Japanese thatch roof replacement. A century-old art.


In Japan, a small village became world-famous for its peculiar design of houses. These houses were called Gassho houses, gassho means “praying hands” since the roof style is similar to the shape of praying hands when worshipping the gods. Not a single nail was used for the construction of the roofs, instead, by using a combination of woods these houses have survived the coldest and strongest winds and heavy snows for hundreds of years through bindings of three branches and ropes.

The design of these roofs is not the most beautiful thing, what keeps these houses alive is the work team needed to replace them. There is a system of mutual assistance in Shirakawa village called “Yuri” (Japanese for ‘binding’). Every few decades the roof of each gassho home is replaced through the combined efforts of the villagers.

Every time a gassho roof needs to be replaced, the town people gather at the gassho house as early as 4 am. People line up to put a large needle and rope through the bundles of straw on the roof structure. They thread the needle through so it is caught on the other side to secure the straw in place. The villagers work their way up together in a line, this helps produce a level surface. The finishing touch is trimming the straw on the roof edge, this is hard work to carry on, that is why it is only carried by the most skilled thatchers in the village.

Everybody helps in this process since there are still several gassho houses, people work without asking for economic remuneration since they will someday need the helping hand of their village mates when their gassho’s house roof also needs to be replaced. This is not the only reason the people do not see this as an obligation since when they are working on a new gassho house, they make big meals, drink sake, and catch up with their neighbors. Elder people, who happen to also be the most skilled gassho workers seem to enjoy this activity the most, since it is the time to talk to their old friends and to bond with younger generations which will help preserve these roofs for hundreds of years in the future.

Even when several families do not own a gassho house, they are glad to help every year with the replacement of the roofs, they see it as an important identity factor of their village, and they are happy to know that they are helping their neighbors.

Maintenance of gassho roofs
At the hearth of the gassho house, there is always a fire constantly burning since there are no chimneys built into the houses the smoke raises all the way up into the roof. There, it deposits a layer of soot, which helps preserve the roof, making it water, and snow proof so it can withstand the big layers of snow, water, sunlight, and winds. The smoke also works as a pesticide which prevents insects from living in the warmth of the thatch.