The Gokoyama World Heritage villages of Ainokura and Suganuma are a must see in any season. They are known as the Gasshodukuri (or Gasshozukuri or Gasso) villages, which refers to their steep thatch roofed architectural style.
Come in winter and you see why. The snowfalls are often massive here, since it’s close to the Sea of Japan beneath the very high (over 3000m) ranges that separate Toyama from Gifu and Nagano. The Gasshodukuri construction style was developed and refined over several centuries to cater for it.
The villagers certainly knew their winter survival techniques, also planting and protecting forests that shield them from avalanche dangers.
They are great to visit on a day trip, but staying in one of the old buildings that operate as minshuku – traditional guest houses – is the best way to experience them. Eating skewered river fish cooked over the traditional irori open hearth it’s easy to imagine yourself hiding out for winter as a refugee samurai..
Or at least as a refugee skier, escaping the bustling hordes over the range in Nagano Prefecture. With Toyama just down the shinkansen line it’s easy to add a couple of days here after or between ski resort visits and escape weekend crowds at those.
Ainokura Gasshodukuri Village
Ainokura is the best example of the Gokoyama World Heritage villages. It maintains the historic ambience with 20 of the 27 houses there are built in the traditional Gasshodukuri style. They mostly date from the end of the Edo period through to the Meiji era. The oldest are believed to have been built in the 17th century, withstanding the severe winters for over 300 years!
Ainokura’s temples, shrines, storehouses and other traditional buildings have also been preserved, allowing it to offer a living window into Japan’s rural past.
Ainokura has a peaceful setting on a terrace above the beautiful Shogawa River gorge. Take a cruise on the river – it’s beautiful in any season.
Ainokura was designated a National Historic Site in 1970, and a World Heritage site since 1995.
Don’t miss the Folklore Museum with interesting displays of traditional crafts and the story of 1000 year old Samurai wars – the remnants of the Taira clan fled here in the 12th century. Entry is only ￥200 adults, ￥70 childrens.
Apart from the obvious benefit of dealing with the heavy snowfalls that steep thatched roofs allow for a mix of activities. Cultivating silk worms was done on upper floors and traditional paper making (washi) and gunpowder making carried on on the lower floors with fascinating displays showing how they were done.
The thatch roofs don’t last long – 30 years or so – but the villagers pitch in to help each other reroof a dwelling in a day.
Suganuma Gasshodukuri Village
Suganuma, 11km or about 15 minutes by road from Ainokura, features another 9 of the delightful traditional thatch rooved houses. Use the Kaetsunou World Heritage Bus to visit both independently, or take one of the tours available from Takaoka city.
Self driving Suganuma is just a minute or so off the Tokai-Hokuriku freeway from the Gokoyama IC (see map below).
Apart from silk and paper, gunpowder was another local industry. The Ensho no Yakata – Gunpowder Museum – tells tales of this Edo period industry.
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Getting to Gokayama World Heritage villages
From Tokyo: Hokuriku Shinkansen to ShinTakaoka (from 2 hours 20 minutes)
plus around 60 minutes by bus or continue on the JR Johana line to Johana around 25 minutes from Gokoyama by bus.
From Osaka: Hokuriku Honsen (Limited Express) to Takaoka then as above JR Johana line (around 3 hours 30 minutes)
From Nagoya: Tokaido Honsen > Hokuriku Honsen (Limited Express) > Takaoka > JR Johana line (around 3 hours 30 minutes)
Visit Gokoyama World Heritage villages on the Kaetsunou World Heritage Bus
From Takaoka you can use the Kaetsunou World Heritage Bus. The World Heritage Bus is a great way of getting to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Gokayama Historic Village of Gassho-style Houses at a reasonable price. A one-way ticket from JR Shin-Takaoka Station to Gokayama costs ￥1,200 or better is the hop-on hop-off pass for ￥2,500. Locals use the bus as well as tourists.
From Takeama to Johana it’s 50 minutes on the bus, then another 23 minutes to Ainokura and 15 minutes more to Suganuma.
From Tokyo: Kanetsu – Hokuriku Expressway > Fukumitsu IC (Approx. 6 hours)
From Osaka: Meishin – Hokuriku Expressway > Fukumitsu IC (Approx. 4 hours)
From Nagoya: Tokai – Hokuriku Expressway > Fukumitsu IC (Approx. 3 hours)