The valleys in which the tiny alpine villages of Shirakawa-gō are nestled are hit by up to 10 metres of snow per year. It’s an obstacle that has been influencing house design in this region of Japan for centuries.
The distinct, steeply-roofed, timber houses of Shirakawa-gō – the steepness of the roof prevents snow from building to a depth that might collapse the roof – are known in Japan as gasshō-zukuri (meaning hands-together style). They are called so as the steeply-pitched roofs are thought to resemble the pressed-together-hands of a Buddhist monk at prayer.
Which is quite an imaginative way of describing what the rest of the world calls an A-frame house.
Some of the houses in Shirakawa-gō are up to 250 years old, which for a highly-flammable, timber structure is very old indeed.
For awhile there was fear that these historic structures would slowly fall into disrepair, succumb to the ravages of time, and disappear one-by-one. Then, in 1995, the villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, which resulted in a renewed interest in their protection, and a surge in tourism.
The rice-paddy-studded villages are now extremely well cared for, although the rise in tourism has seen an increasing number of historic dwellings converted into accommodation and souvenir shops, accompanied with the construction of unsightly tourist infrastructure such as asphalt parking lots.
Each modification does undoubtedly affect the historic integrity of the site, but the inclusion of a few hotels and parking lots is surely better than having the historic houses slowly collapse in upon themselves and being lost to the ages?
Practical information and how to reach Shirakawa-gō:
The easiest way to reach Shirakawa-gō is to make your way to Takayama, in Gifu Prefecture, and from there catch a public bus. Trip time from Takayama is about one hour. More transport info here.
Read more on the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.