Have You Ever Slept in a World Heritage Building?

World heritage accommodation Japan

You’ve probably visited UNESCO appointed world heritage sites like the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge or the Sydney Opera House, but there is only one place in the world where you can actually sleep in a world heritage building.

If that’s something you’d like to experience head to the Gokayama villages in the Hokuriku region of Japan. Hokuriku is famed for heavy snowfall in winter, sensational seafood and, above all, for its gassho-zukuri-style thatched houses that were listed as world heritage sites in 1995 and many of which are now traditional Japanese style inns.

Here’s a breakdown of my first day in Japan which ended with a dreamy sleepover in a world heritage thatched inn:

06:10 – Touch down in Tokyo

Having flown into Japan after a nine hour flight from Australia, three other lucky Australian travel writers and I were welcomed by our lovely guide Yoshi San and plopped straight onto a domestic flight from Tokyo to Toyama City one hour by plane. I even caught a peek of Mount Fuji out of the window. The business man sitting next to me nodded sagely and confirmed:

“Fuji San beautiful.”

He wasn’t as excited as me though.

World heritage accommodation Japan

Snag a window seat on the left of the plane for wonderful views en route to Toyama

11:00 – Tea ceremony at the Toyama Suiboko Art Gallery Museum

It’s freezing in Toyama in February but icy climes and deep snow weren’t going to stop me from making my first ever visit to Japan. So I borrowed hats, scarves, gloves and thermal undies from friends and piled them on just before getting off the plane.

First we admired the simple beauty of the ink paintings at the Toyama Suiboko Art Gallery, many by Japanese masters, then we settled in for a tea ceremony where we were served a sweet treat in the shape of a cherry blossom and frothy green tea in gorgeous bowls.

Our elegant tea master wore a kimono decorated with snowflakes and answered our endless questions about the who, what and whys of a Japanese tea ceremony. I’ll cover tea ceremonies in more depth another time.

World heritage accommodation Japan

Sweet pink treats eaten first offset the bitterness of the green tea

12:00 – Lunch in Toyama

We found out why Toyama is famed for its seafood over lunch at the Sushi Ei restaurant. Being an avid sushi-lover and self-proclaimed aficionado of raw fish I was looking forward to this. Suffice to say it exceeded all expectations.

World heritage accommodation Japan

A warm welcome and super fresh seafood awaits you at Sushi Ei Restaurant in Toyama

13:00 – Head for the hills of Gokyama

As we drove into the mountains deep snow was piled up by the roadside and the trees were frosty white. Slowly the hillsides became more sparsely inhabited until finally the road ran out in Ainokura village where we would be staying the night.

Only a 45 minute drive from Toyama, tiny Ainokura has about 20 gassho-style buildings making it one of the biggest Gokayama villages. After piling on the layers including thermal undies, Icebreaker tops and many other non-fashion items we ventured outside. We were the only brave visitors that day and the snow muffled all sounds so what’s usually a peaceful spot was engulfed in a deep, mystical silence.

Pulling on some snow boots we walked through a carefully shoveled snow corridor to a vantage point where we could look down on the tiny community.

World heritage accommodation Japan

Gassho means “hands in prayer” and refers to the steeply pitched thatched roof tops of the buildings which look like bridged hands pointing to the heavens and are designed so heavy snow slides off the roof. In this area flat roof tops are dangerous and in modern houses the owners have to climb on the roof to shovel snow off, a dangerous activity that’s not needed in the gassho building.

No nails are used in the construction of gassho-style buildings and the roof tops are rethatched every15-20 years. The strong construction allows them to survive the harsh conditions and massive snow falls the area is famous for, but allows plenty of space for family living. In former days the attics were used for raising silk worms and producing gunpowder.

World heritage accommodation Japan

Inside we loved the stunningly simple paper walls and natural tatami mats

15:00 Visit the Sanshoraku sake brewery

Our guide is the 17th generation sake brewer at Sanshoraku. The brewery was certainly around well before 1880 when it was first recorded.

16:00 Sink into the hot tub at Gokasansou Hot Springs

Local spa baths or onsen are a unique part of the culture in Japan and I couldn’t wait to try them out, even though it involved stripping naked and washing myself in front of strangers, then going outside in sub-zero temperatures in the nude.

I did it though and it was such a treat to get clean, then soak outside in a natural hot spring with snow piled up around us and only the mountains to protect us from prying eyes. Sorry, no photos!

17:00 Check into the Syoshichi guest house

Most of the houses in the traditional gassho villages are inns or guest accommodation now, but the Syoshochi guest house is rumored to be the most luxurious. This is traditional Japanese accommodation at its finest with timber beams and interior walls made of paper. Here you eat sitting around the fire and sleep on futons laid down on tatami mats woven from reeds.

Our generous hosts laid out a massive feast for us including locally caught fish, forest vegetables and hot sake.

World heritage accommodation Japan

We feasted on local ingredients and sake around the sunken fireside

After supper we were entertained with a KoKiRiKo Uta dance performed by two female dancers, one male dancer and three gorgeous old men making the music.

We were warned that these inns have no central heating and would be cold in winter but in fact we were snug as bugs in rugs. The central fire glowed all night, there were gas heaters in all our rooms and a toasty warm brick tucked up under the duvet with us.

World heritage accommodation Japan

At bed time a cozy futon and duvet is laid out on the tatami mats and you can look forward to deep darkness, silence and sleep.

While many dream of visiting the Statue of Liberty, Stonehenge or the Sydney Opera House, dreaming the night away in a thatched roof gassho-style building on a peaceful mountainside in Japan is an unrivaled experience.

Where to Stay

Ainokura village where we stayed has seven guest houses but Syoshichi is the finest. It has separate loos for men and women with shared basins. The public bathhouse is a two minute walk from the guest house.

The nearby public bathhouse and guest house Gokasansou also has accommodation including one western style room with a private bathroom.

Getting to Gokayama

Toyama is the closest city to the Gokayama area. It’s about a one hour flight from Tokyo or three hours by train. Once in Toyama you can book a tour, hire a car (make sure you ask for an english-speaking GPS navigation system) or take a public bus from nearby Takaoka train station where you can catch a public bus to Gokayama.

Hot Tip

Hokuriku and the surrounding mountains are beautiful in the spring and autumn months but you’ll have to share them with other visitors. If you visit in winter get some heated pads called kairo (pronounced kai-ear-oh) from a pharmacy or supermarket in Toyama City to slip in your pockets, boots and on your back. They’re a modern miracle and Japanese winter survival secret our wonderful host Yamaguchi San and tour guide Yoshi San shared with us.

I was honored to be a guest of the Hokuriku-Shinetsu District Transport Bureau.

To find out more about Toyama visit the Toyama Tourism website – they have some stunning photos and I so want to visit the waterfall and snow corridor but they are only accessible in the summer when the weather thaws. Looks like another visit will be in order.

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  1. Andrea Martins March 8, 2012 at 10:14 am - Reply

    Annabel, what an amazing experience! Is that truly the only world heritage listed building that you can sleep in? What an honour. All of your photos are magical and it looks like such an authentic Japanese experience. x

    • Annabel Candy March 8, 2012 at 11:28 am - Reply

      Hi Andrea,

      Thanks for being first to comment and breaking the ice;) I’ll answer with a diplomatic probably…. I’m sure someone will chip in if there’s another world heritage building you can sleep in but even it there’s another this is still totally unique and so very old-style Japanese.

  2. Leslyn Kantner March 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    What an authentic and awesome experience! I would like to make a more original comment but those really are the words that come to mind as I read and view your photos! Definitely one for the memory books.

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:52 am - Reply

      Hi Leslyn,

      Sometimes there’s not much to be said but it’s still lovely for us to see you here:) Hope you get to visit Japan one day.

  3. Vidya Sury March 9, 2012 at 1:08 am - Reply

    Sounds like a must-visit. I’ve always wanted to see Japan. I just love how you’ve described your visit! You know, in India, there are so many heritage buildings in the form of temples where families have traditions that involve them spending a night at the temple.

    But nothing as comfortable as this beautiful Japanese location.

    Thank you, Annabel! I feel as though I just had a mini-holiday reading this!

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:53 am - Reply

      Hi Vidya,

      Great to see you here. I bet that’s a fabulous experience. I have visited India but never spelt in a temple there…. next time:)

  4. Dave Doolin March 9, 2012 at 4:43 am - Reply

    Look at you all wrapped up!

    I guess the Xilitla Bird House doesn’t count. But maybe it should.

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:54 am - Reply

      Hi Dave,

      Oh my goodness, what it that?! Sounds like it could have been an interesting night:)

  5. Sandra / Always Well Within March 9, 2012 at 5:47 am - Reply


    I appreciate the elegance, beauty, and simplicity you’ve captured in this part of your trip to Japan. It’s interesting how the article itself exudes the same quality of mystical peace and silence, which you experienced being there.

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:55 am - Reply

      Hi Sandra,

      Thank you so much. I am feeling a mystical and peaceful smile coming on now:)

  6. se7en March 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Wow… Simply the most amazing trip – so much to see and do and it is all so interesting and totally different to home!!! It does look mighty cold though!!! We haven’t slept in a world heritage site – but upon one… Spent the night on top of Table Mountain once – unforgettable storm raged around us and woke to a new dawn – beautiful!!!

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:16 pm - Reply

      Hi Se7en,

      My kids were very jealous I got to see snow (again) which they never have! Wow, sleeping on top of Table Mountain would be phenomenal. I spent a memorable night on top of Mount Sinai once:)

  7. Cate March 9, 2012 at 6:35 pm - Reply

    Hi Annabel… I think everyone has pretty much said everything that came to my mind…ie. amazing, wow, etc., etc. Now I have a to find another pin to put on the map of places to visit (some day…).
    C xx

    • Annabel Candy March 9, 2012 at 9:17 pm - Reply

      Hi Cate,

      :) Hope you make it. My map is still full of those pins!

  8. Lori Henry March 11, 2012 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    What a great travel experience to recommend! I’m glad I get to read about your trip before you arrived in Kyoto. ;-)

  9. Seana Smith March 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm - Reply

    Oooohhh…. I knew I’d love to read your reports! It’s the details that I love especially, the silk worms and gunpowder etc etc A lovely read and I did enjoy the photos too and feel that I have a great grasp of the area now and how to get there, makes it feel very accessible.

    Would really love to go to Japan one day. However Noosa is next port of call, heading there mid-May-ish so we must have a cuppa.

  10. Bob May 23, 2012 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Yep one time in a Luang prabang hostel in Laos
    I sleep ok :)

  11. Hilarye June 26, 2012 at 2:17 pm - Reply

    Oooh I love anything Japan. It’s my favorite country in the world and I’ve never been here before!

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