Experience ‘Satoyama’: A Return to Tradition & Balance
Located in a mountainous region of Toyama and Gifu Prefectures, the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama represent small enclaves nestled in a heavily forested landscape. Though the region has not completely escaped modernisation, it remains largely undeveloped and the villages of Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura retain much of their traditional character.
World Heritage status has brought the area global attention, in recognition of ‘a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstance’. More plainly stated, the villages were deemed have global importance due to their ongoing traditional lifestyles – including the ingenious design of the ‘gassho-zukuri’ farmhouses – which embody a successful and harmonious relationship between people and environment upon which they depend.
Declaration of this touches upon a Japanese concept known as ‘satoyama’ – a term you will hear often in Japan. Regularly used in tourism campaigns, satoyama is a broad concept with the flexibility to mean different things to different people; but at its core, it speaks of harmony, balance and sustainability through a return to traditional practices.
In a purely academic sense, satoyama has a prescribed meaning. It refers to mixed-use landscapes including farming fields, woodland, irrigation systems and the villages they support. In that regard, the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are fine examples of satoyama.
For Japanese, such a definition recalls picturesque villages set amongst idyllic vistas and unspoiled nature. It is the stuff of Studio Ghibli movies and a highly affective motivation for Japanese to venture back from the cities, into Japan’s rural heartland.
The villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are some of the best-preserved examples of satoyama – something recognised by its residents who pushed for its conservation by law. In the rapid development of post-war Japan, local villagers saw the threat to their traditional way of life and thus, in the early-1970s, started a movement based on the principles of ‘Do not sell’, ‘Do not rent’ and ‘Do not destroy’. A consensus was reached with all residents and the Association to Protect the Natural Environment of Shirakawa-go, Ogimachi Village was established.
Efforts by local people to protect their way of life were rewarded in 1976 with protection of Ogimachi as a place of ‘Nationally Important Traditional Buildings’, a process which ultimately led to the inscription – along with Suganuma and Ainokura – on the World Heritage List in 1995.
Thanks to the active involvement of the community and the protections they won, the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama retain much of their traditional character and practices, and are without doubt the most famous repositories of satoyama in Japan. While the term is fluid and in truth moulded to the need to those using it, satoyama holds a strong emotional pull for Japanese and for international visitors is an ideal worth exploring while in Central Japan.
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