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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.