Wednesday, March 01, 2006

UNESCO World Heritage Site #18

In 27 short years of life I have managed to visit the following UNESCO World Heritage Sites (out of 812 in 137 countries):

  1. Area de Conservación Guanacaste - Costa Rica
  2. Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey, and St Martin's Church - United Kingdom
  3. Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau, Reims - France
  4. Everglades National Park - United States
  5. The Great Wall - China
  6. Historic Centre of Lima - Peru
  7. Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties - China
  8. Maritime Greenwich - United Kingdom
  9. Paris, Banks of the Seine - France
  10. Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza - Mexico
  11. Pre-Hispanic Town of Uxmal - Mexico
  12. Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites - United Kingdom
  13. Summer Palace, an Imperial Garden in Beijing - China
  14. Talamanca Range-La Amistad Reserves / La Amistad National Park - Costa Rica
  15. Temple of Heaven: an Imperial Sacrificial Altar in Beijing - China
  16. Tower of London - United Kingdom
  17. Westminster Palace, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church - United Kingdom
I'm embarrassed to have to admit that I've only visited a single World Heritage Site in the United States. When I get home I'm going to have to make an effort to visit the other 19 sites.

So anyways...

Yesterday afternoon I added Angelo's World Heritage Site #18 (in my 8th country), the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (in Japan, of course).

One of my professors at Rollins College used to describe World Heritage Sites in this manner:

"If aliens were to land on Earth and you wanted to tell them where the most important ecological, cultural, and historical sites on the planet were, you would use the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites."
I had no idea I would be visiting such an important place when I woke up yesterday morning. Elly (the girl that accompanied Laura and me to Kanazawa last week) asked me if I wanted to hang out and when she picked me up she suggested that we go to Gokayama. I had no idea what Gokayama was, so I googled it before we left and found that it was the area encompassing the village with the thatch roofs that I see in posters all over Toyama-ken. That is also where I read that it was a World Heritage Site. This is what the UNESCO website says about the area:

"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."
HERE, HERE, and HERE is some more info on the villages.

While we were driving up into the mountains I noticed that we were surrounded by snow again. So winter really isn't over! The snow just made the drive a little more, um, interesting. The mountain roads are nothing less than terrifying. They are about as wide as a single lane road in America and curve around, up, and down the mountainside. The roads are even narrower than the mountain roads in Costa Rica.

There is a bright side, however. Parts of the road, instead of being built ON the side of the mountain, were built INTO the side of the mountain. This picture illustrates what I'm trying to describe:

The road is on the bottom left hand corner of the photo. The road was still curvy and steep, but the roof at least removed the threat of snow or landslides.

We only stopped once on our way to Gokayama. There is a rather large dam along the way and we stopped to walk across it.

Elly did all of the driving and navigating. Thank God, because I would NEVER have been able to find the village. It took us about an hour of winding through small mountain roads to get from Takaoka to the village of Ainokura. It appears very suddenly; You drive along the main road, make a quick left turn and suddenly you are faced with 20 thatch roof houses.

There was a man in the parking lot collecting the fee to visit the village. It cost 300 Yen per car. Next to the parking lot is a souvenir shop, a restaurant, and public toilets. I also noticed that the vending machines, which are everywhere in Japan, were painted brown so as to blend into the surrounding landscape.

I've already mentioned that there was snow in the mountains. The steeper we climbed, the deeper the snow got. By the time we reached Ainokura, it was between 5 and 10 feet deep. I've never seen so much snow in my entire life, but it can not compare to what this place must have looked like in January. There was a lot of evidence that most of the snow had already melted; the snow was packed and hard and there were rivlets and puddles of water everywhere. I don't even want to think about what living up there must be like during the winter.

I was surprised to find that people actually live in the village. The village itself was a mixture of traditional thatch roof houses and more modern buildings. Although the houses looked primitive, most of them had a Honda or a Toyota sitting out front and some modern conveniences were visible inside and around the houses. There were also electric street lights and a very elaborate fire prevention system covering the entire village.

I wish I could say that we saw more than just thatch roof houses, but sadly, during this time of year, that is really all you can see. The rest of the village, including the shrine, temple, and rice paddies, were blanketed in snow.

I guess I'll have to come back during the summer.

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Brick's Mom, Anne-Marie said...

Okay, first of all, I'm embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about World Heritage Sites before reading your post.
Now I know. I think you may be wrong about your comment: I'm embarrassed to have to admit that I've only visited a single World Heritage Site in the United States. I checked out the UNESCO site for curiosities sake and found 3 that I've visited for sure. My list includes the Everglades. Surely you've been to the Everglades!

Saipan Chamoale said...

I've been to the everglades, but I've never been to the Statue of Liberty (although I've seen it from across the water) and I never made it to Monticello or UVA when I lived in Virginia for four stinking years.

gretel said...

you are a loser. this was a thread I started on the boards a few months ago! thieving thief face!

I still love you