Of all the things I like about living in Japan, perhaps being able to travel is my favorite. I live in Shiga prefecture, which is also known as the “heart” of Japan. They say that because –yeah– it’s in the middle of Japan! But more than that, it’s where a culturally preserved way of life is visible. From ancient festivals, to unspoiled nature, to people who are truly shocked at the sight of foreigners — the “heart of Japan” became my mission to excavate.
So when my friend invited me to check out Gujo Hachiman, a small mountain-valley town in Gifu prefecture, I jumped on the opportunity. My goal was to learn as much as about the town’s history, customs, and see their way of life. I hope you enjoy seeing what my day trip was like, and hopefully you learn something, too!
Without further ado, meet the crew of my humble travels!
Meet the Crew:
Meet Austin. He is the main organizer of the event. He said he found out about Gujo Hachiman through watching cool cats on youtube, such as Rachel & Jun. If you’re interested in all things Japan, can’t recommend their vlog enough!
This is Joshi looking quite elegant. He is half Japanese, half Indian, and one hell of a guy. He is the best neighbor a guy could have, and has become one of my best friends in Japan!
This is Jason. He is an avid climber of mountains such as myself. He’s got a huge imagination and an endless hunger for adventure, and…. SAKE!
If I am a dirty irishman, perhaps Tyler is my golden-haired brother from another mother, an Irish angel of comic relief. He can make anyone laugh just by breathing. By now he is probably back in California, but he will always be missed in Shiga Prefecture.
Here is Kithia. She is as cool as a cucumber as you can tell by her sunglasses being fogged !
Gujo Hachiman is known most famously as the “Water City“. This is mostly because the small town of approximately 40,000 people is situated next to the mighty Nagara river –from which inhabitants for centuries have washed their vegetables and rinsed their laundry. However, the river’s first purpose was militaristic. In 1652, Gujo Hachiman was completely destroyed by fire. When it was rebuilt by Endo Tsunetomo in 1660, a network of waterways were installed throughout the town to safeguard it for generations to come.
it was so hot, Jason decided to dump his head in the river.
A view from the “Jumping Bridge”, a place where many young people come to prove their courage, a sort of rite of passage.
The Nagara river creates a natural moat surrounding the many homes of Gujo residents, which can be seen as both as an everyday convenience and a historical reminder.
Walking throughout the town you will hear the sound of water flowing, perhaps a testament of their will to survive throughout the ages.
In the alleyways, you can feed the carp for a small fee of three hundred yen (3 bucks).
Walking throughout the town’s center, it felt a bit like walking into the past. Immediately, you can see buildings styled similar to Kyoto buildings. I was struck by the mountains that surround the small city. Also, after learning how important water was and continues to be to the residents, my eyes were really opened to how intertwined we are with nature.
Gujo Hachiman Castle:
Later, after spending sometime walking around the town, we decided to hike up the mountain toward the famous Gujo Hachiman Castle. This castle has served as the foundation for the town’s financial and political success. With the presence of a feudal lord, inhabitants of Gujo could flourish under its protection. In turn, many travelers along the main road, stretching from Nagoya to the Sea of Japan, would come to Gujo for trade. Artists, merchants, and craftsmen even settled here, they loved it so much.
Gujo Hachiman castle is truly nestled in the woods. Its white appearance starkly contrasts with the greenery surrounding it.
Tyler refreshing himself at the genius water fountain near the castle.
A peek inside the castle. The floors are SO creaky! but the view is truly amazing.
Gujo Hachima Castle’s isolated geography and dependence on nature became the central to its identity. Seeing the town from above, it’s easy to feel like
The Jumping Bridge of Potential Death
Let me ask you, if all your friends decided to jump off a bridge, would you join them? The answer of course is no. It has always been no for me too, that is, until the day they all decided to jump. Granted there was a river below us, it was still a scary experience. On signs nearby the bridge, it states that it’s not recommended to jump off the bridge for perfectly fit people have died in the past. However, we managed to do just fine.
Unfortunately though, I was a terrible camera man! Couldn’t even see them jump in! D:
Jumping off that bridge was definitely an adrenaline rush! I didn’t think I had it in me. We started by jumping off some of the rocks nearby and worked our courage up. It’s strange what peer pressure can do to a guy! I prefer to think of it as healthy motivation to be bold rather than peer pressure though.
Gujo Odori: The Dance of the Dead
After avoiding death, it was time for the highlight of the day: the Gujo Odori dance festival. We happened to be in town during one of the thirty three nights of dance between mid-July and early-September. According to Gujo Hachiman Tourism Association, it is one of the three most important traditional bon dance festivals in Japan! The festival starts with many men and women pulling a float of musicians. Rows of dancers lead the way for the shrine, doing mesmerizing choreography as they walk through the the town’s main street.
We were in luck and got a birds eye view of the festivities. It pays to make friends! We really got along with the owner of the burger shop, ロカデリ and he offered to let us watch from above.
Eventually the floats reach their final destination: the dance floor at the town’s center. Here, a small band of musicians sing songs of Gujo’s ancient past. Near the float more skilled dancer lead by example whereas near the edges of the circle, newbies such as myself can join them. The dance moves were somewhat simple to memorize so I had a fun time joining them. They were also very happy to see a foreigner trying to learn all their moves!
Dancers move clockwise around the very musical float
The Gujo Odori historically has provided a space where people of all different backgrounds can dance together. This purpose was very important in Japan’s war-mongering past– people of high class and ordinary people could be together and forget their differences. Today, however, i don’t think the feudal lords have much relevance; however, it still provides an excellent way for visitors (foreign or otherwise) and locals to communicate.
Soon, we gathered our things and left for last train. After a full day of travel and adventure, we were all a little beat. But I have to say that I was truly shocked at all the big things about Gujo: the history, the customs, the beautiful scenery. But I was also moved by all the little things that took me by surprise: the genius design of the water fountain, the kindness of the burger shop owner, the locals trying to speak English with me. I left feeling that this was the “true” Japan, a place I hope to visit again sometime soon.