The Homes of Hida

In central Japan sits an area called Hida, which encompasses a vast mountain region and the small cities of Takayama, Furukawa, and Gifu. But it’s mostly an empty and often snowy region, which means that over centuries, it developed an architecture all its own.


You can see these homes either by visiting a set of UNESCO World Heritage sites, Gokayama and Shirakawa-go, or by visiting the Hida Folk Village in the town of Takayama. The World Heritage sites are far more picturesque, while the Folk Village is more comprehensive.

Deep in the valleys of central Honshu, the tiny villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go lay cut off from the world for centuries. They were in regions so hard to access that few people ever came across them (except for the occasional defeated samurai who needed a place to escape his enemies). So the villages remain largely as they did hundreds of years ago, though most now have satellite dishes and many of the houses have been turned over to tourism.


My mother, sister, Prescott and I started our visit in the Gokayama area, which is the sleepiest of the the places we saw. This, according to my “Stroll Guide,” is the tiny village of Suganuma:


The historic buildings in these villages are called gassho-style houses, built with steep thatched roofs that are flexible enough to withstand heavy snowfalls (“gassho” refers to the pose that Japanese people take when they put their hands together to bow). In the days of old, families in these houses would have raised silkworms in the top floor.


We bought a few tiny souvenirs, walked by a few small house museums (one dedicated to the production of saltpeter!), visited the local shrine …


… watched giant local radishes bobbing in a wooden sink alongside the lane …IMG_2302


… and had Japanese sweets in a teahouse that looked to be the only modern building in town.


Mom also befriended a super-cute dog in the parking lot.


As far as we could tell, Gokayama has two halves: one populated (Suganuma), and one deserted (Gokayama Gassho-no-Sato). The deserted half (which you get to by crossing a short road) has its own beautiful buildings …



… and its own empty charm …


… but I couldn’t help wishing that it also had people, if only so that it can continue to survive.

We next visited the much busier, very touristy town of Shirakawa-go. Both the people and the shops were out in force. But there is no parking in the village itself, so we drove all the way to the end of town, which was far more peaceful.


We really loved the most thickly thatched roofs (especially when they seemed so out of proportion to the building below):


For a more extensive look at the houses of the Hida region, two days later we visited the Hida Folk Village on the outskirts of Takayama. Here, you can see nearly thirty different old buildings that have been moved wholesale from their original locations. Some are furnished; some offer descriptions of how the buildings were constructed; and others have displays of antique household, work, and craft-related items. So if you want to see a gassho-style house without driving out into the mountains, there are several right here …


… and you can also go upstairs and get a sense of how these homes were put together, including their impressive (and unusual) lashing system:


Fun fact: the thatched ceiling of this building would have taken an entire village four days to make — and then it would have lasted for anywhere from forty to sixty years.

Thatched houses at the Hida Folk Village come in a variety of shapes and sizes (the slope of the eaves changed from village to village depending on the amount of snowfall each area received):



Note the beautiful circular rice field in front of this one:


The Hida Folk Village also has houses with more traditional shingled roofs, like this one from the seventeenth century …


Prescott and Jocelyn reading the excellent English folk village map

… and this wealthy headman’s house built in 1809:


You can also visit a traditional woodsman’s hut (six men would live in this structure during the logging season) …

21cac0c8-27c6-4b9c-ba49-ee35b3d2cae4… an old thatched-roof water mill that has teeny-tiny lichen growing in the straw …


… a large mountain shrine …


… and a small one:


Be sure to make a wish and ring the temple bell!



You can go inside most of the buildings and see interiors ranging from the humble (in this one, you can still see the adze marks on the hand-hewn beams from the 1700s) …


… to the fancy:


But in any house, no matter how wealthy, the hearth would always have been lit — to keep the people warm, the wood dry, and the insects out.


For some reason, I found the carpentry and rope-work in these homes fascinating:


There’s a lot to learn here — for example, this mid-eighteenth century building withstood a famous earthquake …


… thanks to its unusually large beams and supports made out of the forked trunks of chestnut trees:


It was great to explore the many homes on site.


But the Hida Folk Village isn’t just about buildings; it’s also a place to learn about local customs and crafts. We saw carpentry tools and logging implements and tofu-making pots, sledges (vital for moving goods around the snowy mountains) …


… and kitchen graters …


… and knitting machines (this one was used to make straw raincoats!):


We played games …


… looked at shrine paintings (ema, or horse paintings, became common offerings over the centuries — much easier than donating a real horse) …


… admired crafts like this traditional Hida doll …


… and even watched craftspeople at work:


And we also took time to enjoy the great outdoors, walking on the paths …


… playing in the stump dump at the edge of the village …


… and getting excited about greeting the spring!


This is a remarkable place – give yourself several hours if you want to see it all.



2 responses to “The Homes of Hida

  1. Pingback: Furukawa: My New Favorite Town | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: A Day in Takayama | Traveler Tina·

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