Waking up under a thatched roof

Cut off from the rest of Japan by large mountains, the residents of Shirakawa-go developed a unique way to build their village and survive the winters.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. He has been a journalist for more than 20 years and has travelled the world full time since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.

Updated:

Shirakawa-go, Japan

It’s cold when I wake up in the morning on the tatami mat. The blankets over me and the futon beneath me are warm enough but the heater must have gone off during the night and my head is freezing.

That’s what you get for having walls made of paper.

This is no ordinary house, though. This is one of the original gasshoo-zukuri style buildings in the small village of Shirakawa-go in central Japan.

Relatively isolated from the rest of the country for centuries because of the large mountains all around it, a unique community grew out of necessity and innovative design.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

I pull on some clothes and shuffle into the living room where a stove in the centre has heated things up nicely. Like my bedroom, the living room has tatami mats covering the floor and walls made of sliding paper doors.

One of the reasons I’ve come to Shirakawa-go is because of my challenge to see every site on the World Heritage List. It’s not often I get such an intimate experience in one, though.

This house (called Minshuku Furusato), like dozens of others in the village, is part of a World Heritage Site.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

When I go outside, I find blue skies and a bright day. It’s my first chance to look properly at the exterior of the house and immediately I can see what is so special about this architecture.

The roof is thatched, with the reed-like plants tied tightly together into bundles and then packed together. It’s almost a metre thick.

The roof was designed to handle exactly the conditions it’s now facing – thick heavy snow in the middle of winter. The thatching is surprisingly strong.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site
Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

I leave the house and head out for a walk around Shirakawa-go. It’s small enough to easily walk around but large enough that it will take me an hour or two to slowly explore, take photos and look inside some of the shops.

Although there are some modern style buildings in the village, the traditional houses dominate. Not just in terms of pure numbers but because of their height and distinctive shape.

The steep angles of the roofs are supposed to represent two hands clasped together in prayer. I wonder if the people who built the first house prayed that it would survive a winter.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

It wasn’t just because of the weather conditions that these buildings ended up looking the way they do. It also has to do with the way their inhabitants made a living.

Shirakawa-go is in a rather small valley with steep mountains in every direction. Traditional agriculture – things like rice or buckwheat – are hard to grow here. Residents were able to maintain small fields for their own food but not enough for trade. What they did have here, though, were mulberry trees, silkworms and nitre.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site
Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

In the village, one of the houses has been converted into a simple museum and I go in. Climbing up a narrow staircase to the top floor, I emerge into a large open area with the thatched roof directly above me.

This was the space that was traditionally used in each building to farm the silkworms. It was a profitable business for many years.

The space was also where the residents stored mulberry leaves, which were used to make paper once. That business dried up before the silkworm one did.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

The other main way the people of the village made money was with the production of nitre – an ingredient for gunpowder. This was done in a space under the main ground level living quarters of the houses.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

There are three villages that make up the World Heritage Site. Shirakawa-go is the largest and the best one to visit.

Although the main street is mainly shops and restaurants, if you take any side road you’ll find the traditional buildings straight away. There are beautiful views of the houses across fields from every angle.

Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site
Shirakawa-go village, Japan, World Heritage Site

One of the things I’ve always loved about Japan is that the country’s isolationist policies for so many years have helped it maintain a unique culture in the face of globalisation. To find a little pocket of life within that, even more cut off from the world, is fascinating.

The people of Shirakawa-go created the village they needed with little influence from outside. It makes the night under this slanted prayer-like roof seem a little bit more special.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

UNESCO logo

This site is on the UNESCO World Heritage List!
I'm on a mission to visit as many World Heritage Sites as I can. Only about 800 more to go... eek!

22 thoughts on “Waking up under a thatched roof”

  1. So beautiful, the air temp so cold. 😉 It’d be interesting to read what you learn about how Japan’s isolation in centuries past from the rest of the world shapes their present-day views towards her cultural relics and icons relative to contemporary works by her Asian neighbours.

    Reply
    • Thanks Henry – that’s a big question you’ve posed! 🙂
      I often say in conversations that the reason I love Japan so much is because those isolationist policies has kept the culture so pure and also created this fascinating blend of ancient and futuristic. I’ll have to think about writing a post on the topic at some point… now that I know at least one person would read it! 🙂

      Reply
    • Hi Tara.
      The best way to get there from Tokyo is to take the train to Takayama and then the bus. There is a special bus that takes people to Shirakawago and it’s really easy. There are also bus tours from Takayama that can actually be cheaper than the ticket on its own! (For example, http://www.isitetakayama.com/english.html)
      You can’t be guaranteed snow in November, unfortunately. It may have started snowing a bit by then but it’s very unlikely it’ll look like these photos (they’re from January).

      Reply
    • There’s something pretty cool about the snow. But I reckon it would also be great to see in the other seasons. We’ll have to all try to go back for every single season to see the changes!! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Wow! This shows a whole other side to Japan.

    When I imagined it (never been), all I pictured was a high-tech, super advanced place.

    Thanks for doing what travel writing does best – changing my incorrect perceptions.

    Reply
  3. Wow! These homes are so beautiful. It reminds me of Asian culture mixing with Eastern European construction. My grandparents in Lithuania had homes that looked EXACTLY like this. So amazing. Thank you for sharing such a well written article.

    Reply
    • That’s so interesting that there are homes in Lithuania that look like this too. Even though there are two cultures that probably had no direct contact, they find the same way to cope with the weather. It says a lot about human cultures, doesn’t it? (And I think it means I’ll need to do a trip to Lithuania to see them myself!!)

      Reply
  4. Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go’s largest village and main attraction is worth a visit. We stopped by this quaint village for an hour, en-route to Takayama from Isawa,
    The attraction of the village is in the architecture of the roof of the farmhouses – they are steeply built to withstand heavy snow that falls in the winter months and resemble a pair of hands clasp in prayer.
    The farmhouses are built without the use of nails.
    It’s also worth paying a visit to one of the farmhouse which is open to the public. There’s a small admission fee. I was struck by the coolness inside the farmhouse, the cold wooden floor caused cold feet in me…. The steps are steep – on the day when we were there, there were many visitors, mostly foreign tourists. There’s only one way traffic on the steps so you may have to be patient to get up or come down.
    Be sure the check out the food there. I enjoyed the fried mochi.

    Reply

Leave a comment