Ainokura Gassho-style Village

Let’s go to…Gokayama!

Scrapbook page of Gokayama
7/18/15: Day trip to Gokayama

In the Gokayama region of Toyama, you’ll find one of the prefecture’s biggest sources of pride and cultural uniqueness. Here, in Nanto City, are the gassho-zukuri houses, also referred to as gassho-style houses.

Map of Toyama
Map of Toyama (Image shared from: http://maps-of-japan.blogspot.com)

I believe “gassho-zukuri” literally means “praying hands construction,” but don’t quote me on that. In layman’s terms, they are homes built in a traditional style designed to prevail over the inhospitable climate and to meet the cultural needs of the people of the region.

Ainokura Gassho-style Village
Gassho-zukuri houses

The homes are marked by their thick, thatched roofs that sit at a 60 degree slant. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs, you may recall that I mentioned that Toyama gets a great deal of snow during the winter months. The very wise people of the Gokayama region took that excessive snow fall into consideration during the construction of their homes. Thanks to the 60 degree slant, the snow slides off the roofs, preventing (I would guess) collapse. As these homes date back at least 100-200 years (the oldest is even said to be 400 years old!), those Edo (1603-1868) / Meiji (1863-1912) / Taisho (1812/-1926) architects are proof of the human power to adapt and thrive. Oh, and they don’t use nails. That’s right, not a single nail is used the the construction of these roofs.

Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku
Thatched roof in Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku

I can’t quite remember now (it’s been about 6 weeks since I’ve visited) but I believe they completely replace the roofs, while adhering to the traditional techniques, every 10 years. It takes around 2 weeks to complete one side of a roof.

Ainokura Gassho-style Village
Ainokura Gassho-zukuri Shuraku

There are two main villages in Gokayama that feature the rare thatched roof houses: Ainokura Gassho-zukuri Shuraku and Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku. They are located in Kamitaira and Taira Villages – both of which are now part of Nanto City. The two villages are protected National Historic Sites and were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in December 1995. The buildings are well-known to students in Toyama as important historical and cultural sites. Although they may not remember what the area is called or where it’s located, even third graders are familiar with the distinctive architectural design of the buildings. Ask and they’ll break into unanimous cries of ”えーと、えーと、あれ!あれ!/ Eeto, eeto, are!, are! / Umm…umm..that thing!”

Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku
Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku

In addition to the specialness of the roofs, the homes in Ainokura and Suganuma Villages are regarded as important cultural properties due to their utilitarian design. Each home has three or four floors, with the top floor reserved and perfectly equipped for raising silkworms year round. The heat from the shared living spaces below rises up to the attic, allowing the silkworms to flourish.

Silkworm Cultivation
Silkworm Cultivation – these ones weren’t real! 🙂
Top floor of Gassho-Style home in Ainokura Village
In the attic of a Gassho-style home in Ainokura Village

Visiting the two villages is like taking a trip back in time. Nestled deep in the mountains, the region is still quite isolated from the rest of the world. The homes aren’t just on show for tourists, however. Around 80 people live in Ainokura Village in the actual thatched roofed homes. But, that is not to say that they are living without modern conveniences. These people aren’t like the Amish or some yet undiscovered group of people living out in the woods. As you walk around each village, you’ll see laundry hanging from windows, children’s toys in driveways, and the light-hearted chatter of Japanese talk shows. You may also come across farmers at work in their fields.

Working in the fields in Suganuma Gassho-zukiri Shuraku
Working in the fields in Suganuma Gassho-zukuri Shuraku

Although most buildings are residential, there are a few designated buildings that tourists can enter and tour. We were able to check out the interior a gassho-zukuri home in Ainokura Village for approximately 300 yen. After traipsing around the top floors, we had ourselves a little tea break.

Tea in Gassho-style home in Ainokura Village
Tea in Gassho-style home in Ainokura Village

If you ever have the opportunity to visit this exquisite region of Toyama, jump up and go! Today you can only find this style of Japanese home in Shirakawa-go (nearby in Gifu Prefecture) and Gokayama. The villages are unparalleled and are the perfect place to let your imagination run wild with thoughts of the not so distant past. It was truly a beautiful place to wrap up my time in Toyama.

Gokayama Scrapbook Page
Gokayama page: If you haven’t noticed, I need to print pictures!
Gokayama Scrapbook Page
Gokayama page sans pictures

I’ll end this blog with a little culinary flare. Here are the local specialties that I ate for lunch in Suganuma Village:

Bear Soba and Gokayama Tofu
Bear Soba and Gokayama Tofu

#amazingtoyama


Links! (they helped when my memory failed me!)

UNESCO World Heritage List: Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go & Gokayama

Gokayama Tourism Site (English)

富山観光ナビ:世界遺産 相倉合掌造り集落

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