SHIRAKAWAGO / IWAMI GINZAN

Japanese Lifestyle at World Heritage Sites

The World Heritage Site of Shirakawago is a village nestled deep in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture that sees heavy snowfall each winter. The architecture of the houses there, with their large, pointed thatched roofs built to stand the weight of that snow, and the community lifestyle that has continued to be a presence there because of their protection of Shirakawago’s unique architecture, were particularly valued, leading to its selection as a World Heritage Site.

On the other hand, we have Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Shimane Prefecture. It was the largest silver mining area in Japan, and during the Edo Period, it boasted the greatest amount of silver production in the world. Over hundreds of years, while silver and copper were mined from the mountains, it was done using a sustainable method that did not harm the natural environment. This was particularly valued, leading to the area being selected as a World Industrial Heritage Site.

While both sites are in extremely remote locations, they are not ruins where no one lives anymore; they are dynamic villages where people still carry out their everyday lives. The reason given for this is that the local residents have a deep affection for their towns and the surrounding nature, and have taken great care of both.  If you visit either of these villages, you will agree that this answer is unmistaken. But what about many of the other towns and cities throughout the country that have lost their appeal by replacing old residences with modern architecture? Do the people there not have any love for the places where they live? Of course not. Every town or city has people there who love their local area. So why do these two villages in particular stand out as places where people even now continue to live fulfilling lives, even though the areas themselves remain unchanged from how they looked long ago?

The reasons that it has been possible to continuously maintain both of these villages are, in truth, completely different.

Let us begin with Shirakawago. There is a mutual-aid organization here called “Yui”. The entire village works together to maintain the large, thatched roof houses that would be impossible for a single family to take care of. The architecture in Shirakawago was conceived to withstand the heavy snowfall of the area, and a societal structure was conceived to keep that architecture in good condition without placing too much strain on the village. That is what has allowed this village to remain as dynamic as it is. If there were a company specializing in roof maintenance that was doing this, preservation of the village itself would have become difficult, because maintenance would have depended on the financial status of that company and the economic situation of the village’s residents. What has preserved Shirakawago is not a capitalist system, but a socialist one.

Iwami Ginzan was, at one time, a prominent silver-mining area. It was a well-off area, much like towns in the western United States at the start of the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. At the time of the American Gold Rush, this rural village in the mountains had its own bank and courthouse. Furthermore, before that, during the Edo Period, when social order was strictly maintained according to social status, the houses of samurai and merchants stood side by side, and they made their livings together. This indicates that capitalism-based concepts of law and economics maintained the balance here. This is also the reason why, after the closure of the silver mine in 1923, the village here was not deserted and to this day continues to be a place where people choose to live. Nakamura Brace, a world-famous manufacturer of prosthetic limbs, and Iwami Ginzan Seikatsu Bunka Kenkyusho Corporation, a company which integrates Japanese traditional craftsmanship techniques into the handmade clothing and household goods they sell, both have their head offices here. There are a variety of employment options for young people to choose from, not just agriculture and tourism, and so a diverse group of people live here.

In Iwami Ginzan’s Omori Town, the aforementioned courthouse and the townscape where the residences of merchants and samurai stood next to each other still remain. Along the main street of this town are several houses that have been remodeled as lodging facilities, and there you can enjoy this region’s unique lifestyle and local cuisine. It’s only 90 minutes from Matsue, and we hope you’ll extend your trip just a little further and come visit.

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