Culture · Living in Japan · Pictures

Gasshō-zukuri – Preserving Tradition


During the trip down to Kanazawa, we also drove through Shirakawa in Gifu Prefecture to see some of the old traditional Japanese homes called gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り literally “clasped-hands” style) that have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. What is interesting is that these homes are not just historical landmarks, but people are still living in them!


In the context of the four divisions of society, these homes were the dwellings of farmers, artisans, and merchants (i.e., the three non-samurai castes). The central concept in the design and construction is the use of cheap and readily available materials. Farmers could not afford to import anything expensive or difficult to come by into their small villages. Thus, they are generally made almost exclusively from wood, bamboo, clay and various kinds of grasses and straw. The base skeletal structure of the home, roof, walls, and support columns are made from wood. External walls were often completed with the addition of bamboo and clay; internal walls were not fixed, and consisted of sliding wood lattice doors, or wood-and-paper screens called fusuma.

Gasshō-zukuri are perhaps most recognizable and distinguished style of Japanese architecture for their high, peaked roofs. This serves somewhat as a substitute for a chimney and might also have allowed for extensive storage space. But the primary purpose of shaping minka roofs in this manner was to accommodate for the extensive precipitation experienced in many parts of Japan. A steeply peaked roof allows rain and snow to fall straight off it, preventing water from getting through the roof into the home, and to a lesser extent preventing the thatch itself from getting too wet and beginning to rot.


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