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World Heritage Site Shirakawa-gō (360°/Gigapixel)
Snow-covered Roofs in a Traditional Mountain Village

Somese Naoto (Photographer)[Profile]

The traditional gasshō-zukuri houses of the rural village of Shirakawa-gō, a UNESCO World Heritage site, are at their best in winter, when their steeply curved roofs are covered in snow. Photographer Somese Naoto uses the latest 360° panorama techniques and gigapixel images to bring the charms of Shirakawa-gō vividly to life.

The beautiful village of Shirakawa-gō lies along the banks of the Shō River, at the base of Mount Haku in northern Gifu Prefecture. It is a rare surviving example of a traditional Japanese village, its houses topped by steep gasshō-zukuri roofs (so called because they resemble two hands folded in prayer), built up of layer upon layer of grass thatching.

The mountainous region around Shirakawa-gō receives some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan, reaching depths of up to two meters. The steep roofs of the houses are the villagers’ ingenious way of coping with the buildup of snow. In the days before modern transportation, the area was known as an “inland island,” cut off for months at a time during the harsh winter months. But it was this isolation that made it possible for the inhabitants of Shirakawa-gō to develop and preserve their unique culture.

Squeezed between steep mountains, agricultural land is scarce in Shirakawa-gō. During the Edo period (1603–1868), the villagers prospered thanks to silkworm cultivation and by producing the raw materials for gunpowder. It was during this period that the houses grew to their current imposing size (three or four stories high). This ensured that there was plenty of room for people to do their work inside the attic space.

The distinctive gabled roofs of the gasshō-zukuri houses are shaped like an upturned letter V, making them look a little like a book propped up on its covers. Windows are positioned in the openings near the roof, allowing wind and sunlight to reach the attic space where silkworm cultivation used to take place.

Shirakawa-gō first came to the attention of the outside world following the visit to the area in 1935 by Bruno Taut, a German architect who lived in Japan for several years during the 1930s. Taut praised gasshō-zukuri houses for “their rational and logical architectural design.”

Many of the gasshō-zukuri houses along the Shō River had to be abandoned when construction began on the Miboro Dam in 1957. Four settlements in Shirakawa-gō were submerged as a result. As more and more of the local population moved away from the area, some of the houses were relocated to urban areas and converted into expensive restaurants. Other houses were destroyed by fire. As a reaction against these developments, a movement grew up to protect the gasshō-zukuri houses in the largest surviving settlement of Ogimachi, located outside the dam development area. In 1971 a local preservation society advocated three key principles regarding the houses: Don’t sell, Don’t rent, and Don’t destroy. Five years later, in 1976, the village was designated an Important Traditional Structures Conservation Area by the Agency for Cultural Affairs. In 1995 the “Historic Villages of Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama” were registered as Japan’s sixth UNESCO World Heritage site.

• Gigapixel Images
Gigapixel images are created by combining at least 50 (and sometimes more than 1,000) digital photos into a single image. The term “gigapixel” is used because there are over one billion pixels in each image. These photos of Shirakawa-gō were taken with a telephoto lens, with each image broken down into dozens of smaller parts. As a result, the pictures look like a long-distance shot at first glance, but if you zoom in the details come into sharp focus. This is the characteristic that makes gigapixel images unique.

Shirakawa-gō has a distinctive beauty in each of the four seasons. The images here were taken during the winter illuminations in February, when tourists flock to the village to enjoy the sight of the snow-covered houses brilliantly lit up against the wintry landscape. The photographs include several “gigapixel” images that show Shirakawa-gō down to the finest detail. The image of Shirakawa-gō taken from the Shiroyama Viewpoint presents a tranquil rural scene on a snowy night. But zoom in on the main street of the village and you will find a lively crowd of tourists. The village has managed to preserve its natural beauty and traditional houses intact even as it has become one of Japan’s favorite tourist destinations. By using the latest technology, a single image can show both aspects of this unique and precious place at once.

(1) The village at night, taken from the Shiroyama Viewpoint (gigapixel)
(2) Myōzenji Temple (gigapixel)
(3) Around Myōzenji Temple (360°)
(4) Interior of the Wada house (360°)
(5) Gasshō-zukuri Folklore Park (360°)
(6) Around the Kanda house (360°)

 (Photographs by Somese Naoto with permission from the Shirakawa-gō Tourist Association.)

  • [2012.04.30]

Photographer. Born in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture in 1964. Graduated from the Department of Photography in the College of Art, Nihon University. Specializes in portrait photography. His portfolio includes work for numerous magazines as well as several photograph collections. Currently an enthusiast of 360° panorama photography.


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