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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ll end this blog with a little culinary flare. Here are the local specialties that I ate for lunch in Suganuma Village:
Links! (they helped when my memory failed me!)