The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama are one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The cultural property consists of three historic mountain villages over an area of 68 hectares (170 acres) in the remote Shogawa river valley, stretching across the border of Gifu and Toyama Prefectures in central Japan. Each of the three villages – Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma – is classified as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. This classification requires, inter alia, the preparation of municipal ordinances and preservation plans for protection, restrictions on activities that may alter the existing landscape, authorization procedures, and the provision of subsidies for approved actions. Ainokura and Suganuma are also designated as Historic Sites under the 1950 Law, and proposed alterations to the existing state must be approved by the national government. In addition, a conventional collaboration system for maintaining Gassho-style houses has been retained by the residents.
The valley is in a mountain region with considerable snowfall, and these villages are well known for their clusters of farmhouses, constructed in the architectural style known as gasshō-zukuri, which are designed to easily shed snow from their roofs.
Mt Hakusan is the principal mountain in this area, and has been regarded as a sacred summit since ancient times. In the 8th century the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama area became a location for ascetic religious practices, and mountain worship centred on Mt Hakusan.
The area’s mountainous terrain and paucity of flat land offered little opportunity for the traditional cultivation of rice. Farmers historically supplemented their yield with other grains such as buckwheat and millet. Nevertheless, agriculture was only at the level of subsistence farming. Of the marketable products coming from the area were Japanese paper (washi), nitre for gunpowder manufacture, and sericulture (silkworm farming).
Because of the manner of their construction, fire is a serious risk to the many properties within the world heritage site. All three villages are equipped with complex fire-extinguishing systems, and residents are organised into fire-fighting squads.