Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people's social and economic circumstances.
The historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are outstanding examples of traditional human settlements that are perfectly adapted to their environment and their social and economic raison d'être and have adjusted successfully to the profound economic changes in Japan in the past half-century.
In the 8th century AD this area was opened up as a place for ascetic religious mountain worship, centred on Mount Hakusan, for an order that combined ancient pre-Buddhist beliefs with esoteric Buddhism. In the 13th century it came under the influence of the Tendai Esoteric sect, and then by the Jodo Shinshu sect, which is still influential in the area. Its teachings played an important role in the development of the social structure of the region, based on the kumi system of mutual cooperation between neighbouring households.
Shirakawa-go was part of the territory of the Takayama Clan at the beginning of the Edo period, but from the late 17th century until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 it was under the direct control of the Edo Bakufu (military government). Gokayama was under direct rule by the Kanazawa Clan throughout the Edo period.
Because of the mountainous terrain, traditional rice-field production was not wholly successful in the area, and so the farmers turned to alternative grains such as buckwheat and millet, cultivated in small fields, but even with these the farming was at little higher than subsistence level. The few marketable products from the area were Japanese paper, made from the fibres of the paper mulberry, which occurs naturally in the area, nitre (calcium nitrate) for gunpowder production, and the basic products of sericulture (silkworms and raw silk thread). Paper production declined in the 19th century, and nitre production was brought to an end with the importation of cheap saltpetre from Europe at the same time. The silk industry survived longer, from the late 17th century until the 1970s; its requirement of large enclosed spaces for silkworm beds and storage of mulberry leaves was an important factor in the development of the gassho -style house.
The central part of Ogimachi is located on a terraced plateau east of the Sho River. Most of the houses are on individual lots separated by cultivated plots of land, reflecting traditional land use. On the sloping land near the base of the mountain the houses are on terraces supported by stone retaining walls. Their boundaries are defined by roads, irrigation channels or cultivated plots rather than walls or hedges, and so the landscape is an open one. Most have ancillary structures such as wooden-walled storehouses and grain-drying shelters, which are usually well away from the dwelling houses to minimize fire risk. The house lots are surrounded by irrigated rice fields and city-crop fields, also small and irregular in shape.
The designated group of historic buildings is composed of 117 houses and seven other structures. Of these, six are in the gassho style, most built during the 19th century; they are all aligned parallel to the Sho River, giving a very harmonious and impressive landscape. Seven houses are post-and-beam structures with rafter-framed roofs, built in the 20th century and with an overall resemblance to the gassho style. The village has two Buddhist temples, Myozen-ji and Honkaku-ji. The guardian deity of the village is housed in the Shinto shrine, Hachiman Jinja, situated at the base of the mountain and surrounded by a cedar grove.
Ainokura village is similarly located on a terraced plateau above the Sho River. Its layout is focused on the old main road. The houses and plots are broadly identical in form and size with those at Ogimachi. The group of historic buildings includes twenty gassho -style houses, most with a four-room square layout. The guardian deity of the village is housed in the Jinushi Jinja Shinto shrine, and the Buddhist centre is the Shonen-ji temple of the Jodo Shinshu sect.
The site of Suganuma is similar to those of Ogimachi and Ainokura, on a terrace overlooking the Sho River, but it is much smaller, with only eight households and a population of 40 people. Nine gassho houses survive, the most recent built as late as 1929. They resemble those of Ainokura rather than Ogimachi.