Taken from my story on We Are Sole Sisters
The journey through one of Japan’s most underrated regions continues. Sole Sister Julienne ventures into the countryside to find the past continuing to live on in Gifu’s old towns, castle ruins, and quaint villages
Our tour guide calls her province “the belly button of Japan”. Its name is Chūbu, the central region between Tokyo and Osaka, and home to economic powerhouse Nagoya. The city, with its 9.1 million inhabitants, is a major shipping port and home to industrial giants like Toyota Motors and Brother Industries.
Little did I know, however, that a short train ride away would take me to an alternate universe: that of the Japanese “heartland”. Gifu Prefecture with its old rituals and natural harmony stands out in my memory…
Gifu: Japan of old
If I had to choose one place to return to out of all the places we visited, it would be Gifu. It had such a strong rustic character and down-to-earth charm. Unlike the imperial palaces of Kyoto and Tokyo, there are no famous landmarks here. Instead, you draw in the slower atmosphere of traditional Japan as you inhale the mountain air while observing the local way of life.
We visited the major sites such as Unesco-awarded Shirakawa-go and the old quarters of Takayama, but didn’t have time for Gifu castle, the Ogaki river cruise, hiking in Mount Norikura, or the Gujo ski resorts. And so I told myself: I’ll be back, Gifu!
Shirakawa-go: Living world heritage site
Tucked away in a valley is this quaint little village covered in snow for five months of the year. That’s why all the houses have steep thatched-roofs – so the snow slides off easily, rather than settling and accumulating weight.
This was my favourite day of that trip: simply walking around, visiting the old farm houses, eating the local street food, and relaxing by the river. We were graciously hosted by the family of Kanda House, where they showed us how their clan has been living for hundreds of years.
If you’re a nature lover, I’d recommend staying a while in this Unesco World Heritage Site to explore the rich environs, from the natural hot springs of the Hirase Onsen and the Shiramizu Waterfalls to hiking at Hakusan National Park or exploring the Amou-shitsugen Marsh with its primeval forests and giant trees.
Get there: You can access Shirakawa-go via bus from Nagoya (2 hr 45 min), but it’s best to combine the visit with nearby attractions Kanazawa (1 hr 15 min away) and/or Takayama (50 min).
Takayama: Autumn festival
We couldn’t have gotten any luckier, because it just so happened that on our one and only day there, Takayama was celebrating its annual Autumn Festival. We arrived early in the morning to see the townsfolk all garbed up in their finest kimonos, preparing for the day’s festivities. We weren’t able to stay for the Karakuri (marionette) performance or the Goshinko Procession, but we were able to catch the town abuzz as the yatai (intricate floats) assembled before their parade.
After ooh-ing and aah-ing over the displays, I took a walk around the old quarter of Takayama. Luckily, because of the festival, the streets were lined with vendors and I was able to get a dose of local produce and crafts.
The longest queue was for the famous locally-raised Hida beef, and of course I couldn’t resist finding out what all the fuss was about. Standing in line was worth it, as I discovered through the different forms of the mouth-watering Hida beef. You can have it grilled, stuffed in steamed rice buns, or even as semi-raw sushi! So foodies, you know what to look for when you’re there.
Get there: Takayama is give or take 2 hr 30 min from Nagoya via train or bus
Gujo: Food replica town
Gujo City is at first visually striking because of its mountain fortress engulfed by fiery red maple trees in autumn. But we came there for another reason: to make fake food.
You know how Japanese restaurants always have plastic food samples outside their shops to show what’s on offer inside? Well, these replicas were first conceived during the 1930s in Gujo by Takizo Iwasaki. As the story goes, when Takizo was a child, he saw a drop of hot wax fall from a candle into a puddle of cold water where it formed into an intricate flower. He later developed a realistic way to mimic the appearance of food, which is now part of modern Japanese culture, as seen through the window displays of almost every Japanese eatery.
So that morning in Gujo, instead of joining a cooking class, we headed to Sample Village Iwasaki for a food replica-making workshop. This wasn’t my favourite part of the trip (maybe because I was getting so hungry yet all the food was made out of wax). But a few of my companions said this was the highlight of the journey, so I thought I’d share it with you.
We used wax to create tempura and lettuce, but apparently modern techniques utilise vinyl resin. The craftsmen at Iwasaki Group, I later learned, also put their talents to use in other ways, such as making prosthetic limbs for the medical field.
Get there: The train/bus from Nagoya is 1 – 1 hr 30. Experience course is around 800 JPY (6.50 USD) per person.
Lagunasia: Theme park by the bay
On our second day in Japan, we took a 1-2 hour journey to Laguna Ten Bosch, a leisure complex housing a theme park, spa, market, and hotel. Lagunasia sits right on the edge of Mikawa Bay, which gives the whole area a breezy and pleasant atmosphere.
Sure, Osaka might have Universal Studios and Tokyo Disney World. But remember when I said Nagoya is so much cheaper in comparison? An adult ticket to Lagunasia (with its rides and shows) costs only JPY2,150 (US$17.5) while Universal Studios in Osaka will set you back JPY7,200 (US$60)!
And finally, before I leave you, I have two more must-dos to add to the list:
Nagoya’s national dish: a dish of grilled eels. I am an eel person, so I went crazy over this. But it’s not just your ordinary “unagi don”. In many restaurants you can pour tea over the rice or a hot broth for the third round of the meal.
At first I didn’t feel comfortable about getting stark naked with a load of other women in the communal bath house. But I’m not the kind of person to say “no” just because I feel awkward. I first got into it because I had a travel buddy (er, ex-boyfriend) who wanted to go all the time, so what else would I do while he was at the men’s partition?
The more I went, the more I grew to love it. I also found that sentos (public bath houses) and onsens (hot springs) were the only way to warm my cold and weary bones during the freezing nights in Japan. After soaking for several minutes, trust me, you won’t feel cold for the rest of the night, and you’ll sleep well. I did it every single night of this trip, because the hotels we would stay at had complimentary sentos for their guests. No swimming pools, just sentos. That’s Japan for you.
Every time I went, I would feel so relaxed. It’s a great way to clear your mind and detoxify your body, especially because of the natural minerals in the onsen water. If you’re worried about hygiene, no people on earth even come close to being as clean as the Japanese. Just remember to shower before stepping in, or the locals will be upset.
The communal bathing experience is also a ritual that made me feel more immersed in local culture (literally) – from wearing the local-style bathrobes to dipping in the different pools (some outdoor, some indoor, some with varying temperatures…). As well, there’s that really annoying environmentalist in me that says you save water by bathing in the sento rather than everyone filling their own private baths in their rooms…
By the end of the 5-day trip, I was thoroughly happy but also ready to go home. As I said, it was my first time to go on a tour in something like eight years, so adjusting to a fixed schedule and group was a change from my usual style (less companions, more relaxed pace). Not everybody wants to walk all day (some people would complain about their feet hurting, while I was complaining about being seated in buses too long). Not everyone wants to check out the nightlife and party until 4am.
But the great thing about the tour was that we were able to pack so many things into the itinerary that I would never have gotten to do on my own… like that ancient barbecue hut in the middle of nowhere. And our Japanese guides, I realised, were also invaluable in a region where virtually nobody speaks English.
Would I return? I think we know the answer here. Aside from the fact that I got a 5-year multiple entry visa to Japan this time around*, I realised that there are worlds of difference between each and every region, and travelling through this country is such a pleasant experience that I want to see it all.
And so I leave you until the next adventure!