After we left Takayama, we headed to Ainokura, which made me reconsider thinking of Takayama as a small, remote town. It was a huge bustling metropolis compared to Ainokura, a village of about 80 people nestled along the slopes in a slight valley in the Japan Alps. It is a World Heritage Site because the town is made up of traditional gassho-style houses, which is the main reason Don wanted to bring his architecture students here (and the main reason people visit more generally).
And when I say “traditional,” I don’t mean like the 100-150 year old Meiji era buildings we had just seen in Takayama. I mean, most of the homes here are about 100-200 years old, but many are at least 400 years old. This is incredibly rare in Japan, where fires ravaged lots of buildings (remember from our visit to the fire museum that fire fighting associations did not begin until the shogunate era, and before water was easily transported, fighting fires consisted of chopping down the buildings neighboring the one on fire, so they did not ALSO catch on fire.) And where fires did not destroy buildings, wars did – fighting feudal clans, competing samurai groups, or World War II. (Sometimes policy did too – such as destroying temples or regional castles, etc., under certain leaders.) Old buildings are pretty unique in Japan – many seemingly old buildings here are actually recreations of the original building.
So Ainokura’s homes are pretty nifty. The village is comprised of about 20 gassho buildings, some of which have been turned into museums, and some of which are inns (operated by the owners of the home, who live on the upper floors) or master-crafts workshops (where again the rest of the building is the private home of the crafts master), and some are simply private homes, some whose owners welcomed guests knocking on their door and stepping in to see their home, and others whose privacy should be respected.
Each of the 20 or so gassho homes also has some fields surrounding it where rice, fruits and vegetables are grown. Each home also has a big, low basin in the ground right outside the house, with mountain spring water running into it, which must have been used for various purposes. Many had daikons and other radishes resting in the water as we walked around. There are also lots of fields and rice paddies scattered throughout the village and climbing in steppes up the mountainside. There was a notice on the tourist map reminding visitors that the fields are the property of the residents of Ainokura, so please do not traipse through the fields or pick the fruit and vegetables.
One of the defining features of these gassho style homes is their very pointy roof: the roofs form a 60 degree angle, making nearly an equilateral triangle. This is in part because of just how much snow this region gets. Remember how I said Takayama was in one of the snowiest regions in Japan? Ainokura is in that region too, but it is worse in this Gakayama area.
There is even a stone (really, a boulder) in near the Ainokura village shrine that is called the “20-day stone,” and if even a part of that stone is visible (i.e., not buried under snow) on April 3, then the saying goes, all the snow will be gone within 20 days.
That means by April 23, there might not be snow on the ground anymore.
That’s actually still crazy late for snow, in my book, where growing up on the East Coast, a mid-March snowstorm was bonkers (although with climate change I don’t think it’s so rare anymore). The surrounding mountains were all capped with snow already by the time we arrived on November 10. So you get the picture: a LOT of snow falls in this little village.
The steep roof characteristic of these houses was then designed to keep the snow from piling up and becoming too heavy on the roof.
The photo below shows some more detail of the roof: you can see from the windows the roof forms three distinct levels, all of which were utilized Back In The Day: the very small section at the apex of the triangle was often used to raise silkworms, which were useful for their silk but also their sustenance. The village of Ainokura was also known for producing calcium nitrate for ammunition, back when formulas for doing so were relatively secret knowledge (and because of Ainokura’s isolated location – it was nearly impossible to get there in the winter, and that was true until a mountain pass was created just two or so decades ago – and the small intimacy of the village, where everyone knew each other, their particular formula and technique were protected from spies). And since they could not perform outside work during the long winter months, many winter crafts were stored and shaped under the roof as well.
The homes are made without any metal nails: all the wood fits together by posts, ties, etc. and according to the couple whose house/inn we stayed in, they could be taken entirely apart and reassembled if need be. The thatched roofs themselves are replaced every 20 years or so, but that is becoming a challenge: it used to be a huge community effort (our hosts showed us a video of like 50 people on the sides and roof of one home, replacing the roof in just a day) but as the community both shrinks and ages, it is hard to get enough people who are both skilled and knowledgeable about how to do this and young/strong enough to perform the work.
The inside of the attic, in a home (since converted to a museum) with the three distinct attic levels removed.
One of the “primitive” gassho-style huts, this one is no longer inhabited and is estimated to be over 400 years old.
The village from a viewpoint on the mountainside: