The Gassho Houses of Gifu

Posted by on Oct 28, 2011 in Gifu, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
The Gassho Houses of Gifu

Despite their obvious good intentions, UNESCO divide opinion. Some people deride their World Heritage List, moaning that it damages the very places it seeks to protect. A bit like an upper class version of the Lonely Planet, the moment UNESCO offer their stamp of approval, the recommended place ceases to be a hidden treasure and transforms into a tat-touting tourist trap.
But what are they supposed to do? Ignore it all and let the wilds claim it? Or tomb-raiding bandits?
For what it’s worth, we love UNESCO and its sprawling list – not least because they had the good sense to distance themselves from the utterly shambolic New Seven Wonders project. Honestly, a blind man on a galloping horse could tell you that Christ The Redeemer had no place being there…

Anyway, I digress. UNESCO are great because to them size doesn’t matter – or at least it’s not the sole factor in deciding a place’s worth to the world. (In fact, with their Intangible Heritage criteria, these days it doesn’t even have to be a place – it can just be a thing, a dance, a practise or a way of life.)
Shirakawa-go is a bit of everything: a place, yes, but really much more. In 1995, UNESCO bestowed their blessings in honour of the distinctive Gassho (steep-sloped thatched-roof) houses. Their citation reads: “The historic villages of Shirakawa-go… are outstanding examples of traditional human settlements that are perfectly adapted to their environment and their social and economic raison d’être and have adjusted successfully to the profound economic changes in Japan in the past half-century.”
And it is grand. We arrived this morning with the entire place looking radiant in the early light. The village surrounds a gentle river at the bottom of a valley, and seems to have the vast mountains on every side, like a magnificent fort. Getting there from Takayama requires about an hour of driving, the majority of which is underground, through tunnels underneath these broad natural walls.

But what none of this covers (nor the blurb from UNESCO) is that this village isn’t a frozen relic – it’s an active, living, breathing place. These houses are still homes; those distinctive roofs provide real shelter from rain; while the impractical walls do little to protect the inhabitants from the cold when deep, lasting snow hits Shirakawa-go in winter.

Today, though, in the crisp autumn morning, they looked marvellous, and thoughts about how comfortable they may or may not be didn’t really seem pertinent. Looking at the ornate gardens that the village’s people have created, or the plump crops that surround their properties, Shirakawa-go appeared rather perfect, especially when we got the macro lens out and really had a close look at what was going on.

There are other UNESCO sites in the world – in Japan itself, actually – that are more awesome than this: gigantic regal places that scream about the greatness of people, or religions.

Shirakawa-go is a lot more humble, which is the key to its greatness.


Our time in Gifu prefecture was made possible by:

Mr Okada and the entire entourage who escorted us around the forest near Hirayu. Between the Regional Institute of Natural Sciences and the Green-Tourism Council, Furusto-taiken Hida Takayama, we had all the information we needed and then some. Apologies for not naming everyone individually but with a welcoming committee of ten it was quite hard to remember all the names! Anyway, sincere thanks to you all.

The ultra-traditional Okada Ryokan, which offered superb views down the valley and sprawling kaiseki meals for dinner and breakfast. Add to that the onsen, the tatami mats, and the futons, and it really doesn’t get more authentic. Being the only foreigners, we might have felt out of place had the staff not been so generous with their time and patience.

Mr Tsukahara of the Associa Takayama Resort, who took the time out of his busy day to drive us all the way to Shirakawa-go, show us around, then drive us back. Not only that, he then laid on dinner and accommodation at his fantastic hotel. What a guy!




私達はユネスコの世界遺産リストは非常に興味深いと思っているし、はちゃめちゃとしか思えない『新世界の七不思議』とは距離を置いているところにも共感を覚える。 ユネスコの世界遺産リストはそのスケールなどに関わらず、多くの観点から判断をされ、また場所だけでなく無形のものにおいても価値を見出しているところは素晴らしいと思う。









1 Comment

  1. Jennifer
    October 29, 2011

    I have the poster of Gifu village houses covered in snow. Which i find fascinating and surreal :D