Understand more about Japan by learning from tradition

For most of my life, I grew up in parts of the world that never really had snow. I only saw snow on television and in the movies, and I was very envious of people who lived in places with snow.
Last month, when I was invited to visit Japan by that country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through the Japanese Embassy in Vientiane, I was very excited about the trip for many reasons. One of the reasons was, you guess it, snow!
Before our departure, I excitedly read a recommendation letter from the Japanese Embassy that said we should wear suitable clothes and shoes because we would have to walk around in snow. I couldn’t believe I would get to see snow for the first time.

A view of the historic village of Shirakawa-go.

When I arrived in the historic Japanese village of Ogimachi, the ground was covered by a thick layer of snow. Ogimachi is the main attraction in Shirakawa-go, which was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, the same year that Luang Prabang in Laos was also added to the list.
As the representative of Vientiane Times, I and journalists from the nine other Asean countries arrived in Ogimachi on January 20. When our bus stopped, we were greeted by an elderly man named Mr Arihara Susumu, who introduced himself in Japanese while an interpreter explained that he would be our tour guide.
He looked to be at least 60 years old, but was very active and strong. He gave us the facts about Shirakawa-go, including an excellent account of the history of Ogimachi, the largest village in the region that is home to several dozen well preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of them more than 250 years old.
The gassho-zukuri houses look special, especially their roofs. These houses not only have a good design, but also reflect the wisdom, creative ideas and patience of the Japanese people. They are designed to withstand the heavy snow that falls in the region during winter while providing a place to work and live.
“The houses, made without nails, have large attics that are used for cultivating silkworms. Some of the farmhouses here are up to 300 years old, and people have only changed their thatched roofs while most of the other parts are original,” Mr Susumu explained.
The farmhouses are built with wooden beams that are combined to form a steep triangular thatched roof that resemble two hands coming together, or an open book on a stand.
Similar houses can be found in other parts of Japan. Their structure was designed to suit the environment in Shirakawa-go. The farmhouses face north and south to minimise wind resistance.
They are also built to be comfortable in both summer and winter. The houses stand in a certain direction to adjust the amount of sunlight in order to keep the rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.
“In 1995, this area was declared a world heritage site. So to preserve the area, no bright colours are used. The colours that are used have to be in harmony with the roof of the traditional house, which is brown,” a tour guide said.
The farmhouses look small from the outside, but there are two storeys inside, with the upper floors usually being used for sericulture.
Many of the farmhouses are now restaurants, museums or minshuku or family-operated traditional lodgings where people can stay overnight. They appeal particularly to travellers who want to enjoy a leisurely stay in Japanese-style accommodation and get a taste of life in the country.
Minshuku are typically located around tourist areas such as hot springs and ski resorts and in the mountains. They are also commonly found in smaller countryside cities and towns or by the sea. A popular place for tourists to experience a minshuku is around Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, where visitors can stay in historic traditional farmhouses.
But this time, we didn’t have the opportunity to stay in a traditional farmhouse. We spent about three to four hours at the heritage site, which was enough for us to explore and learn about the farmhouses.
This was the second time I had visited Japan, and on each occasion I have had the sense that it is one of most advanced and wealthiest countries in the world.
Japan suffered greatly during World War II, especially in the final stages of the conflict, when the United States detonated two nuclear weapons over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and thousands of people were killed.
These two main cities of Japan were completely destroyed, which devastated the country’s economy and industry. So Japan was left in ruins at the end of World War II. But I think the hard work and dedication of the Japanese people has made the country one of the wealthiest nations and today everyone acknowledges the talent of the Japanese.
Every Japanese product is an example of quality and hard work, especially cars and electronic equipment. You have to admire the patience of the Japanese, because when times were tough they didn’t just work for themselves, they worked for their country. In 1960, Japan was getting aid from other countries but now Japan itself aids many countries across the world, including Laos, with the aim of improving conditions in many areas of  life.

By Phonekeo Vorakhoun
(Latest Update April 01, 2018)

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