Each time I have visited Japan, I always make sure to visit at least one of my homestay “mothers,” named Tomomi. She has to be one of the kindest people that I have been fortunate enough to meet. Tomomi’s family is the first host family I ever stayed with and her home is in Okazaki, about an hour drive away from Nagoya. Okazaki is a small, quaint city, however, there isn’t a whole lot to do there besides visiting Okazaki-Jo and the Hatcho Miso Factory. Tomomi always goes above and beyond to make sure I have an unforgettable experience when I visit her, and this time was no exception. Since we were both a bit short on time this visit, Tomomi suggested we travel up to Gifu-ken to the small town Gujo Hachiman.
I hadn’t even considered visiting the Gifu Prefecture before this trip and now its one of the first places I would like to go back to. It took about an hour and a half to two hours to drive from Okazaki to Gujo, and it was worth it. Just being able to look out the window on the drive up, I was in awe. We drove through these super long tunnels that burrowed through the mountains of the Hilda region. Everything was so lush and green, passing small villages as we made our way to our destination.
Our first stop was to Gujo Hachiman-Jo or Gujo Hachiman Castle.
We had to hike up a bit to get to the castle which made it an unexpected workout… in the rain. There wasn’t a pathway built for foot travellers so our only option was to travel on the same road that many frequent cars were also driving on. It kinda felt like a game; who could spot the car and call out “kuruma” first. Also, along the road were shortcuts that were made of sparsely laid wooden steps and looked as if one wrong step would result in a tumble even when they weren’t slippery from the rainfall. We would challenge each other to conquer the dangerous obstacles as if we were children daring each other to do the silliest things. It’s a weird thought but when I think of Gujo, this is one of the memories that come to mind. 懐かしい
Anyways, the castle: the structure that stands today is not actually the original castle yet a rebuild that was created in 1933. The original castle was built in 1559 but throughout the years, the building underwent multiple different rulers and was demolished in 1871. Gujo-Jo seemed quite small in comparison to many other castles in Japan however, it had the best views by far.
I really enjoy visiting old historic buildings. Much like visiting the Alhambra de Granada, I like to try and throw myself back in time. Imagining what people looked like in that era. What were they wearing? What were they doing? I’ll admit I was never a very good student in history class, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find it interesting.
Gujo is quite known for its annual Gujo Odori dance festival that is held from mid-July until September. Gujo Odori is composed of 10 traditional dances and the festival dates back about 400 years, to the Tokugawa period. The festival was started in order to bring the whole city of Gujo together, regardless of class or social wealth. To this day, Gujo welcomes people from all over the world to take part in the festivities and even encourages you to dance along. If you are lucky enough to attend in the middle of August for Obon, the dancing starts at 8 pm and lasts until 5 am in the morning as a way to welcome and celebrate with the spirits of the dead.
We made our way to the museum called Gujo Hachiman Hakurankan. This museum displays many works that share the culture of Gujo and the Gujo Odori festival. It focuses on the arts and crafts that once sustained this village and also teaches visitors the dances that are performed during the Odori festival. We took part in the demo first where they taught us two dances. The first is the most popular dance, Kawasaki (かわさき) which was my favourite due to the elegance of the movements. We also learned the second most popular dance, Harukoma (春駒). I’m not going to lie, I often have the Harukoma song stuck in my head at random moments to this day.
After the demo was done, we got to explore the rest of the museum. My favourite part was the information and display of the classic indigo dyeing techniques they used which were quite similar to batik. From what I could understand, they would use rice paste on fabric as a relief medium instead of wax yet were still able to create ornate and clean designs. Since Gujo is a mountain town, it was difficult for the villagers to receive goods in the past. Because of this, the citizens became resourceful and relied a lot on what they could find in the land, including indigo plants.
Another craft that Hakurankan featured was the art of making plastic food. If you have ever been to Japan, or even a Japanese restaurant in the western world, you will know how realistic their plastic display foods look. Gujo Hachiman is the birthplace of “sampuru” food and continues to be one of the biggest suppliers of plastic food. Once we were done in the museum, we wandered the streets of Gujo and found our way in Sample Kobo, I highly recommend stopping here and checking it out if you are ever in the area.
Sample Kobo was filled with exactly what you could imagine, sample food! Not just cheap looking food, realistic food. Everything from sushi to ramen. Salads and burgers. Beer and milkshakes. They even had workshops where they would teach you how to make things like model tempura and matcha ice cream. It’s a great place to get all your strange souvenirs from! After stopping here I was hungry, so we scoured the streets for some traditional Gujo dishes.’
I wasn’t sure what I was craving, I just knew I was hungry. Noodles are always a go-to for me so we searched for ramen or soba and stumbled on this cute little soba shop called Yamatoya (大和屋). It was some of the best soba I had ever tasted. The buckwheat noodles were very clearly handmade due to a slight variance in the thickness of the noodles and had a very appetising texture. The broth had a pleasantly mild and salty taste and there were also potatoes and carrots added in that were grown locally on the mountain.
As the sun started to set, we made our way around the small village, stopping in a few different omiyage and sake shops along the way before heading back to the car. We needed to start the long drive home through the mountainous region of Gifu, preferably before it got dark. Having the opportunity to discover a new part of Japan always makes me feel so grateful to have met Tomomi. I always learn something new about Japan and she never fails to take me on an adventure.
Thank you so much for stopping by and reading. Where are we going to go next? Well, we are heading to one of my favourite cities in Japan, Kyoto!!