Posted by The SoleSisters on -
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…
|Preparing for the festival at Takayama|
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
|When words are not enough to describe a place…|
|There are streams of pristine water full of fish crisscrossing the village|
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.
|The owner showed us where the men would sleep, where they had a tiny window so that they could watch the fire, which was never allowed to go out|
|She has been living here all her life|
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.
|With intricate wooden structures, exquisite carvings, drapes, metal ornaments and other decorations, yatai are a collection of traditional Japanese craftsmanship|
|Trying to blend in|
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.
|The master at work on a lettuce leaf|
|A gravity-defying bowl of ramen|
|My masterpiece! A cute kid later tried to buy souvenirs from me at this counter, thinking I worked at the shop|
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.
|We took a ‘pirate cruise’ on the One Piece (anime) ship, from which I was able to enjoy the vista of birds overhead and hundreds of fish jumping from the clear waters.|
|I would recommend this place for younger children, as it’s more tame and family-friendly rather than edgy and thrilling|
|Fresh eels being grilled before the sauce is slicked on|
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 bathhouse at Nagoya Crown Hotel, where we stayed - open 24 hours!|
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.
|Post-sento selfie, because I couldn’t take a photo in the bath house, naturally|
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…
|Exploring the old streets of Takayama|
|Tokyo pub crawl April 2015. DON’T DO IT.|
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.
With love from Hong Kong,
*If you’ve already been to Japan previously, just submit a letter requesting a multiple entry visa on your next application
Sole Sister Julienne of Morena Travels is a 27 year old Manila girl who's lived in Hong Kong for four years as an editor of a tourism magazine. She loves board games, adventures, getting lost in the great outdoors, karaoke, trying new things, dancing, fitness, good food, and intelligent conversations. Currently based between Hong Kong and Manila, Julienne is at a crossroads of her life, so stay tuned for her latest at IG @morenatravels.
Cebu Pacific Air, the leading airline in the Philippines, flies between Manila and Nagoya (Chubu Centrair International Airport) every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Ongoing all-in seat sale fares start from P6,388, for travel from December 17, 2015 to March 31, 2016. Book your flights through Cebu Pacific Air. For updates and seat sale announcements, check out their facebook page.