Hida Folk Village: traditional farm life in the Japanese Alps

Hida folk village, Takayama, Japan
Hida folk village

Hida Folk Village exhibits more than thirty traditional buildings on the edge of Takayama, a busy regional city of 100 000 people. The buildings, mostly farmhouses, were built in the district between 1600 and 1870 and were relocated in 1971 to recreate a village above and behind the small artificial lake in the foreground of my top picture. Further up the hillside is nothing but forest, and the site is screened from the city below by a row of trees and the fall of the land so the modern world hardly intrudes on the site. (If it all looks very wet, that’s because it was. During the morning we visited, the weather varied from drizzle to solid rain and back again, with a few brief umbrella-free periods.)

The houses were new to me in detail but functionally very familiar.  Pre-industrial farmhouses the world over have a lot in common and the similarities become even closer when you factor in the climate they are adapted to. Hida is high in the mountains, surrounded by peaks of 2800 – 3200 metres (i.e. twice the altitude of the highest mountain in Queensland, and substantially more than Mount Kosciuszko’s 2230 m.) so the parallels are with the Nepal and the Swiss Alps rather than Bali or Calabria.

farmhouse, Hida Folk Village
“Praying hands” farmhouse

The very steeply pitched thatched roofs (“praying hands” roofs) are a response to the weight of snow they have to bear. Animals were kept in an earthen-floored internal “barn” through winter, sharing (and contributing to) the family’s warmth. Fireplaces were built straight on the earth floor, too, as a first line of protection against house fires. There were no chimneys and the smoke had to find its own way out. The upside was that it helped keep the thatch dry from the inside; the downsides are the same as always – a fine layer of soot coating walls and furniture, and smoke inhalation causing health problems.

Hida folk village
Farmhouse floor plan

The remainder of the living space had polished wooden floors, and the step from earth floor to wooden floor is culturally ingrained: outdoor footwear is never worn on wooden floors, whether in houses or in temples. (I was amused to find the distinction surviving in a modern big-city hotel with Japanese-style rooms. One enters the room via a minuscule hallway, takes off one’s shoes and steps up on to a “wooden floor” with a different finish.)

Farm tools and equipment are almost the same as we would find in an old farmhouse in the Gippsland hills, Hervey’s Range or, I guess, Provence. Function defines form, and hoes, axes, horse-collars and cart-wheels have to fulfil the same functions everywhere.

The headman’s house is the odd one out on two counts – firstly that it came from a lower-altitude area and didn’t require the steep roof, and secondly that it is so much bigger. It functioned as the village meeting hall and social centre as well as housing the headman’s extended family.

The Folk Village has a Shinto shrine, on the hillside under the edge of the forest, and a couple of small Buddhist shrines but no temple. That is probably realistic in historical terms, too, since shrines are everywhere but temples depend on a large enough and rich enough population base to support resident monks.

The village was a fascinating place to spend half a day, and if we had had more time we may have sampled some of the activities presented in the village and the nearby Crafts Experience Centre.

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