One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Takayama was to see the preserved thatched-roof farmhouses of Shirakawa-go. I'd already visited the Hida Folk Museum in Takayama, which features several relocated gassho-zukuri farmhouses, but the vast majority of surviving farmhouses are found in Ogimachi.
The bus ride from Takayama takes about an hour. Shirakawa-go is a very touristy area with an open-air museum featuring 25 gassho-zukuri farmhouses that are open to the public. I was even brave / crazy enough to climb up to the third floor of a farmhouse and shuffle (shoeless, naturally!) along a thin wooden plank about 12" wide from one side of the roof to the other. Did I mention that there are no handrails? And the floor is open to the three stories below? Hint: don't look down.
The evolution of these farmhouses is ingenious. The top level of the farmhouses had slats so that the woodsmoke from the indoor fireplaces (cough, cough!) could drift upwards. Various wooden platforms held meats for smoking, and at the top level were the silkworm cocoons. The smoke also served to keep insects out of the thatched roof. Also, no nails were used in the construction; the grass roof is held in place by ropes. When a new roof is put on (they're made from local susuki grass and can last 30 to 40 years), it costs 200,000 dollars to reroof and requires a lot of manpower. The grass is sewn into place using huge wooden needles!
I then headed across the (heavily swaying) footbridge that connects to Ogimachi, a town where people actually still LIVE in many of the gassho-zukuri houses. Still touristy, but there are laundry lines and proof that people live there. I visited the damp Myozen-ji Temple Museum (and climbed up to the third floor and walked the plank...again!) and wandered around for a bit before heading back for the bus stop. Admission to the "museum buildings" is pretty cheap (around 300-500 yen admission per house in Ogimachi, and 500 yen for the Shirakawago Gassho-zukuri Folklore Park).
A very unique experience...several of the gassho-zukuri operate as hotels / inns if you are interested in spending the night.
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