Of rugged nature and ancient villages: Toyama's Gokayama Region
A land lost in time
Situated in the Nanto City (南砺市 Nanto-shi) in the southernmost part of Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken), Gokayama (五箇山) is a remote mountainous region occupying the Sho River Valley (庄川峡 Shōgawakyō). Gokayama encompasses approximately 40 small villages–two of which are registered as UNESCO World Heritage sites–and is rumoured to be one of the places the Taira clan (平氏 heishi) escaped to following their defeat by the Minamoto clan (源氏 genji) during the Genpei War (源平合戦 Genpei-gassen). Less well known than neighbouring Shirakawa-go (白川郷 Shirakawagō), Gokayama offers travellers the chance to go back in time and explore rustic Japanese villages undisturbed by throngs of tourists and modern-day structures. While the trek to get there may seem daunting at times, Gokayama and its incredible natural landscape reveal Japan as it once was hundreds of years ago.
Like hands in prayer
House constructed in the gassho-zukuri architectural style. (Image credit: photo AC)
The villages of Gokayama immediately stand out due to the unique style of architecture used to construct their homes. Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) refers to an architectural style once common in the region that can now only be found at the World Heritage sites of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go. Consisting of steep thatched roofs sitting at a slope of about 60 degrees, gassho-zukuri style homes are designed to shed off the heavy layers of snow that accumulate in this region during winter. The name gassho-zukuri derives from the roof’s resemblance to two hands pressed together in prayer, and no visit to the area would be complete without witnessing this picturesque architecture firsthand.
A world heritage in two villages
The village of Ainokura, Gokayama. (Image credit: photo AC)
Suganuma (菅沼合掌造り集落 Suganuma-gasshō-zukuri-shūraku) and Ainokura (相倉合掌造り集落 Ainokura-gasshō-zukuri-shūraku) gassho-zukuri villages are undeniably the highlights of the Gokayama region. Dotted with a total of 29 gassho-zukuri style houses (9 in Suganuma, 20 in Ainokura), these 2 villages represent an architectural and cultural tradition that has remained unchanged for approximately 400 years. The villages have been designated as both UNESCO World Heritage and National Historic sites, and have maintained a remarkably traditional lifestyle even as the rest of Japan has modernised. To better experience life in a rural Japanese village setting, Suganuma and Ainokura also provide guests the opportunity to stay in one of their gassho-zukuri style houses should one feel so inclined.
More than just villages
A view of one of the many natural landscapes in Gokayama. (Image credit: photo AC)
While Gokayama is most recognised for its ancient villages and gassho-zukuri style thatched-roof houses, there is much more to this area than its human-made structures. Covered in mountains and forests and lined with rivers and streams, Gokayama is a natural paradise for those looking to escape the crowded confines of the city. After finishing exploring the villages of Suganuma and Ainokura, why not head out to the banks of the Sho River or venture up the verdant green hillsides of the surrounding mountains? After all, you have come all this way.
Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from Ueno Station (上野駅 Ueno-eki) in Tokyo (東京) to Shin-Takaoka Station (新高岡駅 Shin-Takaoka-eki) in Toyama and transfer to the Johana Line (城端線 Jōhana-sen). Take the Johana Line to Johana Station (城端駅 Jōhana-eki) and get off. From Johana Station, take the bus to the Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop. It is approximately a 9-minute walk to Ainokura from the bus stop.
Nearest station: Jōhana Station (城端駅)
Header image credit: photoAC