Building with Nature: A Trip to Shirakawa-go

Last weekend I took a trip to Shirakawa, in Gifu Prefecture, to find out more about the famous gassho-style houses for a chapter in our upcoming book.

Back in Tokyo now, the cherry trees are just beginning to announce spring, but a few days ago in Shirakawa it was still deep mid-winter. We arrived in a blizzard and sub-zero temperatures, and shivered our way around the village.

shirakawagou01Architect Ryuhei Nonaka demonstrates the gassho (prayer-hands) style of the Shirakawa roofs. Nonaka-san is an avid collector of old architectural materials and tools — note the fearsome saw blades on the wall of his office!

We had arranged to meet up with Ryuhei Nonaka, an architect who has been involved in the restoration and upkeep of Shirakawa’s traditional houses for 30 years. After a couple of fascinating hours at Nakano-san’s office learning about how the houses are built, we headed off through the snow in his 4WD to Shirakawa village.

shirakawagou02You can get right up close to see the outside of the thatch roofing and insulation techniques (!?) at the reconstruction in the Shirakawago Michi no Eki museum.

Our first stop was the Shirakawago Michi no Eki, where eki-cho Hirokazu Shiroki showed us round the fantastic full-scale reconstruction of a gassho-style house, stripped bare in parts so you can see quite clearly how they were originally put together with whatever materials were at hand, the beams bound tight with straw rope. It’s a method that doesn’t require skilled training in carpentry, meaning the villagers, mostly forester-farmers, could construct the massive, elaborate homes themselves, without professional help.

shirakawagou03 shirakawagou04

Next we were shown round the library

— a great resource for traditional Japanese architecture and life.

shirakawagou05Bear soup!

And then lunch, where we were treated to an off-the-menu special — bear soup! Hunting has always been a vital part of mountain life, but sadly the current sorry state of Japan’s forests means nowadays bears and other wildlife live closer and closer to human towns and villages, unable to find food in the mountains. You’re unlikely to find bear on the menu often, not least because the meat is very strong, but prepared right it can be delicious, and our soup was certainly great. Thank you, Mr Bear!

shirakawagou06Tom, talking with (from left) Kazuya Iwamoto, Hirokazu Shiroki and Ryuhei Nonaka.

After lunch we joined up with Kazuya Iwamoto from the Shirakawa tourist association, and we all trudged though the snow among the tourists who had come for the weekend from all over the world despite the weather. Inside the houses, which are still family homes despite being open to the public, Nonaka and Iwamoto explained in more detail how the houses are built, and the issues involved in maintaining the village as a tourist attraction. Each little detail in each house has a specific function, and… well, more of that in the book!

shirakawagou07Despite being huge, beautiful and highly functional, the gassho-style houses were built with whatever materials happened to be near by. Note the cross-beams in the photograph.

Shirakawa-go was designated a preservation area in 1975 in Japan, and then in 1995 it was among the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated in Japan, after Horyuji temple in Nara, Himeji Castle, and Kyoto. The most recent addition, of course, is Mt. Fuji. The interesting thing about Mt. Fuji is that, despite being a mountain, it is registered as a cultural site, and not a natural one, reflecting its importance as a sacred place in Japan. But spend a day clambering about the roof-timbers of the Shirakawa houses, and seeing the amazing use of local natural materials, and you might be forgiven for wondering if they shouldn’t be registered the other way round too — as natural heritage, not just cultural.

Look forward to a full report on how the gassho-style houses are built and maintained, and the life-style that made that possible, in our upcoming book. You can pre-order your copy here.

Thank you to Ryuhei Nonaka, Kazuya Iwamoto and Hirokazu Shiroki for braving the cold and showing us around!