Former Toyama House Museum_1
Conservation of cultural property repairs were carried out in 2016.
Last Updated:October 14, 2016
Designated as an important cultural property. A gassho style house typical of those found in Shirakawa-go. Material relating to food, clothing, and shelter is publicly exhibited.


Former Toyama House Folk Museum

The Toyama House in the settlement of Miboro, near the southern end of Shirakawa-go, exhibits all the major characteristics of a traditional gassho-style farmhouse. These include a steeply slanted, triangular roof thatched with dried miscanthus grass (susuki), a spacious multi-level attic with windows on the gabled ends, an irori fireplace in the middle of the first floor, and a pit for producing saltpeter (potassium nitrate, an essential ingredient in gunpowder) underneath the floor. The house was built around 1850 for the Toyama family, which was the largest and most influential in Miboro at the time, and was used as a residence until 1967. Up to 48 members of the extended family lived here under the same roof. Such living arrangements were the norm in settlements like Miboro, where farmland was scarce and everyone’s labor was needed for home industries such as sericulture. 

Designated an Important Cultural Property, the Toyama House has been converted into a folk museum, where visitors can learn what life was like in this remote, mountainous region from the late Edo period (1603–1867) through the Meiji era (1868–1912). Beside the entrance is the saltpeter pit, which was filled with materials including straw, soil, mugwort, and silkworm excrement and left to ferment. Urine from a nearby latrine was led into the pit to facilitate the fermentation process, which took several years. The first floor, where the residents of the house lived, has several bedrooms, a dining room, and a Buddhist altar, as well as rooms used to entertain guests. A corridor separates the living quarters from a kitchen, bathroom, and workroom. Tableware, utensils, tools for farming, fishing, and hunting, and other items are displayed throughout the residence to illustrate how the family lived and earned its sustenance. The attic was mainly used for silkworm cultivation and equipment for this and reeling raw silk is exhibited in the space. 

In 1935, the Toyama House received a guest whose experience in Shirakawa-go helped spread the word about gassho-style buildings to an international audience for the first time. This visitor was the German architect Bruno Taut (1880–1938), who spent three years in Japan studying the country’s architecture in detail. In his writings, he praised the “rationality” and simplicity of gassho-style houses, which he compared to farmhouses in the Swiss Alps. Taut’s words would later inspire local efforts to preserve these structures.


This English description is provided by the "Multilingual Commentary Project 2020" of Japan Tourism Agency.

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Experience Information

During the wintertime, you can make Suttate soup around the fireplace in Former Toyama House Folk Museum.

Suttate-soup-making.pdf(2023年1月19日 14時9分 更新 504KB)


Visitor’s Guide

Name Former Toyama House Museum
Address 125 Miboro, Shirakawa Village, Gifu Prefecture.

10:00 –16:00

  • Every Wednesday(or the day before where Wednesday is a national holiday)
  • Year-end and New Year holidays
Admission Adults ¥300 / Children ¥150
* Please note that the above information is provided for reference. There may be cases where it differs from current information.


The Extended Families of Shirakawa

The Toyama family was the largest and most influential in southern Shirakawa in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the turn of the twentieth century, some 45 members of the family lived together here in the Toyama House, built around 1850. This form of communal lifestyle was common in what is now the southern and northern parts of Shirakawa Village, where the scarcity of farmland meant that entire extended families often continued living under the same roof, cultivating the same fields, instead of having children other than the heir (usually the oldest son) moving out to start their own families. The practice of extended families living together was institutionalized and developed further during the Meiji era (1868–1912), when the people of Shirakawa-go made sericulture (silkworm raising) their primary means of subsistence. Because sericulture is labor-intensive, the heads of families sought to keep their children and grandchildren in the home to work.


Industry in Shirakawa Village

More than 95 percent of the land in what is now the municipality of Shirakawa is mountainous and unsuitable for growing rice or other typical staple crops. The local people traditionally earned a living mainly from industries that relied on cultivating plants that could be grown on the hillsides of the Sho river valley. Mulberry leaves were harvested for silk farming and mugwort for the production of saltpeter, an essential ingredient in gunpowder. Villagers also subsisted on forestry and trading in related commodities, including urushi sap harvested for lacquer-making. Records from 1898 show that the goods sold from Shirakawa to Toyama Prefecture were mainly varieties of raw silk, followed by timber and grain, while goods brought in from elsewhere in large quantities were rice, cotton fabric, seafood, salt, and sake. Demand for saltpeter, traditionally a crucial product for Shirakawa, declined precipitously after Japan began importing a cheap alternative from Chile in the late 1880s. Despite this, the 1898 ledger shows a positive balance of trade, indicating that Shirakawa was a relatively prosperous area at the time.


Sericulture in Shirakawa-go

Records indicate that by the middle of the eighteenth century, the villages along the Sho River were noted for their sericulture, or silkworm raising, throughout the surrounding Hida area (the northern part of present-day Gifu Prefecture). Shirakawa-go appears frequently in these records, suggesting that the township had by that time made a name for itself as a leading producer of raw silk. This renown was due to the high quality of Shirakawa silk, which became an in-demand commodity both in Hida and in the powerful Kaga domain on the Sea of Japan coast (today’s Toyama and Ishikawa Prefectures).


Prosperity Through Silk Farming

From the Edo period (1603–1867) onward, the people of Shirakawa-go earned hard currency mainly through sericulture and saltpeter production. The former industry was particularly important for the area from the end of the Edo period to the late Meiji era (1868–1912), when Japan became a major exporter of raw silk and demand grew rapidly. Records from 1870 indicate that the settlements corresponding to the present-day municipality of Shirakawa produced an average of 65 kilograms of silk per household per year—more than any other part of the surrounding Hida area. The Toyama household was one of the most productive in Shirakawa: At its height, it produced a remarkable 375 kilograms of raw silk during a single spring season.


Saltpeter Production in Shirakawa-go

Traditionally, one of the main industries in Shirakawa-go was the production of saltpeter (potassium nitrate) from the mineral niter, an essential ingredient in gunpowder. The required techniques were introduced from nearby Gokayama, where the industry had grown exponentially after the introduction of European matchlock guns in 1543. Villagers made saltpeter in a hole up to 2 meters deep near the irori fireplaces of their houses. They sold the crude product to one of the three licensed refineries in Shirakawa-go, where it was refined into saltpeter crystals. 

The refineries sold the saltpeter to domains and traders as far away as Osaka. Their largest client was the powerful Kaga domain (today’s Toyama and Ishikawa Prefectures) on the Sea of Japan coast, which at its height purchased more than half of all the saltpeter produced in Shirakawa-go. One merchant authorized to deal exclusively with the lords of Kaga had by 1788 accumulated a fortune sizable enough to build what was then the largest and most lavish house in all of Shirakawa-go. The saltpeter industry flourished until the Meiji era (1868–1912), when a cheap alternative was imported from Chile, resulting in a decline in local production.


Sericulture and Saltpeter Production in Gassho-style Houses

The harsh climate of the Sho river valley is characterized by sudden drops in temperature, especially in spring, making it unsuitable for silk production because silkworms are sensitive to cold and moisture. The fact that a prosperous sericulture industry developed in Shirakawa-go despite these unfavorable conditions was largely thanks to the area’s traditional gassho-style farmhouses. The typical gassho-style house shelters a spacious multi-level attic. Windows on the gable ends let in sunlight and air, making the attic a well-lit and well-ventilated space kept warm and dry by the heat and smoke rising through the lattice ceiling from the house’s irori fireplace. Together, these factors made the attics ideal for growing silkworms. 

The gassho-style houses were also well suited for saltpeter production, another major industry in Shirakawa-go until the Meiji era (1868–1912). A pit was dug underneath the irori fireplace and filled with a mixture of materials including straw, soil, mugwort, silkworm excrement, and human urine, which was then left to ferment. Over time, calcium nitrate formed in the soil through the nitrification of bacteria. The Toyama family’s saltpeter pit remains intact underneath this house. Next to the entrance is a barrel in which urine was stored before it was released into the pit to facilitate the fermentation process.


Research into Extended Families

The system of extended families living under the same roof, once common in parts of Shirakawa-go, began to attract scholarly attention during the Meiji era (1868–1912). In 1888, an anthropologist at Kyoto University published a paper on the communal lifestyle of the Shirakawa villagers, and interest in what he described as a strange and unusual custom grew rapidly. Researchers and journalists from throughout Japan traveled to Shirakawa to observe what they considered a peculiar family system, but few sought to understand the system’s origins or purpose. 

The first academic to conduct rigorous research into Shirakawa’s extended families was the economic historian Honjo Eijiro (1888–1973), who in a 1911 study described their origins, organization, purpose, and prospects in a changing world. Honjo based many of his conclusions on observation of the Toyama family, which lived in this house. His study formed the foundation for subsequent research into the extended family system, which came to be understood as a rational arrangement shaped by the social and environmental conditions of the Shirakawa area.


Characteristics of Extended Families in Shirakawa Village

There is no strict definition for what constituted a typical extended family in Shirakawa, as the size of the family and specific living arrangements differed somewhat from village to village. Nevertheless, a typical extended family was led by the head of the household, who lived together with his wife, their heir and his family, and their other children. Daughters remained in the house after marriage and were visited regularly by their husbands, as did sons without inheritance rights, who in turn visited their wives elsewhere in the village. Children born to the daughters of the family were raised by the head of the household. 



Silk Farming and Female Labor

Silkworm raising and raw-silk reeling in Shirakawa-go was notably labor-intensive and relied particularly on a female workforce. The scarcity of arable land in the Sho river valley meant that the mulberries used as food for silkworms had to be grown on the mountainsides, often on multiple small plots far from each other. In addition to harvesting mulberry leaves, a large labor force was required for reeling, which is the process of unwinding raw silk thread from cocoons. This monotonous and tiring task, usually performed from July to September, every day from early morning to evening and sometimes past nightfall by the light of an oil lamp, was mainly done by women. 

In the Toyama household, reeling was initially a completely manual form of labor but was partially mechanized in the late 1800s. Reeling machines powered by a water wheel were placed in a shed next to the main house, which had space for eight women working side by side. The importance of women’s labor in sericulture motivated the heads of families to keep their female children and grandchildren in the home to work, and led to a system of marriage in which husbands visited their wives in the latter’s family home instead of living together in a separate house.


Life in an Extended Family

Unlike what the sensationalist writings of the late 1800s described, the system of extended families was built on necessity rather than compulsion and included a measure of individual freedom. On one day each week (or once every five days, as in the Toyama family), nuclear families within the large family were allowed time off from their regular duties. On such days, the husband, wife, and their children could spend time together or work a small field designated for them. Any crops they produced would be purchased by the head of the household, resulting in private income for the nuclear family. 

On the other hand, the nuclear family had to procure and cook its own food on off days, since the household did not provide them with meals. The Toyama family kept a record of the crops purchased by the head of the family under this system. These documents cover the period from 1851 to 1891 and show that all adults in the family, except the head of the household, engaged in such private farming, growing barnyard millet, soybeans, rice, chestnuts, buckwheat, mulberry leaves, and more.


This English description is provided by the "Multilingual Commentary Project 2020" of Japan Tourism Agency.

Japan Tourism Agency Logo