The tour conductor waved her flag furiously as she directed the bus driver into the last remaining slot in the parking lot that serves the village of Shirakawa-go.
The jam of large vehicles and private cars was replicated in the droves of visitors streaming through the lanes and between the rice fields of the heritage site, and forming lunchtime queues outside restaurants that, like its souvenir outlets, never existed a generation ago.
Arguably, Shirakawa-go’s UNESCO World Heritage site designation came just in the nick of time. Buildings no longer considered apropos the times were being demolished, the wood from disassembled homes left stacked at the side of roads for passersby to help themselves. A weak preservation ethic, lack of awareness of the architectural value of their own homes, and the prevailing poverty of the times, goes some way to explaining why many owners undervalued their residences.
In Japan, rural areas can seem at times as bodacious as urban ones. Fortunately, Shirakawa-go was simply a stop for me on my way to the village of Ainokura, an altogether different affair. A 40-minute bus ride across the border into Toyama Prefecture, the hamlet was spared the existential dilemmas once faced by Shirakawa-go, and its inhabitants contentedly dug into an agrarian lifestyle eminently suited to their needs and to the seasonal cycles that marked the slow unfurling of their earthly time.
Some historians have linked the brief reign of Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1155-58) to this region. A persistent and congenital meddler, responsible for much of the turmoil of war between powerful rival clans, there is no hard evidence to support the theory that he lent his tarnished name to the area. Less disputed is the fact that it was here the defeated Taira clan withdrew to in the 11th century, reasoning that, as a refuge, the valley floors and steep mountains were an ideal choice to avoid the vengeful hands of the Minamoto clan. An ancient verse from the region corroborates its own sense of isolation: “These mountains too deep even for birds to penetrate Though those who live here think them their capital.”
For all practical purposes, the region remained virtually impenetrable until 1925, when a serviceable road was finally constructed between its steep ravines and dense forests. Today’s bus system, slow but dependable, represents a good compromise between isolation and the intrusiveness of high-speed railways and airports.
Alighting at the bus stop for Ainokura, I was confronted with two choices: to ascend along a dark forest lane, or drop to a valley floor perforated by rice fields and small human settlements. Recalling that famous Robert Frost poem about taking the road less traveled, I opted for the uphill route, strenuous paths typically being the more rewarding. This one turned out to be the right one, leading directly to the village, though I saw no signs indicating as much.
The magnificent natural landscape is not what earned the region its UNESCO status, but its imposing residential architecture. The grand A-frame houses of Ainokura were originally built for the families of village headmen and priests. Villagers replicated the designs when they began to raise silkworms. For its inhabitants, devout followers of the Buddhist Jodo Shin sect, it was a felicitous coincidence that the steep triangular configurations, designed to deter heavy snowfalls, were dubbed gasho-zukuri, meaning “hands in prayer.” In winter, present-day villagers, though provisioned with decent heating, may still pray for deliverance from the snowdrifts. The severest on record reached a depth of 9 meters.
Constructing one of these behemoths was a community undertaking. Professional carpenters were brought in to build the lower floors, while villagers would erect and thatch the roof, a task engaging dozens of people for several days. The ample attic areas beneath the eaves were used for storage. As sericulture developed in the 19th century, attics were turned over to the raising of silkworms and the making of raw silk for textile mills. Wooden beams were slotted into joints or bound together with rope; nails were not used. Where older Japanese homes used a mix of clay and straw for walling, the owners of gasho-zukuri employed wooden panels. Irori (central hearths), were situated on the first floor, providing heat for cooking. A local specialty, still prepared on these open fires, is fresh mountain vegetables stewed in dark miso.
Today’s visitors often express envy at the spacious interiors of these homes, overlooking the lack of privacy endured by earlier inhabitants, where occupancy levels in a single residence were often over 30. In the summer months, rooms were ventilated by the occasional quiver of breeze passing through the porous walls, along with an infestation of insects. The warm thatch provided a cozy habitat for resident snakes.
Nobody appears to have complained about the arrangement, a resigned coexistence between humans and natural elements, a feature of life that has all but vanished. In winter, the oily smoke from the hearth dealt effectively with the insects, and the layers of soot covering beams and ropes acted as a preservative. The season’s bitter draughts, though, were enough to make some households resort to homemade insulation by, quite literally, wrapping the lower story of their homes in woven straw.
Despite being designated a heritage site in 1995, Ainokura, the remotest of all the settlements in this area, receives only a trickle of visitors. This in no way detracts from its historical importance and appeal, the hamlet containing in scaled down proportions, all the cultural and architectural elements found in the better known villages of the region.
The local museum, the Ainokura Minzoku-kan, full of farming implements, tools, rough peasant wear, handmade toys and samples of local papermaking, is a good place to begin an exploration of the village. Remote settlements like this required a social structure that would promote cooperation among neighbors faced with severe winters, daily hardships and the occasional crop failure. The museum explanations refer to this system of fruitful mutual dependency as yui.
While the museum and a small number of private homes open to the public provide intriguing insights into the way locals lived, and to some degree continue to exist, the greatest pleasures of Ainokura are outside — the serendipity of simply exploring lanes and bunds dividing the surrounding rice fields, noting the profusion of flowers and vegetable gardens, or ascending hillside tracks for sweeping views of the valley.
With about 30 preserved farmhouses, the village sits amid rice paddies that press up against forests whose complex root systems protect residents against avalanches and landslides. Its main water access, the Sho River, is gouged deeply enough into the valley to cope with more recent phenomena like summer flash foods.
The 450-year-old village grew around the site of an old temple. Besides agriculture and sericulture, economic activities included papermaking. These days, locals supplement their incomes selling flowers and produce from their houses. Several former farmhouses, often run by industrious women, make a living as inns.
Time never really stands still, but Ainokura represents a rare deceleration of the temporal. After dinner at the Nakaya, the 350-year-old inn I stayed, the owner, born, bred and permanently settled in the village, dusted off an old video of the area. Although the shots had been taken almost 30 years ago, the scenes remain virtually unchanged.
One concession to modernity was the placement of power lines underground, a vast improvement on the unsightly cobwebs of wires that blight many parts of Japan. And then there were a number of brown metal obelisks. Proximate to buildings, these mysterious intrusions in a world of timber and stone turned out to be water hydrants. Although unsightly, they may help to save homes made from flammable materials.
I rose early the next morning, breathing in the crisp air, the faintly herbal smells of forest, thatch and wood smoke. Capricious doesn’t begin to describe the weather conditions in these mountain redoubts, where clear skies can turn in the space of minutes into brewing thunderheads.
As I left the village, a warm film of drizzle had begun to mist up the valley, transforming ripening rice fields, hillside forests and ancient farm houses that only moments before had been bathed in sunlit, into a charcoal aquatint.
Buses from Shirakawa-go to Ainokura take 40 minutes. Check the information center near the bus terminal for times.