Roofs raised in prayer

by Chris Bamforth

Most people are only too aware of the devastating effects of global warming — the breaking up of polar ice shelves, weather patterns going haywire, glaciers in retreat, that documentary starring Al Gore. But the thermal consequences of all the carbon that humans assiduously upload into the atmosphere are somewhat harder to spot in the mountainous regions of central Japan, where, every year, winds from Siberia having crossed the Sea of Japan dump some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world.

As might be supposed, the weight of all that white stuff through the long winter months puts enormous strain on the roofs of buildings in such areas. And one distinctive architectural response to the heavy hand of nature can be seen in the farmhouses of Gokayama.

Along with nearby Shirakawago, Gokayama, in Toyama Prefecture, became a World Heritage Site in 1995. Like Shirakawago, Gokayama entered the UNESCO list owing to its unusual ga-ssho-zukuri farmhouses, whose steep gable roofs are, as the name indicates, thought to resemble hands held together in prayer. With their 60-degree pitch, the roofs allow an easier sliding off of the snow, whose weight would otherwise cause the roofs to collapse. Because of their UNESCO link, Shirakawago and Gokayama are naturally closely associated in most people’s minds. Being just 25 km apart, the two villages are often visited on the same trip. But at one time, these communities had virtually nothing to do with each other.

For most of their history, Shirakawago and Gokayama were very isolated, and between them stood a high mountain range that made traveling from one to the other rather an arduous task.

Of the two villages, Gokayama, being a smaller community with fewer gassho-zukuri buildings, is much quieter and less visited than its neighbor. Hanging in the air around the old wooden buildings of Gokayama is the agreeable background smell of woodsmoke, which comes from the irori hearth, the focal point of each farmhouse.

At one time, a fire was kept constantly burning in the hearth, which was where the cooking was done and the family would gather to eat. No chimneys were built into the houses, and so smoke from the fire simply rises through the rafters to the roof. There, it deposits a layer of soot, which helps preserve the rafters and also keeps down the number of insects and other small creatures that would damage the thatch covering the gassho-zukuri roofs. Since house owners these days are not so scrupulous about keeping the home fires burning, the roofs need to be rethatched more frequently than was formerly the case. It was, however, for the benefit of one particular insect that the gassho-zukuri developed into such large structures. The top two or three floors of the building were used for raising silkworms in what was once a major local industry. The gassho-zukuri roofs allowed large window openings to be built, and these gave the silkworms sufficient light and ventilation. Except along the walls, no pillars were used in the gassho-zukuri construction, thereby opening up a sizable working area. And this space was given over to the large trays on which the silkworms were kept, voraciously munching their way through the piles of mulberry leaves. From the opposite end of the silkworm’s digestive tract, a useful byproduct of sericulture provided the raw material for another industry in Gokayama.

The isolation of this region made it useful as a center for the secret production of saltpeter, which is used in the manufacture of gunpowder. In Edo times (1603-1867), the Kaga domain, centered on nearby Kanazawa, was the richest in the country. The daimyo (feudal lords) of this domain were the Maeda clan, and they thought it prudent to quietly secure their own supply of gunpowder, so they ordered saltpeter to be produced in Gokayama. The saltpeter was made from the silkworms’ droppings, which were mixed with plants and soil to make a lye before being boiled down and refined. The tools employed in the decidedly messy business of manufacturing saltpeter can be seen today in Gokayama’s Ensho no Yakata (Gunpowder Museum).

At one time, there were 1,800 gassho-zukuri buildings in this part of Japan. But during Japan’s rapid economic expansion after World War II, that number, which had earlier started to dwindle, fell drastically. Today, there are fewer than 150 of these structures still standing. In the 1950s, many of the people in this area found the prospect of living in a modern house distinctly more attractive to life in the old farmhouses. Some gassho-zukuri buildings were taken apart by their owners and the timbers were left by the roadside, free for anyone to take.

Despite the theme-park sense of artificiality that somehow invests Gokayama and Shirakawago today, it is certainly good that their gassho-zukuri farmhouses have been preserved as they have. Arrive on a fine weekend in one of the warmer months, though, and the inevitable tourist hordes making their way around the villages is anything but an inspiring sight.

With their commodious car parks, eateries and souvenir shops, these places are geared for mass tourism, and the fleets of tour buses haul in visitors from all over the country. But if you arrive after the tour buses have departed for the day, you see a different Gokayama emerge. The throaty chorus of frogs starts up in the rice fields; a farmer repairs the walls of his paddies; neighbors chat to one another from their doorways. There is little overt prettification in Gokayama beyond the odd decorative sprig of dried chilies and traditional implements adorning guesthouses.

Outside many of the working farmhouses, you see the same ladders, sickles and assorted tools practically stored and ready for use as you would anywhere in rural Japan. Once the crowds have gone, a walk through Gokayama does indeed lend some insight into what life would have been like in many country areas before the often-depressing homogeneity of modernity set it.