The remote mountain villages of gassho-style houses in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama on the Hida Highlands were registered as cultural heritage sites in 1995. The scenery of the mountain villages blending in with the nature of each season – fresh green leaves in spring, tinted leaves in autumn, winter snow – and the atmosphere of the villages with traditional houses standing side by side looks just like a fairy tale.
Houses built in the “gassho style” are defined as having a roof in the shape of a triangle, similar to hands folded in prayer. In the multilayer structure, the 3rd and 4th floors are particularly characteristic as they demonstrate the wisdom of the farmers who are able to raise silkworms even in the harsh winters. The area for the silkworms is up in the attic where the heat from the first floor, filled with people and activity, rises up. The roof has an impressive slope of 60° to allow the heavy snow (sometimes as much as 4 meters) to slide off more easily.
The observatory at the site of Ogimachi Castle is a popular spot from which to view “Shirakawa-go Ogimachi village” where 59 houses are clustered. This upland vantage point is perfect for a panoramic view of the Gassho-style village in the verdure of spring, the tinted leaves of autumn or the snows of winter. “Wada House” and “Nagase House” in Ogimachi village are open to the public, offering an opportunity to learn about how people lived long ago. Many tourists visit here specifically to see the water-discharge exercise performed on the last Sunday in October every year.
In Gokayama, we recommend a visit to “Ainokura Village” where 24 houses stand against a background of mountains, and “Suganuma village” with 9 houses including 2 that were built during the Edo era. Well worth a visit are the following houses, designated as important cultural assets of Japan: “Murakami House” where the head of the family relates the history of Gokayama to visitors as they sit around the open hearth, “Haba House” that retains the most well-preserved gassho structure with very little renovation, “Iwase house”, which is the largest gassho-style house in Gokayama with 5 floors and an interior constructed of zelkova wood.