Symbolically, the steep roofs of the farmhouses of Shirakawa-go are said to resemble a monk’s hands in prayer—but the design is actually quite practical.
Question: Where in the world are farmhouses designed to pray for their own survival in a blizzard?
Answer: Gassho-zukuri houses of Shirakawa-go, Japan
When you first catch a glimpse of snowy rooftops dotting the Shogawa River Valley of Japan, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto an Alpine village scene. In Shirakawa-go (an hour or so outside Kanazawa), the wood-and-thatch farmhouses, with their steep pitched rooftops, do call to mind Swiss chalets—and for good reason: both are built to withstand the most serious winter conditions.
With its remote mountain location and cool climate, the Shogawa River Valley racks up nine feet of fresh snow per year on average. Houses with flat (or even modestly pitched) rooftops are recipes for winter disaster, as the weight of all that accumulation can pancake the top story without warning. In the late 18th century, local farmers began building steeply pitched rooftops—at least 45 degrees and up to 60—that allowed the snowfall to just slide right onto on the ground, instead of piling up perilously. That they came up with these sturdy roofs without using nails or any metal just makes the design even more impressive.
The name of this evocative architectural style, Gassho-zukuri, means “like hands folded in prayer,” reflecting how the buildings resemble a monk’s palms pressed together in supplication. If the farmers’ prayers were for their homes to endure, then they were granted: some of the structures are now 250 years old. That impressed UNESCO, which designated the historic village a World Heritage Site in 1995.
Of course, you don’t have to head for the mountains to discover fascinating architecture. Here are our picks for…
5 More Surprising Sites in Kanazawa
- The Gate of the Oyama Shrine When Kanazawa Castle was being built, a Dutch architect was hired for the main gate, and he set about crafting a multicultural piece that would make a statement: a Japanese base, a Chinese-influenced second level, and a lighthouse with stained-glass windows right out of the Netherlands. The palace didn’t love the design, but Oyama shrine did, and now it is one of the city’s most photographed icons.
- The new Kanazawa Station mixes past and present with its ultramodern “Welcome Dome,” a 3,000-panel glass cover intended to protect visitors from the elements, but only after they first pass through a gate made of elaborate two-story wooden Tsuzumi hand drums, giant replicas of the instruments used locally in Noh performances.
- The Umimirai Library has been an optical illusion since it opened in 2001 (immediately nabbing world design prizes). By day it looks like a massive polka dot print; by night, it turns into cheesecloth, with light filtering through. What appear to be flat black spots when seen just a few feet away are actually 6,000 circular windows arrayed in patterns of three different sizes.
- Watch where you step at Myoryuji, a 16th-century Buddhist temple full of booby traps and hidden surprises. Its trickery starts at sidewalk level, from which it appears to be a two-story building, though it has four full floors, which somehow become seven levels inside. From an offering box that lures you into a pit to a stairway with a trapdoor, it was meant to defeat local shoguns by acting as its own bodyguard, earning the nickname Ninja Temple.
- One of Kanazawa’s most delightful sites is its mind-bending Swimming Pool at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. Visitors at ground level encounter a 10-foot-deep swimming pool, its waters shimmering in the sunlight and rippling in the wind—but with other visitors seemingly strolling about beneath the surface. The illusion involves four inches of water flowing between translucent panes of glass, which not only fools the eye from above, but from below, casting aquatic light and shadow patterns on those beneath.
Experience centuries of art and ingenuity when you join us for Japan’s Cultural Treasures.