The tranquility of a UNESCO world heritage
It is usually not too far-fetched, if one was to say that places that have been granted the status of a world heritage may, in most of the cases, enjoy a greater public and touristic interest, but at the same time also have a tendency of losing their original charm. Especially in Japan, a country which has a reputation of being over-crowded, nobody would dare to expect a famous place that still maintains a fairly large amout of its peaceful tranquility of olden days. The more it surprises that the old farmer village Shirakawa-gō (白川郷 / しらかわごう), that was, together with Gokayama (五箇山 / ごかやま) (and, by the way, also Quedlinburg in the eastern part of Germany) declared world heritage in 1995, has been able to sustain its unpretentious nature. At the time of providing the UNESCO with a sound foundation why especially this village should become a world heritage, the experts praised it of its uniqueness and because here a “traditional way of life” had been “perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances”.
Shirakawa also provides impressive evidence that backwardness and underdevelopment can also be a blessing. This farming village in the picturesque valley maintained a more of less secluded life until the 1950s – there was hardly any connection to the rest of Japan. Modern life, however, as it swamped over Japan particularly after World War II, resulted in a steady decline of rural opportunities of life and a consequent depopulation of villages. Already towards the end of the 1960s numerous neighbouring villages had been abandoned.
Maybe we need to thank the village elders for their long-sightedness, that this threat was turned into an opportunity. Whole building ensembles were preserved, others were moved to the villages museum district. Hence, there is not only the village Shirakawa where you can witness a fine example of functioning balance between a traditional rice-farming village and a tourist attraction, but also a farming house museum on the west side of the Shō-river (庄川 / しょうがわ).
Both parts of the village feature farming houses in the so-called “gasshō zukuri”(合掌造り / がっしょうづくり)-style, which is easily translated with “steep roof constuction”, but also means “hands folded for prayer” – both is describing very well what these houses look like; at first glance they seem to consist of roofs only. Traditionally these roofes are thatched, but recently also other materials have been utilised. In the region of Shirakawa-gō you will still find around 90 of such houses – of previously almost 1,900. This way of constructing a house is something quite particular, because it cannot be found in any other region of Japan (except, of course, in museums, like the Nihon Minka-en in Kanagawa (link refers you to a German posting on this website)). On the one hand they are bigger than most Japanese farming houses, on the other hand the huge space provided by the roofs is being used actively (which is, apart from using it as a storage, also uncommon in other areas). The rearing of silkworms need to be mentioned here. The roofs offer the best environment to keep those animals as well as to store their main nutrition, the mulberry leaves. At the same time the construction of those “gasshō zukuri” is of enormous stability, hardly found in other rural secular buildings. However, maintaing such a building has its price. The thatched roofs need to be renewed completely every couple of decades. And such a renewal requires about 400 of helping hands – in the old days achieved through a system of neighbourly help, but today also help from the outside needs to be acquired which makes the preparation more time-consuming and the exercise more costly.
The brief history of Shirakawa:
The oldest documents found of Shirakawa date back to the middle of the 12th century (the neighbouring Gokayama has been documented only almost 400 years later). While it remained under the rule of the Takayama clan until the early days of the Edo period, it was governed by the military government of Edo (today: Tōkyō) from the end of the 17th century until the days of the Meiji restoration (1868). Even though it’s just a few kilometres away, Gokayama remained under the rule of the Maeda clan of Kanazawa.
The poor grounds in the mountainside did not cater for rice cultivation at that time. The farmers needed to find ways to survive by cultivating buckwheat and millet. But also that hardly sufficed to make a living. Additional income was created by the production of Japanese paper (和紙 / わし / washi), that was made of the fibres of the mulberry trees. Here is where also the rearing of silkworms and the production of raw silk comes into play. This business flourished from the late 17th century until the 70s of the last century. One of the reasons why we can enjoy these magnificent gasshō zukuri farm houses today, can been found in the particular requirements of the rearing of silkworms. Also, since the middle of the 17th century the mining of calcium nitrate (needed for the production of gunpowder) brought some additional income to the village. But also this source of income vanished after Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world in the second half of the 19th century – the domestic market was swamped by cheaper imports from abroad. The decline in population in rural areas began at that time. After the 2nd World War (as mentioned above) it reached a magnitude that can only be described as an exodus.
Your walk through Shirakawa:
Most likely you will reach Shirakawa by bus, i.e. at the bus terminal and tourist centre. From there you will reach the part that forms the world heritage via an adventurous suspension bridge (tsuribashi / つり橋 / つりばし) that crosses the Shō river. On the east side of the river you’ll enter a village so quaint that you will hardly believe that some like this is possible in the hightech country Japan. So many farming house ensembles have been preserved here that no-one would suspect that this way of living and settling went “out of fashion” more than three quarters of a century ago. Still, Shirakawa is absolutely vivacous – nevertheless, at least part of this liveliness is also of touristy nature; but at least most of the numerous souvenir shops are located in traditional building which doesn’t harm the harmonious picture as such.
And just to name some of the major sights:
Myōzen temple (明善寺 / みょうぜんじ)
Naturally, first of all the Myōzen temple is famous for its unusual bell-gate, the Shōrō-mon (鐘楼門 / しょうろうもん). It’s been told that the zelcova trees for the temple were cut down in 1806, but the temple was finished only 20 years later. Also people still tell the story that the master carpenter, Usuke Mizuma, was aided by 9,191 workers, when the temple was built. Have a look at the unusually coloured elephant heads on the front of the main building. The old yew tree on the temple’s grounds is a natural monument of the Gifu prefecture. And most likely the main building of the temple is the only one in Japan built in the gasshō zukuri style.
Shirakawa Hachiman shrine (白川八幡神社 / しらかわあちまんじんじゃ)
The shrine’s foundation dates back to the days of the Wado emperor (early 8th century). And it is not only its age that sets it apart from most other shintō shrines in the country, but also because of a building that somehow survived from the syncretic times (when buddhist temples and shintō shrines enjoyed a kind of “symbiotic” existence): A “shaka-dō” (釈迦堂 / しゃかどう) that still houses four buddha statues. Something that became a rarity since the days of the Meiji restoration (in the second half of the 19th century), when buddhist temples and shintō shrines were strictly separated. This “shaka-dō” was built in 1627 (some other sources state the year 1628), was renewed in 1808 and is now one of the treasures of the shrine.
Probably the most famous thing about this shrine, however, is its “Doburoku festival” (濁酒祭り / どぶろくまつり), the “festival of the murky sake” (if one dares to translate it this way) which is celebrated annually on the 14th and 15th of October. The “Doburoku Festival Museum” has some gorgeous items from this festival on display (open daily from 9am to 7pm – closed during the festival and during the winter months between December and March; admission fee: 300 Yen for adults, 100 Yen for children).
The shrine is surely one of the most “enchanted” places in Japan. You should definitely spend some time here and inhale the quaint atmosphere and let the shirne and the surrounding old trees carry you away to another world.
A view from lofty heights:
There is something I would really like to recommend you warmly: When you’re on your stroll through Shirakawa in northern direction, don’t just use the main street, the Shirakawakaidō (白川街道 / しらかわかいどう) with all its souvenir shops, but walk one of the smaller streets in the eastern “outskirt” (naturally, the village is by far too small to really speak of an “outskirt”), passing the Myōzen temple. Less then 500 metres north of the temple the little street leads up and into the forest. Follow it for about 7 minutes of walk, and you will reach the lookout point “Ogimachi Jōseki” (荻町城跡 / おぎまちじょうせき) – a place, which, as the name indicates, was once towered by a fortress (there is hardly a trace left of it, though). This place is second to none when it comes to enjoying a truly breathtaking panorama of Shirakawa and the surrounding landscape. Have you ever seen any pictures of Shirakawa? – you can be as good as certain that they were taken from there.
The museum section of Shirakawa:
Even though the actual highlight of Shirakawa is the village itself that still is home to some hundred inhabitants, you should also not miss the museum-part of Shirakawa, the “Gasshō Zukuri Minka-en” (合掌造り民家園 / がっしょうづくりみんかえん), which is located directly at the bus terminal and the tourist centre on the west side of the Shō river. You can find particularly impressive specimen of historic rural development, collected in the area around Shirakawa. And, other than in the village itself, the interior of these buildings can be inspected as well. Depending on the season of your visit you may find yourself on a “magical” trip through time. Have a look at the pictures below and you will understand that I had something of the “déjà-vu” of the “Shire” as a part of J.R.R. Tolien’s fictional Middle-earth, described in “The Lord of the Rings”. Have an extensive stroll here and allow yourself to be drift into a time long gone by!
Opening hours of the “Gasshō Zukuri Minka-en”:
From April to November daily from 8:40 am to 5:00 pm (last entry: 20 minutes before closing).
From December to March daily (except Tuesday) from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm (last entry: 20 minutes before closing). Falls a national holiday on a Tuesday, the museum remains closed on the following Wednesday instead.
Open throughout the New Year holidays.
Admission fee for the “Gasshō Zukuri Minka-en”:
Adults: 500 Yen
(Groups of more than 25 persons: 450 Yen, groups of more than 100 persons: 400 Yen)
Children: 300 Yen
(Groups fo more than 25 persons: 250 Yen, groups of more than 100 persons: 200 Yen)
And should you be looking for a typical souvenir of Shirakawa:
“Sarubobo” (さるぼぼ), a lucky charm of the Hida area (飛騨 / ひだ), in which Shirakawa is located. Its name is derived from “saru no akanbō” (サルの赤んぼう /”monkey baby”). The “sarubobo” is supposed to keep bad luck away and to promote solidarity within the family.
How to get there:
It’s probably easiest, if you plan your trip to Shirakawa as a one-day-trip from Kanazawa. From there you can get to Shirakawa most conveniently by bus from bus stop no. 2 at the bus terminal on the east side of Kanazawa Station. The tickets have to be bought in advance (only reserved seats are available), but depending on the demand, tickets can be bought until shortly before departure. The ticket counter is very close to the bus stop (“Hokutetsu Bus Ticket Office” – properly: 北陸鉄道予約センター / ほくりくてつどうよやくセンター / Hokurikutetsudō Yoyaku Centre) – have a look at the map below:
During the time of my visit (2014) there was a bus from Kanazawa to Shirakawa at 8:10 am, 9:05 am, 10:50 am, 1:25 pm, 2:40 pm and 4:00 pm (journey time: about 75 or 85 minutes respectively, in cases of stopovers in Gokayama). The busses from Shirakawa to Kanazawa were at 8:50 am, 10:50 am, 12:25 pm, 1:50 pm, 4:25 pm and 5:30 pm.
Roundtrip fare: 3,290 Yen