Hidden sprinkler defense system activates to help protect beautiful traditional thatched-roof farmhouses.

Last week, the main hall of Shuri Castle, along with two other structures at the Okinawan landmark, burned to the ground. With Japan still reeling from shock, the nation was just given another massive scare as a fire broke out in Gifu Prefecture’s Shirakawa, known for its beautiful preserved farmhouse architecture at Shirakawa-go.

▼ Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its traditional gasshozukuri, “praying hands architecture,” so named because of how the thick, sharply angled thatched roofs resemble hands pressed together in prayer. However, those natural building materials aren’t just beautiful, but flammable too, so visitors were startled to see smoke and flames in the area on the afternoon of November 4.


Thankfully, the fire began not in one of the large farmhouses in the center of Shirakawa-go, but in a shed near the visitor parking area, just on the other side of a stream from the primary concentration of gasshozukuri structures. Nevertheless, the intense flames brought firefighters to the scene shortly after 2;30 p.m., when the first emergency calls came in.


The fire also triggered Shirakawa-go’s extremely cool sprinkler system, in which external sprinklers, which are ordinarily cleverly disguised to blend in with the rustic aesthetics, emerged from their hiding places to spray massive jets of water onto the roofs to lessen the risk that sparks or embers drifting through the sir would ignite the thatch.

▼ Video of a test of the sysem, which was carried out just last week

▼ The area near the shed, as it appeared prior to the fire


Fortunately, the shed where the fire broke out is a maintenance/administrative building, which houses, among other things, an electrical switchboard, and so no travelers were inside. No injuries occurred, nor was there any damage to the nearby gasshozukuri houses.

Still, the incident, along with what happened at Shuri Castle, is a harsh reminder of how vulnerable Japan’s traditional architecture can be to fire, so if you’re planning a trip to Japan, it might be best to visit the wooden structure you want to see sooner rather than later.

Source: Asahi Shimbun Digital
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