- About Gokayama and the Gasshō Style
- Sights to See
- Ainokura Folklore Museum
- The original gasshō-style
- Gokayama Folklore Museum
- Important Cultural Properties of Gokayama
- The Iwase House
- The Haba House
- Go to the Ainokura Observatory for a Great View of the Gasshō-style Settlement
- Gokayama Through the Seasons
Etchū Gokayama of Toyama prefecture was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 because many gasshō-zukuri(building style with steep thatched roofs shaped like hands pressed together in prayer) dwellings still remain there. Gokayama is the collective term of 40 small villages in the area. Two of those villages, Ainokura and Suganuma, are registered as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is a popular sightseeing spot where many tourists come to see the quintessentially Japanese scenery. Read on to find out more about the gasshō style of Gokayama and the Ainokura and Suganuma villages.
About Gokayama and the Gasshō Style
Gokayama is located in western Toyama prefecture’s Nanto city. 40 small villages make up Gokayama, but only two of them are registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There is plenty to see here including buildings, that have been nationally designated as Important Cultural Properties, and the picturesque natural landscape.
The history of Gokayama’s gasshō style
Under the roof of a gasshō-style building in Gokayama
In 1585, Gokayama became part of the Kaga Domain under the Maeda family. The mountainous terrain led to the development of the sericulture industry with silkworms, for their cocoons, Japanese washing paper production, and saltpeter, for gunpowder. The money made from production was collected by the Kaga domain.
One of the reasons for the high-roofed gasshō-style houses was to provide suitable space for all of the producers. The ground floor was where the saltpeter making and living spaces were located. The second floor, which is warmer, was where the silkworms were raised and also had some living spaces.
Saltpeter and black gunpowder production was a huge industry here, with every home in Gokayama involved. When the demand for enshō(a raw ingredient of gunpowder) rose, up to 20 tons of Kaga enshō were produced here. Both the quantity and quality were the best in the country.
Gokayama was also a penal colony of the Kaga Domain. In the 200 years before the feudal domains were abolished, over 150 exiles were sent from Kanazawa.
The Kaga domain completely banned the trading of gold and silver between peasants as part of the land reform policy during the period of reformation. Gokayama residents were allowed to trade silver for rice and salt through middlemen of the merchant class. As a major producer of gunpowder and washi paper, Gokayama was well taken care of and even received special treatment for its role as a penal colony.
Gokayama as a World Heritage Site
Gokayama’s Ainokura and Suganuma villages were registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site along with the Shirakawa village in Gifu prefecture during the 19th World Heritage Committee that took place in Berlin, Germany in 1995.
It was Japan’s 4th Cultural Heritage Site and its 6th World Heritage Site.
The reasons for its registry were the excellent buildings and scenery that represent the historical period and for its outstanding demonstration of for a traditional settlement and well-adapted land use.
The gasshō-style buildings allow visitors to see all the creative adaptations made by the builders that lived in the mountainous area centuries ago. It’s no wonder it was registered as a World Heritage Site.
What are the differences between Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama?
Shirakawa-gō of the Ōno District in the northern region of Gifu prefecture is another spot that was registered as a World Heritage Site for its gasshō-style buildings.
Gokayama and Shirakawa-go are just 20 kilometers apart(about 30 minutes by car), so they have similar environments and have both kept the gasshō-style homes. Now let’s focus on their differences.
Gasshō-zukuri, or gasshō-style, is a type of house that can only be seen at Shirakawa-gō and the Gokayama. At the height of its popularity, there were approximately 1850 of these houses, but as the economy developed and lifestyles changed after World War II, the number quickly dwindled. Now, there are only 200 left in Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama combined, making it a rare cultural property.
The biggest difference between Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama is their prominence. There are 60 gasshō-style dwellings in the Ogimachi settlement in Shirakawa-gō. In comparison to Gokayama, the Ogimachi settlement is prominently featured in the media because of the concentration of the houses, therefore, this settlement gathers more attention from Japanese and worldwide tourists.
Towards the end of the Edo period when many gasshō-style homes were built, Shirakawa-gō was part of the shogunate lands. Gokayama was part of the Kaga Domain.
The geographic making of Gokayama allowed the people to secretly produce saltpeter and gunpowder in underground facilities.
Shirakawa-gō has a lively atmosphere filled with shops and people, whereas Gokayama has a quiet, simple atmosphere. Gokayama is recommended for visitors who wish to enjoy a calm, pastoral atmosphere.
In the Shirakawa-gō gasshō-style, the entrance is on the side where the roof is sloped. In Gokayama, most of the homes have the entrance at the front.
The roofs of the houses in Gokayama are designed with a steeper slope because of the area’s humidity and heavier snowfall. On the other hand, Shirakawa-go does not experience as extreme weather conditions, therefore, the houses do not have as steep as a slope for the roof. The steeper slope makes it easier for the snow to drop off the roofs.
・Thatched roof cropping
The ends of the thatched roofs in Okayama are cropped to be slightly rounded. In Shirakawa-gō, they are cropped to be perfectly straight. A reason for this is said to be that in Shirakawa, the cropping style reflects the “strength” of the shogunate warriors and in Gokayama, the soft “elegance” of the Kaga Domain is reflected.
The generous patronage Gokayama received from the Kaga domain shows in the stately, opulent interiors. Another characteristic of the Gokayama interior is a mechanism that allows the height of the cooking pot hanging over the irori, to be adjusted freely, the jizaikagi.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites, The Ainokura and Suganuma Villages
Here is more information on the Ainokura and Suganuma World Heritage Sites.
The Ainokura village has 23 gasshō-style dwellings. Most of the settlement was built from the end of the Edo period through the Meiji era (early 19th century to early 20th century), and the buildings continue to be used as homes even today.
Ainokura Folklore Museum
Visitors can learn about the life in the village at the Ainokura Folklore Museum.
Ainokura Folklore Museum
At the Ainokura Folklore Museum, there are exhibitions displaying tools and utensils used in centuries past. Visitors can also climb the stairs to the upper floors and view the roof from underneath to get a deeper understanding of the gasshō-style home.
Visitors may also want to check out the Gokayama Washi Paper-Making Workshop, where they can experience the actual washi production method used in the gasshō-style houses. Washi products and other small items are sold here as well, so it’s definitely worth a visit for anyone who wants to get something that has a Japanese feel.
The original gasshō-style
Built towards the end of the Edo period, the Ainokura village’s gasshō-style homes are said to be based off this original type of which there used to be a few of throughout the village. However, now there is only one of the original gasshō type homes still standing.
There are nine gasshō-style dwellings and other buildings of historical value like a storehouse with earthen walls in the Suganuma village. There are fewer tourists here than in Ainokura, so visitors can take their time to really relax and enjoy the idyllic scenery.
Gokayama Folklore Museum
Gokayama Folklore Museum / Gokayama Folklore Museum
At the Gokayama Folklore Museum you can see a display of over 200 household item that were key to the survival in a mountainous area. Another spot to visit is Saltpeter Museum(Ensho no Yakata) next door, where tools used to make saltpeter and other exhibitions are displayed. These are great places to go see and experience what life in Gokayama was like in the past.
Important Cultural Properties of Gokayama
There are four Important Cultural Properties (buildings) in Gokayama. Here is an introduction to the Murakami house, the Iwase house, and the Haba house.
The Murakami House
At the Murakami house, visitors can get a deeper understanding of the history and culture in Gokayama. The gasshō-style home was built around 350 years ago at the beginning of the Edo period. It is registered as an Important Cultural Property as a rare and precious example of the old gasshō architectural style. Visitors can tour the inside of the house as well.
The Iwase House
The Iwase house is a five-storied gasshō-style house that was built over 300 years ago. It is the biggest gasshō-style home in all of Gokayama and Shirakawa-gō. You can learn all about the gassho-style homes during the house tours.
The Haba House
The Haba house has had very little remodeling done, and is an extremely rare example of the early gasshō-style. It has been registered as an Important Cultural Property for that reason. The interior is not open to the public, so visitors can only tour the outside of the house.
Go to the Ainokura Observatory for a Great View of the Gasshō-style Settlement
View of Gokayama from the Ainokura Observatory
The whole Gokayama gasshō-style settlement can be viewed from the observation deck of the Ainokura Observatory. On clear days, the Hakusan mountain range that goes across the Toyama, Gifu, Ishikawa, and Fukui prefectures is also visible. Photos of the gasshō settlement taken from here are going to look amazing, and shots with the Hakusan mountain range are bound to be beautiful as well.
Visitors can reach the observation deck by a ten-minute walk along the small path at the side of the parking lot. If you plan to go for a stroll or hike to enjoy the incredible scenery, make sure you wear comfortable clothes.
Gokayama Through the Seasons
With gorgeous, abundant nature all around, each season provides magnificent, scenic views. A visit to Gokayama in any season is breath-taking, visiting again in another season to see the changes can be enjoyable as well.
Spring in Gokayama
Spring in Gokayama
When spring first comes, there is still some snow yet to melt. As the cherry blossom trees gradually blossom, a very Japanese scene comes to life in Gokayama. The climate here makes it possible to see the snow and sakura at the same time.
Summer in Gokayama
Summer in Gokayama
In the breezy summers, sunflowers and cosmos brighten Gokayama with their cheerful colors. Come relax in the cool Gokayama summer if you need an escape from the sweltering heat.
Gokayama lit up at night
Enjoy the different atmosphere at night when the settlement is lit up.
Autumn in Gokayama
Autumn in Gokayama
The surrounding mountains are painted with red and yellows as autumn comes to Gokayama. A great time to visit is from the end of October to the beginning of November when the fall colors are especially beautiful.
Winter in Gokayama
Winter in Gokayama
Severe snowfall hits Gokayama in Decemberand the snow cover can reach up to 2 meters high. Winter visitors will need to dress warmly and those coming by car should change their tires to studless ones.
Winter night in Gokayama
The lights of the gasshō-style homes create an enchanting atmosphere at night.
To get to Gokayama, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Shin-Takaoka station. From there, it is about an hour drive using the highway. The Ainokura and Suganuma villages are about a 15-minute drive apart from each other.
To get there using public transportation, take the Sekai Isan Bus(World Heritage Bus) from Takaoka city that will take you around all the Gokayama spots.
Come visit Gokayama and let nature and the peaceful scenery melt your troubles away. For those with room in their schedules, try visiting Shirakawa-gō as well to compare the two World Heritage Sites. The idyllic, pastoral landscapes of Gokayama’s four seasons will surely make your trip a special one any day of the year.