Great Takayama Road Trip II

So here, a couple of weeks late, is part II of the Great Takayama Road Trip.

takayama road trip part II

A bridge post marking the beginning of our adventure

After our adventures frolicking in the “downtown” area of Takayama (population like 200) and running away in screaming terror from the stuffed knife wielding animatronic denzins of the “Eco TeddyBear Village”, we looked at our cheesy tourist map and realized we still hadn’t been to the “Hida Folk Village”.

takayama road trip part II

Frozen icicles on a roof overhang…

So off we went!

The “Hida Folk Village” is basically a small enclave of old traditional Japanese houses which have been carefully preserved in their (more or less) original state. They are gathered together to form a village which is supposed to recreate how Japanese lived hundreds of years ago.

takayama road trip part II

Gassho Zukuri

The most notable feature of the Hida Folk village is the 30 or so traditional farm houses with sharply angled thatched roofs. These are called “Gassho Zukuri” (“praying hands” due to the resemblance) and are some of the last remaining buildings of this kind in Japan.

Ironically, while the houses are originals, the village is in actually (like so much in Japan) an artificial construct. See, before the massive industrial steamroller that is modernity rolled all over the Japanese landscape, people used to live relatively far apart from each other, especially in the countryside.

takayama road trip part II

The outside of an old communal work building

Most of the buildings in the folk village originally used to be hundreds of meters – maybe even kilometers – apart from each other. The closest neighbor was often a day’s walk, and in the winter, when the tremendous snowfall basically closed all mountainous roads (something it still does to this day, incidentally) – it wouldn’t be unusual to go weeks without seeing another person not living in your own house. Quite a contrast to the shoulder-to-shoulder population densities of modern Japan!

takayama road trip part II

Panda pretending to be exhausted after “chopping” all that wood

But while that a sprawling old school village might score points with the “little house on the prarie” set, I suppose it wouldn’t be much fun as a tourist attraction, and so over the last hundred years or so, the few remaining traditional houses in the area were painstakingly uprooted from their original spot (mostly the neighboring Shirakawago Valley) and gathered together in the present location where they were formed into the “folk village” you see before you now.

takayama road trip part II

A double awning over the main entrance to a building

While there is a element of fakery to this, by Japanese standards, it is actually a remarkable example of progressive thinking in a country where the concept of “preservation” as we know it in the West doesn’t really exist.

Many people who come to Japan are surprised to see that for a country with a 2000 year history, there are remarkably few “old” buildings still left. Even in Kyoto, the historical and cultural center of Japan, traditional houses and temples are disappearing at an alarming rate, to be replaced with modern plastic prefab houses, glowing neon and shiny glass store facades.

takayama road trip part II

More icicles…

While in the West we tend to see intrinsic value in preserving the “old” as items of historical significance, in Japan old buildings are generally regarded as an inconvenient nuisance. Often, their only “value” is reduced to the amount of money they can potentially bring in as a tourist attraction. Alas, even this line of reasoning doesn’t lend itself to a preservationist mindset as the Japanese train of thought goes something like: “if the original building is a tourist attraction, imagine how much more money we could bring in if we rebuilt it, only with all the modern conveniences of the present!”

takayama road trip part II

If I ever release a CD of folk songs, this is gonna be the cover!

Unfortunately “modern conveniences” all too often entails gaudy signposting, rampant concrete pavement, gift shops and loudspeakers blaring on every corner. So we find ourselves in modern Japan, where the majority of “castles” are little more than recently constructed artificial tourist traps, hundred year old temples are filled with powerlines and plastic sidewall and massive eyesores like the unbearably hideous Kyoto Tower rip apart the once tranquil historical skyline of the few remaining tea houses and wood frame buildings of Kyoto.

takayama road trip part II

Looks a bit bavarian, almost

The litany is familiar, but in the end, who’s to say what’s right? After all, some Japanese will make the argument that simply being Japanese in Japan is enough in and of itself. Why “preserve” something “Japanese” when you’re literally surrounded by Japan all around you? Whatever the Japanese might choose to replace these so-called “traditional” buildings with is still Japanese, built in Japan by its people, and thus just as “valid” as their predecessors.

takayama road trip part II

Old muddy rice fields waiting for spring

There is some truth to this, yet to the Western mindset, it’s nice to see some older buildings and traditional architecture still remaining – after all, if I just wanted to look at (shoddy imitations) of Western houses and glowing neon signage, I could have just looked outside anytown in suburbia USA and skipped the trip around the world right?

takayama road trip part II

Water scoops powering a mill stone nearby

Then again, Japan doesn’t exist to satisfy foreigners (a statement so ironically true it’s sure to elicit a bitter laugh from any ex-pat here) or pander to our ideas of what is beautiful or not, so I suppose we have no right to demand the Japanese start “preserving” buildings of historical significance. I guess we just have to be happy with whatever crumbs get thrown our way, even if it means squinting a little bit and conceding to a small piece of mutual fiction.

takayama road trip part II

The thickness of the roofs was tremendous

So while the layout and much of the landscaping of the folk village is completely artificial, at least the houses are real and the surroundings mercifully devoid of the more intrusive elements of modern Japanese society. By the standards we have to work with in Japan, this is a stunning example of preservation efforts (much like Shirasagi Castle in Himeji) and we should be happy it still exists.

takayama road trip part II

The daughter of a friend we ran into by coincidence!

And while it is still a little disappointing to know that the Folk Village is an artificial construct, what is the alternative? Leaving the houses where they originally stood, and continuing to inhabit them as normal, actual residences? But really, who wants to live in such old, drafty, ratty buildings these days? After all, we don’t still live in hundred year old log cabins in America, right?

takayama road trip part II

Chopped wood waiting to be consumed

And while the example is a bit ridiculous when talking about thatched roof farm houses and log cabins, I guess it’s not that far of a stretch to apply the same logic to traditional wooden houses in Kyoto or wherever. Why would you want to live in a drafty old building with paper walls when all your neighbors are enjoying weather proof doors, (faux) hardwood floors and (non-central) air conditioning? Preservation is all well and good, I guess, until it starts inconveniencing your everyday life.

takayama road trip part II

Hmmm…. What a freezing looking river that is!

Perhaps this is part of the Japanese fascination with constant rebuilding? When we think of “old” historical buildings in Europe or America, it brings to mind massive brick and mortar constructs, sprawling manors and elegant estates. These buildings were rock solid and durably constructed in the finest traditions of old world craftsmanship. Thus to continue to inhabit them as a primary residence is not that difficult for most people, even in this day and age, and if anything, we decry “modern” houses as inferior in construction to the products of yesteryear, and pine for the times when “things were built to last”.

takayama road trip part II

Wow! That sure is a steep drop off thinks panda…

But when we think of old Japanese houses, we know them to be drafty (a benefit in the old days, but a demerit in the age of air conditioning), flimsy by modern standards, and expensive to upkeep (replacing tatami mats, paper doors, roof thatching, etc.). While the modern versions are not exactly world leaders in quality, they are a vast improvement over what has come before. In this light, is it really that hard to understand why Japanese are so eager to raze what they consider “inferior” products and replace them with all the conveniences that modernity has to offer?

takayama road trip part II

“Hey panda, why are looking at that river so intently!?” yells KC

Especially when you consider that being Japanese, they are no more excited to see a “traditional japanese house” than Americans are to see a “traditional log cabin” or a European to see “a traditional chateau”, etc. We as foreigners might be privately disappointed by the loss of “Japanese culture”, but I suppose that it’s theirs to “lose” if they see fit. It’s our right to be disappointed, but I guess we need to make sure not to let that disappointment turn into recrimination, which I think is a trap too many bitter ex-pats unwittingly find themselves falling into after a couple of years.

takayama road trip part II

Panda whistles innocently. “oh, no reason. say, come here!”

Or something like that. To tell the truth, I don’t really have a well reasoned conclusion here, just a collection of random thoughts that entered my head as we wandered around the folk village. I guess it sounded better than a post consisting entirely of “thems was some pretty houses”. *laughs*

takayama road trip part II

MWAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHA!!!! sweet sweet revenge!

And that as the Great Takayama Road Trip Part II. Make sure to check out the Rocking out entry from yesterday, to see just how painful it can be to be trapped in a car on a road trip with two very very tone deaf people screaming Bryan Adams at the top of their lungs!

Now listening to: The Ataris – Radio

2 Reactions

  1. bellish

    I think my post when I went there amounted to “thems was some pretty houses”.
    You’re right, of course, but the recrimination still never fails to creep in, it seems.

  2. David

    Very nice meditation on where a culture weighs in on “keeping” vs. making room for the new.
    It should also be noted that Zen Buddhism (a very popular religion in Japan) embraces the ephemeral nature of existence, and sees no value in trying to preserve things forever. Permanence is more a Western ideal, I think. To the Japanese, a tune is sweet because it will end.