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Shirakawa-go/白川郷

My mother wanted to see snow-big piles of pure white proper snow, not the snow that flickers down from the sky of Western Japan once a winter and melts right before your eyes as soon as it hits the ground.

So we went to Shirakawa-go in Takayama, Gifu prefecture in early January 2020. She was all set for the chilly weather. She had bought a down coat and a pair of snow boots, but I really wasn’t prepared. I hadn’t bought any of those. Instead, I thought I could ride out our time there with warm adhesive pads, or kairo(懐炉) all over my body.

Well, it turns out that global warming seems to have reached this quaint little village too. Not only were there no flecks of snow, but it was almost spring-like! All we could see were some snow capped mountains and some piles of snow from the previous fall, kindly left for tourists who came for the same reason as us. By now my mother was cooking in her coat!

Snow or not , the distinct village houses looked quite lovely, with their thatched roofs . It can’t be denied that there was a hint of touristiness to the area, but for city dwellers like us, the architecture was quite impressive to look at. We went into a former village mayor’s house, which was now mostly a museum. The attic of the house, the style of which is called Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) , used to be a workroom, not a living quarter. People kept silkworms in this spacious room. The roof and ceiling are assembled together using only ropes and not a single nail is used ,in order to give the roof pliability under heavy snow and in strong gales. Nowadays, thatching is done every thirty years.

We discovered more about thatching at a nearby cafe that had a freshly made roof. The owners there told us some interesting behind the scenes stories regarding thatching. First, it costs a lot. For a small roof like theirs it costs a few million yen, and for a bigger one over 7 million yen. And nowadays it is done by professional roofers, not by the villagers themselves. Self-thatching has become difficult, possibly due to declining population and changes in lifestyle. Another reason is that part of the expenses is subsidized, thanks to the designation of Shirakawa-go as a World Heritage site.

Self-thatching was common long ago. Being far from any other villages, families in the community relied on each other. When a family needed to replace their roof, their neighbors gathered and everyone worked together. The cooperation seen in those hamlets is called ‘Yui’ (結) , meaning ‘mutual help’. Although the way it is practiced might have changed, Yui is still an important aspect of their lives. And although demands to thatch and rope ceiling timber together must be greatly declining, I was impressed by the fact that there are still people who know how to do it, and it is a work of art. The designation as a World Heritage site might have made the area touristy and changed the locals’ lifestyle, but on the other side of the coin, it has helped preserve the distinct features of the area.

According to the café owners, one thing might change in the futureーthe snow fences. With the warming climate, villagers might not need to prop up the snow fences around the houses anymore.

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