden yellow and is ready to be harvested.
Every last inch used to grow rice
A beautiful white shiba-inu!
Step Inside a Gassho-Zukuri
The traditional farmhouses at Shirakawa-go are called gassho-zukuri in Japanese. This name refers to the shape of the roof—two hands together in prayer. The steep-sloped roof is covered in a thick layer of straw made to withstand the weight of heavy snowfall in winter. The roofs need to be replaced every 30 or so years, each time taking over 50 workers one full day to complete.
The inside of the houses are quite dark, with most of the light coming from windows at either end. On the ground floor of every house is a hearth. The smoke rises through vents on each level, keeping the building both warm and dry. The multi-level attics have been used for silk farming since the Edo Period. Surprisingly, in those days, silk production was the main source of income for the people of Shirakawa-go.
Looking up into the top ceiling joint
A photo of a house being re-thatched
The View from Above
The short walk up to the top of the hill is an absolute must during any visit to the village. After wandering the narrow streets, seeing the rice paddies close up and going inside some of the farmhouses, it’s a great experience to see the whole place from this perspective. The village almost seems to be engulfed by the towering forest that covers the surrounding mountains, really giving you a sense of what it might have been like to live here hundreds of years ago. In a time long before cars were invented, it was no doubt difficult for people to come and go anytime they wanted. On top of the extreme winter conditions, perhaps there was a constant threat of wild animals entering the village. The community would have had to rely on each other and work together to survive.
I’ve also been fortunate to visit the village in October when the brilliant autumn colours change the entire feel of the place. But if you’re interested to know how Shirakawa-go looks throughout the year, check out their official Instagram account. The winter scenes are incredibly beautiful!
Have you ever been to Shirakawa-go? What are some remote villages around the world you’ve visited?