Gokayama — snowy land of slanted roofs

Gokayama — snowy land of slanted roofs
The Suganuma district in the Gokayama area of Toyama Prefecture

TOYAMA - Nestled in a mountainous region, old houses with distinctive thatched roofs - which look like praying hands - are huddled together in the Gokayama area of Toyama Prefecture.

Walking around the area with its many gassho-zukuri (see below) houses may give visitors the impression that their three-hour trip from Tokyo took them back in time 300 years.

This year marks 20 years since Gokayama in Nanto, home to the Ainokura and Suganuma districts, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Compared to Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture, which was also designated a World Heritage site at the same time for its gassho-zukuri houses, the number of houses are much smaller, and there are not many tourists in Gokayama.

As part of efforts to emphasise the charms of Gokayama and raise local awareness to preserve its traditional culture, local officials plan to hold a Gokayama folk music festival with performances of the area's traditional entertainment, including minyo folk songs, on June 6.

According to legend, defeated warriors of the Heike clan retreated from the capital and ended up at Gokayama at the end of the Heian period (eighth-12th century). A local folk song, Mugiyabushi, is said to have been originally sung by the fugitive Heike warriors.

Also famous is kokirikobushi, which is known for the line, "Mado no sansa mo dedereko den." (The meaning is unclear.)

"The origin of kokirikobushi is said to be dengaku [ritual music and dance performed at shrines or temples at agricultural festivals]," said Kihei Iwasaki, director of Ecchu Gokayama Kokiriko-uta Hozonkai, an association to preserve kokiriko songs. "That's why I believe kokirikobushi strikes a chord in the heart of Japanese people."

Kokiriko is an undulating percussion instrument made from bamboo used in a local traditional performing art, and bushi means folk tune. Its length, "nana-sun go-bu" (about 22.7 centimeters), is mentioned in a local folk song.

In April, a monstrous creature called Dederekoden was created as a mascot for the area and named after a part of the kokirikobushi lyrics.

In the created origin story for the monster, Dederekoden was apparently hiding in Gokayama when it emerged one day, unleashing its fury against the world after seeing the environmental destruction humans had wrought.

The creature - whose undulating body is 22.7 meters long - 100 times as long as a kokiriko, has taken up the mission to promote eco-village planning through resource-circulation promoted by the Nanto municipal government.

Tradition of preserves

Gokayama is snowbound for almost half the year.

In the Edo period (1603-1867), households in Gokayama excelled at producing potassium nitrate, which is used to make gunpowder.

It is said the product was provided to the Kaga domain and was treated as a high purity brand.

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), many people in Gokayama raised silkworms. A spacious gassho-zukuri house with an attic and a dirt-floored room was very functional to conduct silkworm operations at home.

"I think the gassho-zukuri style was developed in accordance with these industries," said Kazunari Uratsuji, an official of the Nanto municipal government.

Taking advantage of being a heavy snowfall area, Gokayama developed the production of preserves by pickling or drying edible wild plants and vegetables harvested in spring.

Gokayama tofu, which is firm enough to be tied with a straw rope, is one of the area's famous preserves. Pickled red beets preserved in vinegar after the autumn harvest are another.

There were more than 1,000 gassho-zukuri houses from the mid-Meiji era to the Taisho era (1912-26), but now there are only 64.

"We want to cherish the attractiveness of what it was like to live in Gokayama and convey it to tourists," Iwasaki said.

To get to Gokayama from Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen, which began operating in March, to Toyama Station. The trip takes two hours, and then drive another hour.

Gassho-zukuri

The term gassho refers to hands pressed together in prayer while zukuri means "to be made of." Old houses in Gokayama are called gassho-zukuri style houses as they have steep roofs resembling praying hands.

The slanted roofs allow for snow to easily fall from the roofs and while providing space for an attic.

When the village was registered as a World Heritage Site in 1995, UNESCO said the houses are a "unique style not found in any other region of Japan," and "one of the most rational structural systems."

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