Shirakawa-go’s Gassho-zukuri Style Architecture
The most iconic image that springs to mind at the mention of Shirakawa-go is the gassho-zukuri style housing that populates this tiny village. Since being granted UNESCO status, tourists have flocked from far and wide to enter inside these beautifully preserved buildings, symbolic of the Hida area. Gassho-zukuri is a branch of Minka-style architecture, meaning housing for the people, and was an architectural style popular with farmers, artisans and merchants.
Gassho refers to the shape of the thatched roofs and is a style that made Shirakawa-go one of the most sought-after tourist destinations on the island of Honshu. This unique roof design was named gassho (meaning two hands in prayer), as the two sides of the roof are joined together. Another special feature of gassho-zukuri is that no nails or metal materials were used to construct the houses and all straw and wood was sourced from the forests surrounding the village.
In the winter, the roofs are covered in a thick layer of snow and the buildings almost resemble gingerbread houses coated in white icing - a magical sight to be seen. At such a high altitude, Shirakawa-go gets extremely cold, so not only does the thatch keep the houses insulated, but it also protects the wooden interiors from the weight of heavy snowfall. The steep slope of the roof sheds the snow easily and opens up spacious attics which were used to raise silkworms and house traditional tools.
The roofs only last up to 30 years and are extremely expensive to maintain. Thus prior to becoming a world heritage site, some of the houses were renovated with modern roofs as the locals were unable to keep up with the intensive labor, sometimes requiring up to 100 people, and monstrous costs required to preserve the thatch. All original buildings were constructed under a specific architectural plan and are currently preserved under strict regulations to retain the village's prized aesthetic. In order to minimize wind damage and maximize sun exposure, all gassho-zukuri houses face north or south. This means that the houses can be warmed by sunlight in the winter and cooled in the summer - another reason why the design of gassho-zukuri houses is not only beautifully iconic, but also extremely practical.
Each house has at least three to five stories to ensure that there was enough space to store farming or sericulture equipment. Due to its rural location in the rugged mountains of Northern Gifu, Shirakawa-go was extremely isolated up until the 1950s, therefore the traditions and farming techniques are rather unique to the area. There are many houses that are still inhabited by local families but also double up as museums, with Kanda House being a prime example. The 160 year old gassho-zukuri structure housed generations of sericulture farmers and took over 10 years to complete. Kanda House has some great tourist gems like an original grain drying shelter, and displays of tools that were used to weave silk.
Even in the height of summer, it might be a surprise to see a fire burning from the irori on the first floor of the houses. However, the fire has an important role as the thatch can easily become caked in mould, so the smoke that rises through the large holes on each floor can dry out any dampness in the thatch. Even though Shirakawa-go may be extremely popular amongst tourists, winding your way through the crowds is worth it. Venturing into an original gassho-zukuri house is something you can only experience in the hidden mountains of Gifu or in Toyama Prefecture's Gokayama.