Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture and Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture, the historic villages dotted with “gassho-zukuri” thatched-roof houses where people still follow traditional lifestyles, are marking their 15th anniversary this month since making UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1995.
The houses were built using a traditional construction method that binds wooden beams into steep but sturdy roofs often likened to two hands put together in prayer.
Each of the villages, however, is encountering different problems and looking for new ways to ensure their preservation.
Shirakawa-go has become one of the most popular tourist spots in Japan, and balancing tourism with landscape preservation has been a challenging issue. Gokayama meanwhile is suffering from a shrinking and aging population that is making it difficult to maintain the heritage site.
Every November, tourists flock to Shirakawa-go on the weekends to view the autumn leaves; traffic is so heavy sometimes that it jams the Tokai-Hokuriku expressway all the way from the Shirakawa-go interchange.
Tourism has jumped since the village was named a world heritage site, reaching a record high of 1.86 million visitors in 2008.
One spot known for its gassho-zukuri settlement is the Ogimachi area, which has seen a jump in souvenir shops and restaurants that has resulted in farmland being turned into parking lots.
Concerned about how tourism is impacting the residents and the landscape, the residents voted last autumn to limit tourist bus access to the village. They also had new parking lots built outside the heritage site, which helped ease traffic congestion.
The village is also considering limiting access to other vehicles, but some people are critical of the idea because it may reduce tourism revenue. In fact, about half the village’s 150 households engage in some form of tourism, and any further restriction on tourists could be a double-edged sword in attempting to revitalize the village.
“We would like to keep tourists coming into the restaurants and shops even if we limit the access of vehicles,” Mayor Hisashi Taniguchi said.
In contrast, Gokayama has seen only a gradual increase in tourism, receiving 820,000 visitors in 2008. Unlike Shirakawa-go, there is no traffic jam issue. Instead, preventing the settlement from depopulating is a major concern.
According to the city of Nanto, where Gokayama is located, the combined population of the Ainokura and Suganuma districts where the gassho-zukuri settlements are has declined to some 80 from around 130 when they were recognized by UNESCO. This is much lower than the Ogimachi area in Shirakawa-go, where the burgeoning tourism industry has created jobs for young people to help stem population decline.
Ainokura is in a particularly dire situation with a population that keeps falling as the elderly pass away and the young leave for jobs elsewhere.
“The number of vacant houses has increased in the past few years. There isn’t much we can do because it’s difficult to vitalize the village by increasing residents,” Ainokura Mayor Kenyu Zusho said.
The two UNESCO villages are following different paths although they are both inscribed on the same world heritage list.
Experts say the reasons for this are:
• Shirakawa-go was forced to support itself locally because it is far away from major cities, while Gokayama had little interest in tourism because it was reliant on the construction industry.
• Gokayama has other restrictions that prevent it from making major changes to its condition because it was also designated a national historic site.
To pass on these sites to the future generations, both villages are drawing up conservation and management plans. This month, Shirakawa-go will announce a plan that includes traffic measures. Nanto is aiming to set out its own plan next year.
“One challenge for Shirakawa-go is how to balance tourism with the conservation of heritage. It is necessary to make a decision on how to block access to tourists’ cars at an early stage,” said Yukio Nishimura, a University of Tokyo professor who is an expert on world heritage.
“Although Gokayama has been preserved in fairly good condition, the problem is a lack of successors who can maintain the site in the future. It is difficult to address the issue only through local people, so support from outside is necessary,” he said.
This section, which appears on Saturdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region as covered by the local daily Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published Dec. 4.