"Gokayama" collectively refers to five regions upstream of the Shogawa River, which runs through the southwestern part of Toyama Prefecture.
The region was long isolated from its surroundings by the steep mountains and the heavy snow, leading to the development of a unique culture that grew out of the harsh natural surroundings and social environment.
Ainokura Village and Suganuma Village are known for their Gassho-style houses, and collectively comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with the Ogimachi Village in Shirakawa-go, for their preserved historic landscapes.
Gokayama and Gassho-zukuri style thatched roof houses
The people of Ainokura and Suganuma Villages live in traditional thatched gable roof homes known as Gassho-style houses, and work to preserve their traditional culture and landscape. "Gassho" refers to bringing the hands together in prayer, in front of the face or chest, and this steep, triangular thatched gable roof is named for its resemblance to this gesture. These steep roofs protect these homes from the wet, heavy snow that falls in Gokayama. Instead of using nails, these roofs are instead held together using rope and Japanese witch-hazel, to create a flexible construction that can withstand even the area’s intense winter weather. This is a testament to the knowledge of the people many generations ago who overcame the hardships of the region.
Ainokura Village is a medium-sized village of Gassho-style houses, located on a gentle slope on the left bank of the Shogawa River, with twenty such homes of various sizes. Ainokura has uniquely hilly terrain, so stone retaining walls serve to level out the foundations of these houses. In order to prevent fires from spreading if one were to occur, small wooden storehouses are built separately from the main parts of the houses. During the Edo Period (1603–1868 CE), the Kaga Domain introduced and promoted the production of saltpeter and washi paper, as well as raising silkworms, as the main industries of the village. There were once mulberry fields around the houses, to feed the silkworms, but in the mid 20th century, these were replaced with rice paddies. If you climb for five or six minutes from the village parking area, along the terraced rice fields, you’ll come to an elevated area with a panoramic view of the village and the surrounding mountains.
The narrow gravel road you see here is the Gokayama Kaido Road, which stretches from northeast to southwest through the village, and runs across the mountains to Johana in the Tonami Plains. Until the opening of a new city road in 1958, it served as the main street of the village. The building on the right is a religious facility known as the Nishikata Dojo, which served as a place for missionary activities and gatherings of the Jodo Shinshu school of Buddhism. Since silkworms were not raised at religious facilities, the building lacks the distinctive architectural characteristics of Gassho-style houses, which feature large attics, and use paper screen windows for light.
This building has a roof that appears to extend all the way to the ground. It consists of just a dirt floor with a roof attached, and is considered the most primitive form of Gassho-style house. In winter, Gokayama experiences heavy snowfalls of 3 meters or more. Being shut off from the outside meant living and working in the same space, so these houses gradually increased in size.
The majority of the Gassho-style houses in Ainokura Village were built between the early 19th century and early 20th century. The oldest one, however, is believed to date back to the 17th century. Since 1970, the entirety of the village, including the surrounding forests and fields of kaya grass, has been designated as a national historic site. In Ainokura Village, you can see the way that these houses transitioned from thatched gabled roofs to tiles over time.
Suganuma Village is located in a flat area along the Shogawa River, in the northern part of Akaodani. Today, there are nine Gassho-style houses here, built from the mid 19th century through the start of the 20th century. The rice paddies around the houses were originally mulberry fields, through the mid 20th century. The forest partway up the steep mountain behind the village is known as a "snow holding forest," where cutting down trees has been prohibited since ancient times, in order to protect the village from avalanches.
The tall cedar trees around the shrine provide a buffer against the gusty seasonal winds. The main hall of the shrine and the small storehouses are built apart from each other, to prevent fires from spreading from one to another.
Festivals are held at Shinmeisha Shrine in spring and autumn. In spring, children and adults alike perform a shishimai Japanese lion dance, traveling from house to house around the village as a prayer for a good harvest.
Firefighting drills are held regularly, in order to help protect this World Heritage Site.
All of the houses are oriented in the same direction. This protects these houses from the strong winds that blowing through the gorge: a testament to the wisdom of generations past.
The snow-blanketed scenery of this Gassho-style village is beautifully lit up for Cultural Property Disaster Prevention Day in January, and to celebrate the Coming of Spring Light-Up Days in February and March. Gokayama folk songs are also performed in this magical atmosphere.