Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995)
Japan

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Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Two se-tenant stamps in a composite design showing houses from Ogimachi in autumn.

Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people's social and economic circumstances. 
  • Japan 2002. Two se-tenant stamps in a composite design showing houses from Ogimachi in autumn. 
The renowned German architect Bruno Taut stayed in Japan from 1933 to 1936 to study the architecture of Japanese houses and wrote many books on Japanese houses and buildings. 

In his book "Rediscovery of Japanese Beauty," Taut said gassho-style houses had a very rational and theoretical structure and were a rare type of structure for a commoner to live in. 

  • United Nations (New York) 2001. Gokayama. Scan by courtesy of Jean-Michel (France). 

United Nations (New York) 2001. Gokayama.

  • Japan. Map of Prefectures. The village Shirakawa-go is located in the Gifu Prefecture (No. 9) in central Japan, and the village Gokayama is located in the Toyama Prefecture (No. 43), on the coastline immediately north of the Gifu Prefecture. 
    Both areas are famous for a type of house built in the gassho style, with steeply pitched thatched roofs meant to handle heavy snowfall. The roofs are said to resemble hands clasped together in prayer, which is what "gassho" means.

  • Japan 2002. Souvenir sheet illustrating the two villages. The individual stamps are shown below in close-ups. 

At the end of the 19th century, there were more than 1,800 gassho-style houses in 93 districts in the Shirakawago and Gokayama areas. Today, only about 160 of these houses are left. Of Japan's 13 World Heritage Sites, the Historic Villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama is the only one that recognizes not only the scenery of the site, but also the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Because of this, it is a daunting task to balance the daily lives of local people and the site's preservation and tourism promotion efforts that often inconvenience them.

Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Ogimachin in Shirakawagou in summer. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Myozenji temple at Ogimachin in Shirakawagou. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.  Ogimachi in Shirakawagou at winter night. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Tairamura-Ainokura in early summer.

The Shirakawago area has more than 100 gassho-style houses with about 600 people in 150 households living in the area. There are many souvenir shops in the area, and it has become a significant tourist spot. But the Ainokura and Suganuma districts have only two souvenir shops each, and only about 100 people in 30 households call the area home. Most of the home owners are company employees, and people in the districts mostly place priority on their daily lives rather than promoting tourism. 

Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Sounenji temple at Tairamura-Ainokura. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Tairamura-Ainokura in summer. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Kamitairamura-Sugunuma in summer. Japan 2002. Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Kamitairamura-Sugunuma in winter.

While still placing priority on day-to-day needs, the Suganuma district decided to emulate the Shirakawago district and in 2002 started a campaign to promote its gassho-style houses in winter to attract more tourists. "We want to develop this district in our own way, while continuing to place importance on our daily lives," said Shinsho Sakai, a member of the organizing committee of a campaign that helped the Ainokura district illuminate its houses this winter. 

Sources and links: 

Other World Heritage Sites in Japan (on this site). Please refer to the UNESCO-listing, section Japan for further information about the individual properties. 

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Revised 21 jul 2006  
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