The illuminated Gassho-zukuri village houses blanketed in thick layer of snow make a fairy tale like postcard scenery have attracted visitors from close and afar, making Shirakawa-go an extremely popular tourist attraction at specific winter weekends. Situated in the remote snow county of the Japanese Alps, gassho rural regions such as Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) have been historically isolated from the outside world. A unique rural lifestyle and special vernacular architecture have been developed in the past few centuries to tackle the snowy and wet climate of the mountains. Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り集落), which literally means “hands in prayer”, refers to the exceptionally steep thatch roofs of the regional farmhouses due to the heavy snowfall of the area. These steep roofs have become a unique symbol of the region. In 1995, three of these remote Gassho-zukuri villages: Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (荻町), Suganuma (菅沼) and Ainokura (相倉) in Gokayama were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Due to its proximity to Hida-Takayama, most visitors opt for a day trip (or half-day trip) to visit Shirakawa-go. Few would venture farther into Gokayama and even less so would stay the night at one of the mountain villages. In recent years, a number of the centuries old Gassho-zukuri farmhouses have been transformed into guesthouses, allowing visitors to experience the villages’ unique beauty and tranquility after the departure of the daytrippers. Being the largest and most accessible Gassho-zukuri village, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is the most developed in terms of its tourist facilities. A number of its old farmhouses have been converted into museums, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is even an area called Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, where historical farmhouses have been relocated and grouped into an open air museum. Taking the 8:25am bus from Takayama, we arrived at Shirakawa-go bus station in about an hour. When we arrived at one of Japan’s most picturesque farming village, steady rain kept on coming down with no end in sight. We stored our backpacks in a locker at the bus station, picked up a village map and bought a transparent umbrella from the tourist office, and off we went to explore touristy yet charming Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
Just outside the bus station, we had our first peek of the rural charm of Shirakawa-go. Rhythmical rain drops rippled across the flooded paddy field of lush green rice seedlings.
Despite the rain, we were delighted to enter the tranquil world of Ogimachi.
It was 9:20am. Not too many tourists were around. We stopped by the pond of waterlilies in front of Wada Residence, one of the largest gassho style house in the village.
Ogimachi has a extensive network of irrigation channels. Visitors may occasionally find carps in the water.
A row of cute scarecrows offer an amusing background for photos, and a friendly reminder of Ogimachi’s rural past.
Straw from farm crops are harvested in the autumn, dried as a snow fence around the gassho style house, and used to repair the thatched roof in the spring or autumn. Due to the need of a large labour force, neighbors in the village would come over to help on repairing the thatched roof.
Many gassho style houses, including the Yamaainoie Residence (山峡の家), have been converted into cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops or guesthouses.
The small gassho style house serves as a charming little cafe with splendid views of rice patties.
The entrance of the cafe is decorated with plant pots, wood lattice and a “thinker” statue.
In 1961, the construction of Miboro Dam at Sho River in Takayama was completed. several villages and shrines were submerged, along with about half of the surviving Gassho-zukuri houses.
Today, the biggest concentration of Gassho-zukuri houses are found in Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma. Important structures, such as the Myozen-ji Temple in Ogimachi, have become rare survivors from the bygone period.
Thatched roof repair works can still be seen in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
The steep angle of the thatched roof of the Gassho-zukuri houses help to prevent snow accumulation, though people, especially outside visitors, have to be cautious of the falling snow below the roof.
A number of Gassho-zukuri houses in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go have been turned into guesthouses.
Fire hydrants are important in the farming village because of the combustibility of the Gassho-zukuri houses.
Because of the rain, the mountains beyond Ogimachi were covered in beautiful mist while we were there.
Newer houses in a distinct architectural style can also be found in the village.
Due to the unique appearance of the Gassho-zukuri houses and it natural setting, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is often considered one of the most picturesque farming village in Japan.