Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
Agriculture and crafts.
Location and siteThe site is composed of three isolated villages in the regions of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama: Ogimachi (634 inhabitants), Ainokura (90 inhabitants) and Suganuma (40 inhabitants). In the centre of Japan, surrounded by the steep mountains of the Chubu region, where there is considerable snowfall, these villages overlook the Sho River, which flows into the Japan Sea.
Each of the three villages spreads over a terrace supported by a stone wall. A main street, crossed by other streets and lanes, passes through the tiny community. The houses, constructed at the rear of small and irregularly shaped lots, are separated by cultivated areas, each of which is defined by sinuous canals and streets. In the open landscape, without fences or walls, the rooflines follow the course of the river. Religious buildings, for Shinto or Buddhism worship, occupy the higher ground.
Groupings of gassho houses dating from the early 1800s to the early 1900s define the architectural originality and exclusivity of each of these villages. The wooden houses, which are considerable in size, are surmounted by steeply sloped (60-degree) thatched gable roofs. Within these roofs are quiet ventilated spaces divided into several levels for raising silkworms and conserving mulberry leaves; raised floors permitted the secret production of calcium nitrate. Secondary buildings are located at some distance from the houses for reasons of fire prevention.
These villages are exceptional examples of traditional human settlements that have been perfectly adapted to their environment and their social and economic raison d'être. They succeeded in adapting to the profound economic changes that have affected Japan during the last 50 years but their survival will be ensured only if through constant vigilance. (IV) and (V)
- Beginning in the 8th century, the region was frequented by the members of a religious order who revered Mount Hakusan while adhering to Pre-Buddhist and Esoteric beliefs. The Tendai sect, which dominated until the 13th century, was replaced by the Jodo Shin sect, and temples were constructed.
- During the Edo period (1615-1868), the modest agricultural potential of these regions, with their rugged landforms, was compensated for by the production of artisanal paper made with mulberry leaves, gunpowder (calcium nitrate) and raw silk thread; this activity kept the inhabitants busy during the winters, when they were snowbound.
- The paper industry, which was very productive during the Edo period, declined after the introduction of European fabrication procedures at the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868. The production of calcium nitrate, controlled by the military since the 17th century, ceased with the import of salpetre from Europe.
- Sericulture, which was already practised during the 16th century, constituted a prosperous complementary industry at the end of the 17th century. Thanks to outside trade which by this time had increased, the industry became the most important in the region. It was maintained until 1970.
|Mr. Narihara Sigeru|
Mayor of Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama
|Shirakawa Village Office|
517, Hatotani Shirakawa mura Ohno-gun, Gihu