The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route brought us from Shinano Omachi to Toyama. After a night’s rest at Toyama, we set out for Takayama by train. Takayama has a certain old world charm to it. In its old town, the buildings date back to Edo Period (17th century) and are still beautifully preserved. It’s easy to imagine yourself being transported back to the days of yore. One can take a few hours to leisurely explore the old town. We also went to the Hida Folk Village, which features the unique gassho-zukuri houses that were moved from Shirakawago.
From Takayama, we took a bus to Shirakawago, a small, tranquil village nestled in the remote mountains. A UNESCO world heritage site, Shirakawago stands out for its gassho-zukuri houses, some of which are over 300 years old! “Gassho-zukuri” is translated to “constructed like hands in prayer” in reference to the steep thatched roofs that resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. Some houses have been converted to tourist centres, allowing visitors to observe the internal architecture (fascinating how it’s built without any nails) and there are exhibits to explain how the thatched roofs are constructed. When the thatched roofs have to be changed, it involves the cooperation of the entire village to contribute resources and manpower, reinforcing the communal spirit among villagers. In Singapore, we call this the “kampong spirit”.
Looking at the many layers of straw used to construct a roof, it must be a mammoth task that could only be done with the cooperation of the entire village. It takes an entire village to build a gassho zukuri roof just like how it takes an entire village to raise a child. The roof is also sturdy enough to withstand heavy snowfall in winter. The village looks just like a Christmas village out of a fairy tale when the roofs are blanketed in snow during winter, drawing many tourists to Shirakawago.
Takayama and Shirakawago are definitely two of my favourite destinations in Japan. While it drew a steady stream of visitors during Golden Week, the crowds were not overwhelming. Nestled in the mountains, they’re detached from the rapid development in cities. They exude an old world charm, giving visitors a slice of peaceful, rural life before being transported back to the cities.