Shirakawa-Go has long been an elected region.
We started to discover it in a French documentary. A train climbed the slope of the green and sunny mountain path. Soon, he entered a tunnel, halfway up.
For a while, the image remained black. The music that accompanied the sound of the train seemed to want to announce something, but the narrator anticipates: “… et voilá … la vallée magique de Shirakawa-Go…”.
Out of the dark, on the other side of the mountain, the composition then revealed the enchanting scenery of the Sho-gawa river valley, with its distant A-shaped casitas, half-sunken in the snow.
The documentary manipulated reality. Despite the inexorable growth of Japanese communication routes, no train gives or ever did directly to the valley shown after the tunnel.
Ogimashi, Shirakawa-Go: A Snow-Scarred Refuge
It was the inaccessibility of this remote area that attracted its first settlers, displaced members of the Taira clan – virtually annihilated in 1185 by the rival Minamoto clan – who went all out to avoid further confrontation but had to defend themselves against the region's austere climate.
This, almost half a millennium before the unification of Japan achieved by the great shogun of Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa.
Shirakawa-Go continues to experience one of the largest annual snowfalls in the world. Between December and April, the intensity and duration of storms often isolates it from the outside of the valley.
The merciless climate, the excessive accumulation of snow that caused the collapse of several of the first houses built were the forced inspiration of the Architectonic style gassho-zukuri (prayer hands).
Gassho-Zukuri Houses that Adapted to Blizzards
Gassho-zukuri construction has been perfected over the centuries. It supports, on strong structures made of cedar trunks, huge inverted V-shaped roofs and three or four floors designed to house large families (sometimes of almost 30 people).
As can be seen in the largest of all gasshos in Shirakawa-Go, Wadanake – now declared a National Treasure – the houses also reserve space for various types of storage and industries: sericulture at the top, production of nitrate, (essential for the production of gunpowder) below the first floor.
We make an aside here to mention that gunpowder altered a balance of power that was secular in Japan and became vital for the survival of the shoguns (feudal lords).
It began to be produced in large quantities in Shirakawa-Go and the rest of the province of Hida, shortly after firearms were introduced in Japan by Portuguese merchants from 1543 onwards.
Half a millennium later, the history of the country of the rising sun has gone round and round. The most important of all – also a military one – ended in tragedy. Better than former prime minister Yoshida Shigeru proclaimed, the Japan lost WWII but won peace.
By extension, a combination of economic prosperity and social balance that is unique to face of the earth.
The Japanese and Photographic Invasion of the Picturesque Ogimashi
No wonder, therefore, that, as we see them, the Japanese gentlemen are still well armed. gasshos from Ogimachi, there intersect countless wealthy family heads (many octogenarians and nonagenarians), armed with top-of-the-range Canon or Nikon SLR models.
This, despite his photography knowledge little more than the On/Off function.
Even in the most remote parts of this bastion of consumerism, it is clear that money is abundant. Even so, the somewhat heartless way in which Japan and the Japanese got used to generating it caused and continues to cause serious environmental and landscape setbacks.
Neither Shirakawa-Go nor Hida in general seem to be safe.
Shirakawa was already an important tourist destination before the UNESCO have accepted Ogimachi and Ainokura on the World Heritage list. From the ranking, however, the region's fame and the number of visitors increased exponentially.
The well-known Japanese social predisposition towards group behaviors contributed to the process.
As tour buses unloaded more and more people, lured by profit, many of the owners of gassho they turned us into gift shops. And, to the surrounding land, in small paid car parks.
These and other cultural atrocities led UNESCO to threaten the declassification which, at the time of creation of this text, was on trial.
Ogimashi's Alternative Autumn Charm on Less Popular Days
Despite the setback, the Shirakawa-Go region and, above all, Ogimachi have their undisputed charm. This charm only increases if they are visited from Monday to Friday while the Japanese work.
If you want to confirm it, try watching Ogimachi from the top of the observation point of the houses of Ogimashi, the Shiroyama Tenbodai.
Preferably early or late in the day when excursions are absent and the bucolic scenery of the cultivated fields and surrounding forest – possibly shrouded in a soothing haze – is in all its splendour.
During autumn, part of the area between Gokayama and Tokayama, stands out for the red-yellow exoticism of its wooded mountains, exuberant when the sun's rays hit them, or muddy when it's foggy or raining.
The landscape is not divine because it was the victim of the same lack of sensitivity that harmed Shirakawa Go, this time, at a governmental level.
Structural Modernity Affecting the Beauty of Rural Japan
As Alex Kerr explains in his book “Lost Japan”, the national determination to make the country “work” and make money, together with the great population density – there are 130 million inhabitants in a country of mountains – has caused its destruction.
At the wheel, along highway 158 and between countless and endless tunnels, this stain appears to us in the form of a forest of high-tension poles and cables, cemented foothills and riverbanks, surreal sequences of dams, introduced plantations of cedars etc. etc.
Over time, we get used to appreciating the scenarios with a kind of visual filter. At the Hachiman Jinja temple, to top the unexpected, we live with the Kigurumis (live characters) from the video-animé saga Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni
when we left go back to Takayama, you gassho give off white smoke with the smell of wood.
Night falls once and for all over the valley and roofs in A of Shirakawa-go.