Timing is everything with Shirakawago. Arrive midafternoon on a fine weekend in spring, especially around Golden Week, and you could be forgiven for wondering why you bothered coming in the first place. Unless you have a fondness for shoulder-to-shoulder stadium-size crowds, the delights of Shirakawago will be scant.
But make it here after the tourist throngs have dispersed, and the living and working Shirakawago reasserts itself. You understand rather more easily why this village of 150 old thatched farm buildings in northern Gifu Prefecture enjoys its huge popularity, and why it was picked by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
With tourists gone, the place abruptly become less synthetic: A farmer builds the walls of his paddies; neighbors chat to one another from doorways; children laugh together in the back of a pickup. When evening falls, as if acting on a signal, the frogs in the rice paddies suddenly erupt into throaty chorus. Long before tourists began poking cameras in the direction of Shirakawago’s thatched farmhouses, rice was the local agricultural mainstay. And rice paddies still occupy a substantial part of the village area.
The feature that draws all those visitors to Shirakawago is an architectural oddity known as gassho-zukuri — long, tall buildings that take their name from the supposed resemblance of their gable roofs to hands held in prayer. As with other traditional Japanese houses, the shaping factor behind the gassho-zukuri is the climate. The steep, 60-degree pitch of the roofs allows the heavy snowfall of this region to slide off: If that didn’t happen, the weight would collapse the roof. Though these buildings are large, usually only the ground floor was originally meant for human habitation, with the other floors given over to silkworm farming.
Shirakawago is in an isolated area, and so it remained very much a rural backwater until well into the last century. When modernization and development did arrive, locals grew alarmed at the shape it was taking and proposed a charter to preserve their buildings. Only later did they discover that in the process they had made for themselves a touristic cash cow. As one official at the local tourist office breezily explained to me, “With the completion of the nearby highway and the Abo Tunnel, the number of visitors has doubled in less than a decade — from under 700,000 in 1992 to more than 1.4 million in 2001.” It is not hard to believe him. Shirakawago’s commodious parking lots look as if they could absorb entire fleets of tour buses.
Shirakawago has accommodated itself in other ways to mop up the tourist hordes. A number of gassho-zukuri in the village have been tastefully converted into museums, where the traditional tools and methods of silk production can be inspected. Other farmhouses have become guesthouses and do a brisk trade.
For the choicest view of the old buildings, visitors head to a point high above the town. From here, the site of a former castle, the farmhouses, all aligned on a north-south axis, can be seen at their photogenic best. When I was there one late afternoon, a local cameraman had appointed himself the resident expert and went round busily advising photographers as to the best exposure settings. Before 5 the next morning, he was up there again, lending the same advice to the smattering of bleary-eyed photographers. But, of course, he was dead right about the settings.
One traveler who visited Shirakawago in the late ’80s was the English writer Alan Booth, who described in his posthumously published book “Looking for the Lost: Journeys Through a Vanishing Japan” how Shirakawago then was on the point of becoming a theme park. Booth questioned whether it was in fact better for something like a traditional village or the Noh theater to continue as a cultural fossil, or whether it wasn’t preferable for it to just die quietly.
On balance, the preservation effort with Shirakawago seems to win out. Depressing though mass tourism may be, this village is certainly more attractive than the nondescript developed alternative. And though Shirakawago’s theme-park evolution is pretty well complete, this is no Disneyland. There is little overt prettification beyond the odd decorative sprig of dried chilies here, traditional implements adorning a guesthouse there, and in the water channels the large swift trout are there to be looked at, not grilled. Outside many of the gassho-zukuri you see the same ladders, sickles and assorted tools stored and ready for use as you would anywhere in the country.
Walking through the village gives an idea of what life would have been like in many rural areas before they became so thoroughly and uniformly modernized. And Shirakawago does have a stark beauty, with its gassho-zukuri rising against a mountainous backdrop and air that carries the constant tang of smoke from farmhouse hearths. The villagers seem to put up with visitors fairly well, and they probably do not have to struggle with large numbers of tourists for very long since the masses mainly descend during the warmer months, on holidays and weekends. For a community in rural Japan, there are fates a lot worse than this.