SYNOPSIS:  More about the specific architectural features of the gasso-style farm houses.  In many ways a continuation of yesterday’s blog.


One day I spent exploring Ogimachi, but since I had the time, I decided to visit the other two villages in the triad on the next day, even though they were a bit harder to get to.  A convenient World-Heritage bus which ran three times during the day, took me out there alright, but then I was stuck and had to wend my way back via the local bus, which after all was not such a big deal, except that you can’t miss the last one or you are left there.  Nothing goes anywhere after 6 PM…

All three of these villages are nestled in a small valley surrounded by tall mountains.  If you take the time to hike up to a well-marked view point, in each case you will be rewarded with breathtaking looks across the entire village.

At Ainokura, my map also invited the visitor to hike around the town and as this was my third grasshopper village, I had seen enough of the interior of these houses to venture on the path.  Then there was a sign posted in Japanese and a crossing-gate which seemed to indicate that car traffic should not continue.  As I was on foot, I ignored the sign.  And since there was nothing posted in English, I assumed the sign was not for me anyhow.  Wrong…

The deeper I got into the woods the more it became clear that this path had not been maintained for weeks if not months.  Rocks had fallen onto the road and the footpath had not been cleared of plants.  As it had been raining for two days straight and I had for once decided not to wear my Keens I was in for a slippery slide.  But I had 40 minutes invested in this path and to turn back was not an option.    Obviously, I made it.  And I did not even fall.

I was rewarded with wet clothes, wet shoes, and wet socks but a glimpse of some wildlife and a few really cool gnarly trees.  And the bus wasn’t coming for another hour anyhow.  I must have been the last one out of the village.

Each of the three villages has opened up a few of the houses as local museums showcasing old farm equipment, fire trucks, plants, tools, toys, and clothing.  My favorite was the straw mantle that had to suffice as rain coat.

As everywhere, the rich folks get the big houses — often three stories above the main floor.  And the poor ones used to live with an entire family in huts which today serve no more than as tool sheds.  Money could be made through the potassium-nitrate business, through rice cultivation, and interestingly enough through extensive farming of silk worms.  That was done right under the roof of the houses on the top floor.

It is fascinating to study the interior of these houses.  One of the largest ones in Ogimachi, the Wada House, has as much as any gasso-house can offer:  there is the central hall which has a sunken pit in the center filled with sand; a big pot of water is suspended from a big square wooden block which in turn is suspended from the ceiling.  For hundreds of years, open fires have heated the rooms and the water and the soot of the fire has blackened the wooden square and even the rafters all the way up below the ceiling.  Above the fire pit, the wooden floors in the upper stories, is an open grid which allows for the smoke to escape.  The stark contrast of the old blackened beams and the frequently renewed beige ropes tying the straw roof to it, is a characteristic of the gasso-home.

Gasso is a name derived from “pray” as the steep thatched roof seem to resemble praying hands.  The pitch of the roof is a necessity to fight one of the three enemies of this style home:  dilapidation, fire and snow.  Without the pitch, the enormous amounts of snow would have made any wooden structure collapse.  Even with the pitch, each winter at least once, the snow has to be cleared off the roof manually.  The danger of fire is self-evident and visitors to the village are not allowed to smoke, for example.  And dilapidation — straw does not last forever.   However, I was surprised to learn that a good gasso-style roof will last for 30-50 years!  That is just about as good as any American roof.  Then, however, it is a major communal effort to replace it.  Literally, to redo a larger roof will take the effort of the entire village.  The roof will be dotted with people as if dotted with ants on an ant hill.  It takes about three days to dismantle an old roof and about one to rethatch it, bushel by bushel of rice straw.

But back to the interior.  The house of any wealthy person would feature a Buddhist altar and a fancy guest room equipped with the typical Japanese features of a raised alcove and painted sliding doors.  Multiple guest rooms, a tea room, a study would be arranged around the central hall.  And if the house is large enough between the main floor and the first attic there could be a mezzanine for storing precious objects from a dowry, for example.  The attic would be used to dry plants, store tools, keep weaving equipment, etc.  And the second story of the attic would be reserved for the cultivation of silkworms.  Most houses in these villages had only two stories, and no mezzanine.  But still, this made for quite spacious living quarters and room for work areas.

Suganuma, the smallest of the villages, had an interesting layout.  Before the roads were constructed, the only access to the plain in which the village was situated was via a rope and a basket crossing the river.  There were two areas of the village, one of which also had a suspension bridge.  The other one was so isolated and access could be controlled via the pulley system that it was a designated prisoners area.  I guess the mountains and the river were considered impenetrable.  Today, it is the most desolate part of all the villages.  None of those houses is occupied.  A tunnel has been dug for visitors to reach that part of the village, as the old rope, pulley and basket system is no longer in operation.  Since I could not read any of the signage I felt quite uneasy to enter a seemingly endless tunnel to go…where?  Hardly any visitors were there but I saw a couple making the journey and I followed in good faith.   I hope a use can be found for this cluster of homes.

At the end of two days I had seen enough grasshoppers.  But I kept walking around in constant awe over the majestic nature of the mountains, the mysterious quality of the air after all the rain (pretty much two days in a row), and I marveled at the green.  I was thankful that there are places like this preserved in this industrial world.  But I was also glad that I did not have to live here permanently.  What would I do?

I enjoyed my last sumptuous home-cooked meal and will enjoy the last night in my luxuriously painted guest room sleeping once again on a double layer of bedding, and  listening to the frogs, before moving back again into the modern world.

Good night.

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  1. Sometimes after “hearing the frogs”, I wonder what the modern world has to recommend for itself. We have created an environment full of stress, noise, pollution etc. I find your triad of beautiful little villages very appealing on many levels…but then I wonder how I would feel after a month or so. By then the modern world might seem inviting again and I might be eager to get back. But for a while, it is the low hanging fog, the smell of rain, the green, those beautiful houses and of course the frogs, that comfort the mind, sooth the soul and awaken the senses.

    I will have to show Geo your picture of that cutie fire hydrant…he takes and collects images of them. It is quite amazing how many different hydrants there are!