Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan/ Gokayama: Thatched roofs reflect a heartfelt gesture of hands held in prayer

Without thinking much about it, many Japanese bring their palms and fingers together in front of their face and chest to do ‘gassho’, the prayer gesture.

At first I thought the gesture was reserved for temples and shrines, but I soon discovered that Japanese people do gassho all day long. Before the meal, if you say ‘itadakimasu’ and then ‘gochisosama’. For the deceased or for graves, when you thank someone, apologize and ask someone to do something for you. Gassho is everywhere.

What I especially like about Japan, among millions of other things, is that many people, without being too aware of it, live in harmony with unseen powers that are different gods. Hit Japanese anime and movies usually have an element of ‘people living in this plane’ and ‘another dimension’.

The beauty of the Japanese way is that you don’t take everything for granted, and there is an awareness that we may be kept alive by unseen influences.

These are the thoughts that went through my mind at Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture, as I marveled at the “gassho-zukuri” structures that dotted the beautiful landscape. The steep, triangular thatched roofs resemble hands in prayer, hence gassho-zukuri, or ‘prayers’.

With more rural charm than the better-known Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture, Gokayama allows you to stroll around without seeing many tourists. There are few places left where clusters of such houses are preserved in their original location.

The houses here are inhabited, and perhaps to the dismay of some, you see subcompact cars with yellow plates and personal laundry hanging to dry. I thought such authenticity adds a charming touch, one so often lacking in sanitized museum-like tourist spots.

As with many places in the country, legend has it that the defeated warriors of the Taira (Heike) Clan settled here in the 12th century. As is often the case in harsh and snowy environments unsuitable for agriculture, the villagers made their living from sericulture (which allowed light to filter through the gabled roof) and making “washi” paper.

Unlike similar places, Gokayama also secretly produced saltpetre from the shogunate. This chemical was used to make gunpowder for firearms for the Kaga clan, who ruled the area during the Edo period (1603-1867).

I noticed that most of the buildings had a large rectangular pool, the length of the structure, next to it. I didn’t see any fish, and it didn’t look like a swimming pool. I asked a woman to water plants and she said it was for the snow on the roof to slide off and in.

I was reminded to see the invisible and bowed with a heartfelt gassho.

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This article by Lisa Vogt, a Washington-born and Tokyo-based photographer, originally appeared in the September 19 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of the “Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan” series, which depicts different places in the country from the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.

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