The first time I saw pictures of Shirakawa-go, I thought it was about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. I wished I’d been born a hundred years ago and half a world away so I could have lived there back when it was untouched by the modern world.

The old gassho-zukuri houses are some of the most aesthetically appealing dwellings I’ve ever laid eyes on, and it’s now listed as a World Heritage Site. I think a lot of non-Japanese who visit there probably spend at least a second or two thinking about how it might be cool to live in one of those houses. Pretty much everyone agrees it’s a shame there are so few of them left, and I remember reading in my Lonely Planet that “construction of the giant Miboro dam in the ‘60s submerged many of the villages…”  I always thought that this was the main reason why there are so few gassho-zukuri left today.

This summer, on my most recent visit to Shirakawa-go, however, I found out that I didn’t know the whole story. In the visitor center of Gassho no Sato Folk Village in Shirakawa-go, there is an amazing video and collection of newspaper articles about why nearly everyone left.
Below is a
photo of the article, and a somewhat re-written version of the story of one family in one village who made the decision to leave. Of course when you visit these villages, you realize that the people who lived in them really had a tough life, but this article really struck home with me somehow.

Mura o Deta Hitobito – The People Who Left Their Village The picture of the woman with her baby was taken by a doctor named Umino, who visited the village of Kazura in 1942. Four months later, on December 10th, the baby, Mutsuko, died due during a year of particularly heavy snows. She was only six months old.
Mutsuko, who had just begun to crawl, was severely burned one day when she tried to drink from a pot of boiling water. Usually when there was an accident or someone became suddenly sick, people would go to the nearby village of Ecchu-kazura and gather other people to help them make the arduous trek to fetch a doctor to their viallage.
The nearest doctors were in Shirakawa-mura or Akao in Toyama prefecture, but if the doctor was busy, he might not be able to come and they would have to search elsewhere. The journey was a difficult one, and took the better part of a day. During the summer months, a car could be used to go part way, but in winter, the trip was so dangerous that seven or eight young men had to go down through the heavy snow facing a constant danger of avalanches. During these times, even women and they elderly would try to clear the snow, doing anything they could to make it easier for the doctor to walk, and in the worst case scenario, the sick or injured person would have to be carried to Shirakawa-go.
When Mutsuko was burned, only two men were available in the village, and they went to Akao to buy burn medicine, asking for a doctor to come to the village. No one was available, and they were forced to continue on to a village that was ten kilometers past Akao. They were refused there too, and were just given medicine for burns.
Night had fallen, and the men were forced to make the perilous return journey in the dark, with nothing but two persimmons for sustenance. They ran all night to take the medicine back the Kazura.
The men were apparently used to running in the mountains while hunting bear and boar, but were exhausted by the run through the snow. At dawn, they got back to Kazura and everyone was with Mutsuko. They tried giving the medicine to her, but it was too late.
The sad story became even more terrible, because a death certificate was necessary for a proper burial, but all the doctors in Shirakawa refused to go to Kazura because of the snow. The family had no choice but to dig a hole to bury her, and call the doctor after the snow melted in the spring. In the spring, the doctor from Shirakawa-mura could not come, and then died suddenly. They then asked doctor Umino, who had came to the village to give medical checkups the year before, but by the time he came to the village and examined the body, nine months had passed.
It was incidents such as this one that were the final straws in persuading people to leave their villages and abandon the gassho-zukuri homes.