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THE PAST LIVES ON IN SHIRAKAWA-GO Farming community keeps to simple life, old family customs Beth Reiber


I stood at the doorway of the old thatched farmhouse, watching raindrops draw circles on puddles and paddies. With clouds rolling in off the mountains, it didn't look like the rain here in Shirakawa-go would stop for days. Suddenly, as if she could read my mind, the wife of the household appeared at my side and handed me an oiled paper umbrella and a pair of traditional Japanese wooden shoes.

Nothing could have been more appropriate. I emerged into the wetness of rural Japan with a sense of belonging, as though I, too, was a part of the landscape as raindrops splattered against my old-fashioned umbrella and my wooden shoes clattered noisily along the road. Around me was a patchwork of paddies, narrow irrigation canals, clear streams, thatched farmhouses and tiny gardens, all dwarfed by green mountains touched by the fog. The smell of wet earth and leaves swelled strong, mingling with that of flowers, and the rice seedlings were an iridescent green. It wasn't long before I began to revel in the rain.

I've gone back to Shirakawa-go many times since then, and rain or shine it's one of my favorite spots in the country. What's more, stays there are inexpensive. Nestled in the Hida mountain range of the Japan Alps north of Nagoya, Shirakawa-go is a tiny valley only five miles long and 1.8 miles wide, but scattered through its rice fields are more than 150 thatched-roof farmhouses, barns and sheds, many of them several hundred years old. About 2,000 people living in Shirakawa-go, most of them clustered into a handful of communities. Of these villages, Ogimachi is the most picturesque.

With a population of only 800, Ogimachi is a relic of Japan's past, rare indeed in a nation that seems hell-bent on rushing into the 21st century. Its huge thatched farmhouses, the oldest of which is 400 years old, stand like island sentinels in the middle of paddies, connected to each other with narrow roads that skirt the wet fields like bridges. Farmers with straw hats bend knee-deep in paddies, yellow and white butterflies flit back and forth, and in small garden plots are cabbage, sweet corn, eggplants, flowers and red peppers.

What's more, Ogimachi is accessible to outsiders. About two dozen thatched-roof farmhouses have been turned into minshuku -- family-run operations offering simple, inexpensive and pleasant accommodations. You can live with a family for about $40 per person per night, including breakfast and dinner. Considering how expensive Japan can be, Shirakawa-go is indeed a bargain. And what better way to experience rural Japan than to live with a family in an old thatched house in the middle of a paddy?

The experience of staying in Ogimachi is alone worth the trip here, but the village has the extra attraction of an open-air museum, the Shirakawa-go Gassho no Sato Village. Its 20-some thatched houses and sheds, many of which were moved there more than 20 years ago when construction of a dam threatened their existence, are picturesquely situated on a grassy field. The mock village is located on the opposite side of the roaring Shokawa River and is easily reached on foot via a narrow suspension bridge.

Some old homes have been preserved as they were, complete with farm implements, tools and kitchenware. Other houses display local crafts, with artisans engaged in woodworking, pottery, basket-weaving and toy-making. All in all, the museum offers excellent insight into how life used to be for the people in Shirakawa-go before roads connected it to the outside world.

Because Shirakawa-go is hemmed in on all sides by steep mountains, land for growing rice has been scarce and valuable. As a result, in past centuries houses were built large enough to accommodate extended families, with sometimes as many as 20 to 30 members living under one roof.

Because there was not enough land for young couples to marry and build houses of their own, only the eldest son was allowed to marry, move away from his parents, and set up his own household. All the other children were obliged to live with their parents and help with the farming. To make things a little more humane, however, younger sons were allowed to select a mate, visit her in her parents' home, and father her children. The children remained in the mothers' household, where they would become valuable members of the family labor force.

As for the farmhouses, they were built large enough to house not only the family but animals, tools and implements as well. Central to the home was the open-hearth fireplace; it was used for cooking and was the only source for heat. This is where people gathered to eat, do handwork, socialize and spend most winter nights.

Because there were no chimneys, smoke simply rose up through the house, helping in preserving the thatched roof and ridding the home of mosquitoes and insects. However, the smoke was so strong that it prevented anyone from living on the upper floors. The entire family, therefore, lived on the ground floor. Privacy was unknown. The upper floors were used for storage of implements and for silk cultivation.

Before the roads came to Shirakawa-go, winters always meant isolation, as snow 6 feet deep blanketed the region. To withstand the heavy snowfall, thatched roofs were constructed at steep angles, known as gassho-zukuri in reference to the fact that the tops of the roofs look like "hands joined in prayer." Ropes rather than nails were used to hold together massive timber and beams, which allowed for greater flexibility during storms and earthquakes.

Today, Shirakawa-go is no longer so isolated, and some tourists come even in winter. An especially interesting time to visit Shirakawa-go is in April, when the snow begins to thaw. During this month, three thatched roofs are replaced every year, on three successive Sundays, with about 200 people replacing each roof in a couple of days. It's quite a sight and is a big event for the townsfolk. If you stay at a minshuku, your hosts probably will have photographs documenting the momentous occasion when their roof was replaced. About 2 feet thick, thatched roofs last about 50 years.

Another special time in Shirakawa-go is in mid-October, when the Doburoku Matsuri festival is held to celebrate the year's rice harvest. Realizing that consumption of plain bowls of rice would not be a particularly exciting way to celebrate a festival, the people of Shirakawa-go learned long ago to consume rice in a more festive form -- through cupfuls of sake. The sake featured in this festival is called doburoku, an unrefined sake that contains chunks of rice and is deadly potent. If you come here other than in October and wish to know more about the festival, visit the newly opened Doburoku Matsuri Museum, which features an hourlong video showing the festival activities, dances, parades and plenty of drinking. You can even try a cup of the festival sake.

But regardless of the time of year, you're bound to find living in a minshuku worthwhile in itself, enabling you to come into direct contact with a Japanese family that may consist of grandparents, parents and children.

Your room will be simple -- a tatami floor, shoji paper sliding screens and a futon, a Japanese mattress directly on the floor. The communal toilet and tub will be down the hall, and since everybody will use the same bathwater in Japanese fashion, make sure you suds up and rinse off before entering the bath. From your room you may have a view of paddies, of mountains, a flower garden or even a small pond where tonight's fish swim lazily about. Meals usually are served around the open-hearth fireplace with such delectables as river trout, mountain vegetables and locally grown products.

I remember more than one evening spent sitting around the fire with members of the household, looking through photo albums with pictures of winter, of snow piled up to the eaves of the house, of festivals and of roofs being replaced. No matter that few Japanese here speak English. Smiles, shared photographs and enthusiasm go a long way in promoting understanding.

And who knows -- a visit to Shirakawa-go could well end up being the highlight of a trip to Japan. Even the rain only adds to the magic.

If you go . . .

There are no train lines through Shirakawa-go, so the only way to arrive is by car or bus. The most common way of reaching Ogimachi is by bus from Takayama (which can be reached by train from Nagoya), with a change of buses in Makido. The entire bus ride takes a little more than 2 1/2 hours along winding roads, and buses run throughout the year.

All minshuku in Ogimachi cost the same, about $40 per person per night, which includes breakfast and dinner. You can make reservations for a minshuku by calling the Shirakawa-go tourist office at 05769/6-1013, but no one there speaks English. If you can't get a Japanese-speaking person to make the call, you can make reservations through one of Japan's many travel agencies, including the Japan Travel Bureau. Not all minshuku have thatched roofs, but those that do include Magoemon, Kandaya, Yosobe, Otaya and Juemon.

For more information write the Japan National Tourist Organization, 630 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10111, or telephone (212) 757-5640.

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