I stood in the middle of the suspension bridge alone, enjoying my moment of peace and serenity early in the morning. Closing my eyes, I felt the subltle warmth on my back from the sun that had just barely peered out from behind the rain clouds. The sound of the rumbling Shokawa River enveloped me, the beautiful sounds filled my eardrums as the frothy pale mint waters gushed, swirled and bubbled over the rock bed below me.
After three hours on the bullet train and two bus rides on windy roads, through long tunnelled mountains, and over bridges, one happy couple finally arrived at the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama.
Fog clung to the tips of the snow dusted mountains and enshrouded the town in an aura of mystery, preserving the the village’s idyllic charm. This World Heritage Site is famous for their gassho-zukuri style houses, which are characterized by their steep thatched roofs. These houses are specific to this region of Japan and are not found anywhere else.
It’s impressive how large these houses are, and even more so when you observe the craftsmanship of how they are constructed. Long diagonal beams going from the bottom corner of the house all the way to the top of the roof could be seen when Simon and I peered through the floorboards. These houses often had three or four floors, leading all the way up to the tippy top of the pointed thatched roof. The people of these villages mainly used these houses for the cultivation of silkworms and nitrate production as a way to make a living. Isolated in highlands of Japan for a long time, these houses – some more than 250 years old – are now accessible to those who are willing to make the long journey into the mountains.
Simon and I explored the small villages, our wet shoes soaked from the intermittent rainstorm. From meandering though squishy mud paths to trekking up frozen snowy hills, we admired the villages from up close and afar, all the while rain dripping from the enormous thatched roofs. We carefully balanced our way up narrow ladders and stairs in one of the houses to find ourselves crouched low, to prevent a head butt into the large wooden beams. From the top floor, we looked out through the small window.
The window provided a perfect view of the village. We took turns taking photos, absorbing the scene with both our eyes and with the lens of our cameras. We wondered what it was like to be one of the villagers, working and living on the top floor of this house.
Seizing this window of opportunity, Simon and I would soon find out…