Gifu is home to a living culture that thrives among the best of nature and pristine water. Traditions of old are passed on with the changing seasons, giving life to a rich heritage of craftsmanship, culture, and history. It also offers so many tourist activities like cormorant fishing which is the ancient fishing method known as UKAI that has been a tradition in Gifu for 1,300 years. Gifu also hosts many festivals and events throughout the year.
I do not want to disappoint you, but the beauty and rich culture of Japan is not exclusive to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto Prefectures. In Gifu Prefecture, you can find a beautiful village called Shirakawa-go and an old street in Takayama City that transports you back to the Edo Period amongst other many places. Seiki-City is a small town located in the middle of Japan, famous worldwide for its production of fine knives and at the top of the list, good quality iron sand, charcoal, and water. It took us 2 hours to drive up into the mountains where Seki is located. Seki City and Mino City are right next to each other. The closest water is the river where you can hunt for fish using Cormorants. At the Cutler Sansyu Knife Direct Sales of Seiki City, we had a Katana sword bamboo-cutting demonstration by the owner of the store, Mr. Yoshita Kazuhiro. It was a unique experience to see the skills of the wielder other than the quality of the blade in the execution of the bamboo-cutting.
The superior quality of Seki swords and the name of Seki and its solid reputation as a swordmaking center were quickly recognized throughout Japan. These techniques and skills and the ancient attitudes of traditional Japanese swordmaking have been passed down through the centuries and are still prominent in today’s modern cutlery industry.
One should not miss the opportunity to know about the history of papermaking in Japan at the Washi paper museum, former Imai Family Residence. This local museum provides an opportunity to make Japanese traditional paper by yourself. Mino area is famous for its Mino paper, which is registered as a UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage. Right at the doorway, you can see a trade counter and peek at how life was back then. You can also learn about the culture and history of Mino and Washi making process. Historical materials related to the building and tools used for Washi making are also exhibited. Additionally, you can learn about Japanese roof ornament, called “Udatsu.” In the courtyard, you can find a Suikinkutsu (cave), selected as one of the “100 Soundscapes of Japan.” Suikinkutsu is one of the decorations used in Japanese gardens: it consists of an upside-down buried pot with a hole at the top. Water drips through the hole at the top onto a small pool of water inside of the pot, creating a pleasant splashing sound that rings from inside. You can relax just by listening to the indescribable, bell-like sound.
Don’t miss the Washi Akari Art Hall, an exquisite craft in both the washi and lanterns. The lanterns here were wonderful art, the historic area is a pleasant place to wander and please do not miss the exhibition on the second floor. The Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. THIS PLACE IS A MUST VISIT. A memorial hall dedicated to the virtues of morality and peace. Chiune Sugihara was an admirable diplomat. Japan was an ally of Germany during the Second World War. But Chiune was in defiance of the Japanese government at that time and issued 6,000 transit visas for Jewish refugees at his discretion in Kaunas, Lithuania. Take a moment to learn about the life of Mr. Sugihara in this museum dedicated to his memory, which stands among the thriving nature of the prefecture he was born in.
When we entered the museum, we were first shown a video that explained who he was and what he did. It has Hebrew guidance available which makes it very attractive to readers of Hebrew. I am glad that the Japanese government recognized his work but I regret that he died before he realized his courageous efforts were recognized. The museum and the Hill of Humanity Park were built to honor his achievements and preserve his memory for future generations. It is comforting to know that there are such brave people in the world that are willing to make a personal sacrifice for humanity.
Magome-Juku. This place will give you a view of a town from the distant past, transporting you back to Edo-period Japan. Having been restored to its former glory, you can view restored antiquated buildings along the main post road, peppered with inns and shops that would serve the travelers on the Nakasendō. I loved the way that Magome has been so well preserved, and so many original buildings had survived. I also liked the way the main street was closed to traffic from 10:00 am till 4:00 pm to allow visitors the opportunity to move around the Post Town without having to dodge cars and scooters. At the upper end of the town, you can enjoy panoramic views across the hills to Mt. Ena, and if you fancy a hike, you can walk along the post road to the next town, which takes you past waterfalls and through forests. This turned out to be one of my favorite excursions and definitely recommended for a taste of (restored) traditional Japan and for the clean mountain air.
The World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go. According to UNESCO, what makes these villages special is that they are “outstanding examples of the traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.”
From the observation point, we walked down and explored the village on foot. Shirakawago-go is beautiful and historic. The beautiful Japanese Grasso houses are of unique construction and very well preserved and the sceneries bring you best to Switzerland chalets. You get to see the interior and know how the people at that time built them. What struck me the most was the clarity and purity of the running water in the streams that crisscrossed the properties. I saw a tourist drinking water from the stream. A visit to the Wada-Ke House is a must: the Wada family is one of the wealthiest families in town, so this former home is the largest gassho-Zukuri farmhouse in town. Views from inside the house through the many windows to the outside are quite spectacular. The massive beams tied together by rope to make the ceiling structure are a spectacular sight. It now serves as a public museum where you can go in and witness the interior design and the special attic. A clean and well-kept town that takes pride in its heritage, the scenery in and around Shirakawa-go is breathtaking. A beautiful little village was full of history and a must-visit in this region.
White-Walled Storehouse City and Seto. In Hida Furukawa, you can see quaint streets lined with white plaster walls running about 500m alongside white wall storehouses and temples. The town was quiet and serene. The carps in the canal, stone bridge, and the storehouses were intertwined beautifully and lived cohesively. I had a peaceful walk and felt like I was in paradise. This area is a prime spot to take a walk in a castle town, and you can commonly see kids with bait trying to catch fish here, carrying out traditions lasting from long ago.
The center of the town was all but destroyed in a great fire in 1904. After that, the houses were reconstructed following traditional architecture, and there remain a few townhouses that are relics from the time. There are newly built bay windows in houses in a variety of different types, and no matter where you look your eyes will be dazzled by craftsmanship. This is a gem and a secret find. We took a tour of the Hida Takayama. “Yoo Oidensatta” (Thank you very much for coming all this way) is how the people of Hida Takayama welcome visitors from afar.
Takayama Jinya – This is an old (Edo period) government office building complex converted into a museum. It is quite large with rooms after rooms after rooms. Apparently, around 100 people worked here. It provides a good insight into how the Japanese lived. It tries to give you an idea of how the Japanese bureaucracy used to work during the Edo period. There’s a nice Japanese garden in the center of the complex, but people are not allowed to enter it. The most interesting part was probably the torture tools used in olden days. The main attraction of this place was just outside the complex – the Takayama street market. It’s a vibrant and somewhat busy market with local people selling lots of things – cutlery, knives, utensils, daily needs, yummy food, fresh fruits (juicy strawberries), and local produce, walking through this market was an amazing experience. A beautiful and highly recommended visit if in Takayama.
Don’t miss the Takayama Festival which is held in April and October every year and is counted among Japan’s three most beautiful festivals. It was designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2016 and you can see the extravagant workmanship of the traditional floats up-close. Gujo Hachiman is located in the central part of Gifu Prefecture. The region is famous for a dance called ‘Gujo Odori’ which has been performed since the Edo Period (1603-1868). Every year in August, a large-scale festival is held where the Gujo Odori is performed through the night.
This is a quaint town where one can spend hours leisurely strolling the streets. It is famous for its waterway and canals along the row of houses, which have been preserved. The water is soothing, clear and is used for washing rice, vegetables, and laundry. A common sight is a red bucket hanging from the eaves of the house. In the event of a fire, one can use the bucket to collect water from the waterway. There are also many shops selling handicrafts, souvenirs, food replicas as well as eateries. As there are hardly any vehicles here, it is quiet and peaceful. It is a good way to spend half a day to experience the charm and slow pace of life here. For sightseeing spots, you can visit the Seki Blacksmith Oral History Museum which has exhibits related to Japanese swords and other bladed objects, the Gujo Hachiman-jo Castle which overlooks the whole city, and the Food Replica Workshop Sample Kobo which has realistic food replicas. A lovely traditional Japanese town.
The Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum. This is a must-visit to comprehend the history of how Japan assisted in rehousing the Jewish and Polish children after the War. You will learn about Tsuruga’s history at the Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum, including the acceptance of Polish children who were orphaned during the Russian Revolution and left in a harsh environment, as well as Jewish refugees trying to escape persecution by the Nazis with “visas for life” issued by Japan’s consular Sugihara Chiune.
The Port of Humanity Tsuruga Museum features panels and videos that present not only the history of Tsuruga Port but also stories from those days and other information, helping us to understand the value of life even today. Tsuruga Port was a hub for land and sea transport since ancient times. The Museum displays articles, photos, documents related to 763 Polish orphans rescued in Siberia in 1920 as well as some 6,000 Jewish refugees who fled from Nazi Germany in 1940 carrying “visas for survival” issued by Mr. Chiune Sugihara, an acting consul of Japanese consulate office in the Republic of Lithuania. There are also many heartwarming stories about the interactions they had with local residents. Oral accounts preserved at the museum tell of the Jews’ arrival and time spent in Tsuruga. Among them are the stories of a teenager who brought them apples, a bathhouse owner who opened his premises to them free of charge and the owner of a watch shop who bought their valuables. Most of the refugees did not stay long in Tsuruga and quickly moved on to Kobe and Yokohama, where there were existing Jewish communities.
Even as times change, it is important that we never forget the value of life and the value of peace.
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By Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the GIFU Prefecture and by the Japan Travel Bureau ( JTB).