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By any standards, winters in the Gifu and Toyama Prefectures of Japan can be severe. Here in the Japanese Alps, snow falls most days between the end of November and early April, more than 20 inches annually, and temperatures often drop into the single digits. Given such harsh conditions, it would seem that 18th-century farmers in the region could only survive on a prayer.
Enter the Gassho-style farmhouse. Unique to this region of Japan, Gassho-Zukuri houses are recognized for their slanted, thatched gable roofs. The steep slope, angling at about 60 degrees, allows snow to fall off so as to prevent the house from being crushed under the weight. (To further increase its strength, lumber is placed between the crossbeams.) This roof shape resembles a pair of praying hands, which is how the architectural style got its name: Gassho means to join one’s hands in prayer, while Zukuri denotes a type of architecture.
Built from the 1700s through to the early-20th century, the Gassho farmhouse is larger than most others in Japan, and typically has three (and sometimes four) levels. An irori, or traditional open hearth, generally found in the common dining room, is used for heating and cooking.
The houses feature unusually roomy attics, which were most often workspaces. Given their isolated location and limited growing season, farmers in these remote mountain villages supplemented their income making washi paper and raising silkworms. (Old trays for cultivating the caterpillars can still be found in some attics.) Large openings in the gabled ends allow for ventilation and plenty of natural light.
Gassho-style architecture first entered the Western consciousness in 1935, when German architect Bruno Taut visited Shirakawa-go during his travels across Japan. At that time, there were approximately 300 such Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses in existence. Tragically, the construction of the Miboro Dam in 1955 flooded a number of the alpine villages; other houses were lost to fire or abandonment as residents moved to the cities in search of work. By 1965, the number left standing had been cut in half.
During the early-70s, a movement started to conserve the remaining Gassho farmhouses; in 1995, the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were officially granted UNESCO’s World Heritage status. Today, 117 of these Gassho-style houses and seven other structures can be found in the region, particularly in the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma. (Views from the Ogimachi lookout point are particularly magical.) Although some houses are still inhabited by locals, most have been turned into museums or operate as restaurants and minshuku, or traditional, family-run inns.