From the tourist brochure:
Gassho style architecture is unique even among Japanese farmhouses. The ground story of the houses is constructed of heavy timber posts and beams connected by traditional wood joinery techniques. The upper two and three stories of the house are located within a steeply sloped roof of approximately 60 degrees framed by a series of triangular shaped heavy timber frames. Flexible, thin wood sticks are attached to intermediate wood members that span between the heavy wooden frames. The attic spaces of the Gassho houses were well suited to the raising of silk worms; silk being one of the major agri-industrial products of Japan’s early modern period.
During the Edo period, pits under the ground floor were used to produce niter, one of the main ingredients of gun powder. … It is ironic that niter, an essential ingredient of gunpowder, was produced in a large quantity in this peaceful setting. In fact, the village of Gokayama was at one time the leading producer of niter in Japan. It seems odd that such a quiet place would play a significant role in the production of gunpowder until you understand that niter was used as a substitute form of tax payment since the villages could not grow enough rice to pay their taxes to the authorities. The form of the houses and the lifestyle of the inhabitants were shaped not only by the extremes of nature but also by the social demands of the society of the time.
The area surrounding Shirakawa-go has many natural assets that complement the village’s cultural asset of Gassho style houses. … A virgin forest covers a large area of Mt. Hakusan, providing the habitat for many types of wildlife including bear, antelope, monkey, rabbit, fox, and raccoon. The clear waters of area streams and rivers is home to abundant fish.
In the fall … villagers begin to prepare for winter. Firewood is stacked under the eaves of houses and fence-like reed enclosures are placed along the perimeter of the houses to protect the walls and the entrances from drifting snow and from snow falling from the roof. Winter arrives early and lasts long in Shirakawa-go.
From Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K Cycles:
“We recently visited the very traditional village of Shirakawa, where all the houses are 200 years old and have thatch roofs. Also special to this area is the mountain cooking, which includes fern sprouts, bamboo shoots, and mushrooms gathered from the mountainside. Curious, we visited a factory that packages these mountain veggies because we had heard that a Brazilian family worked there. As it turns out, all the materials for this local specialty are imported from China and Russia, and have been for the last twelve years. To use the local produce would be far too expensive. So there you have it, unknown to thousands of tourists who pass this way, the packages of mountain vegetables bought as omiyage come from China and Russia and are made and packaged by Brazilians.”