Last Updated：May 14, 2022
An important cultural asset. Daily life continues to this day in this gassho style house with its distinctive thatched roof.
The Wada House is the largest traditional gassho-style farmhouse in Shirakawa-go. Built late in the Edo period (1603–1867), the house reflects the wealth and status of the Wada family, which for centuries was the largest landowner in the village of Ogimachi and whose members held the hereditary position of village headman (nanushi). The family made its fortune in the production and trading of saltpeter (potassium nitrate, an essential ingredient in gunpowder) and, from the latter half of the 1800s, in silk production. From the late 1700s to the end of the Edo period, the Wada were tasked with overseeing a government checkpoint that regulated the flow of people and goods into and out of Shirakawa-go.
Wada House: Features of the building
Parts of the three-story Wada House are still used as a residence, but most of the rooms and the spacious attic are open to the public. Though the building has been renovated to some extent, it gives visitors a sense of how an affluent family lived when Shirakawa-go was at the height of its prosperity. Facing the front of the house, one notices two entrances: The smaller one on the right was for residents, while the large doors on the left, which lead up to two tatami-mat rooms, were only opened for important guests such as government officials. The Wada House is the only building in Shirakawa-go with such an entrance, which speaks to the family’s high standing.
The first floor of the residence centers on a traditional irori fireplace and displays items used in daily life such as tableware and kitchen utensils. There is also a large, ornate Buddhist family altar. In the multi-level attic, displays of tools and equipment illustrate how the roof of the house is thatched, while guests can also get a close look at the inside of the roof structure, which is secured using only straw rope and bindings (neso) made of witch hazel saplings. In addition to the house, which is designated an Important Cultural Property, the Wada estate includes an adjacent garden and pond, a notably large outhouse (lavatory), and a fire-resistant storehouse (kura) in the back.
Several architectural details of the Wada House set it apart from other gassho-style farmhouses in the area and reflect the family’s connections beyond the village community. A typical building of this kind has only one front entrance that leads into an earthen-floored area where farm animals were kept, but the Wada House also features a pair of large doors that open up into two tatami-mat rooms. These doors were for the exclusive use of important guests such as government officials, who occasionally visited the Wada House in connection with the family’s duties. Also of note are the house’s plastered earthen walls, which are more fire-resistant than wooden walls, and the comparatively well-appointed tatami rooms, built in a style that indicates knowledge of architectural trends in major cities at the time.
The garden on the north side of the house is a rarity in Shirakawa-go, where frequent heavy snow in winter makes traditional-style gardens difficult to maintain. Lining the garden are stone walls and a grove of trees planted to protect the house from the strong winds that often blow through the Sho River valley.
Wada House: Outhouse
The shed-like building in front of the entrance to the Wada House is the family outhouse, or lavatory. Notably spacious, it is of a type found attached to only the largest gassho-style houses in Shirakawa-go. The building has three rooms: horses were kept in one of these, and the other two were toilet booths used by the Wada family. One of the booths has been converted into a storeroom but the other remains in its original form. The toilet consists of a large wooden barrel with a few planks placed across it for the user to stand or sit on. These facilities were intended mainly for solid waste, as the house also had an indoor latrine from which urine was led into a pit underneath the floor. The pit was used to produce saltpeter (potassium nitrate), an essential ingredient in gunpowder, and was filled with materials including straw, soil, mugwort, and silkworm droppings. Human urine facilitated the fermentation of this mixture.
Wada House: Kura Storehouse
Directly behind the Wada House stands a two-story storehouse with fire-resistant earthen walls that was used to hold family heirlooms, important documents, and other valuables. Such storehouses, or kura, have been common in Japan for more than a thousand years, and they became especially popular among the upper and middle classes during the Edo period (1603–1867). In the village of Shirakawa, however, the Wada kura is a rarity. Storehouses in Shirakawa-go were usually wooden and located some distance from the main house. This protected the building should fire break out in another structure nearby.
The Wada House’s fire-resistant storehouse is a symbol of the family’s wealth and connections. It was built in a style common in the city of Takayama, the local seat of government during the Edo period, from where officials occasionally visited the Wada House on business relating to the family’s duties. These tasks included overseeing a government checkpoint that regulated the flow of people and goods into and out of Shirakawa-go.
This English description is provided by the "Multilingual Commentary Project 2020 & 2021" of Japan Tourism Agency.