Mention Japan and the bustling streets of Tokyo will most likely come to mind, with neon signs at every turn and people squeezing onto already packed subway trains. But with a land area 500 times the size of Singapore, Japan has plenty of towns and villages with a different pace of life and fewer tourists. For four days, Yusrina Yusoff explored the region of Gifu Prefecture.
Day 1 – Gero and Nakatsugawa
Our journey began at Nakatsugawa, about an hour’s bus ride from Japan’s fourth-largest city, Nagoya. After a visit to a theatre for a kabuki show, we sampled the kurikinton (chestnut) that Nakatsugawa is famous for, in the form of kuri ice cream. It tastes similar to vanilla but is creamier, sweeter and, of course, has a strong chestnut flavour.
Arriving later in the day at Gero, 35km away, we checked in at the Hotel Sasara. More authentic Japanese cuisine followed in the hotel’s private dining room, where I was expecting no more than a bento set. Instead, the table was set to perfection, with Japanese ladies scurrying around, busily scooping rice and lighting candles for our hot pots. It was almost like kabuki in itself – I was entertained even before I started eating. I lost count of the number of dishes served during our kaiseki meal, but I finished absolutely everything!
What better way to end the night than with an onsen bath? Gero City has one of the best springs in Japan. The “Water of Beauty” will leave your skin smooth and refreshed as it washes away fatigue and muscle pain. An onsen is most commonly enjoyed bare-skinned: so, no swimsuit or shorts! Luckily for me, I had my own private onsen in the hotel room.
Free footbaths are dotted around the town, so you can enjoy a leisurely stroll in your yukata and dip your feet in the baths at any time.
Day 2 – Shirakawa-go (Shirakawa Village)
Early in the morning, we packed our bags and hit the road for another day of exploring. Two hours on the bus and a quick nap later, we arrived at Shirakawa Village, a quiet mountain community that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First, we fuelled ourselves with a lunch of teishoku for lunch to prepare for the afternoon’s activities. The pickled vegetables, grilled fish and hoba miso (a Gifu specialty) was a real feast.
The visit to the village was invigorating, with clean, fresh air and friendly, relaxed people. We strolled past rice fields, chilli plants, colourful blooms and a river flowing through the village.
As the sun was setting, we checked into the Toyota Shirakawa-go Eco Institute, which offers eco-tours and nature experiences. Our particular experience was a night walk in the woods, pitch black despite the bright moon. Before stepping in, we greeted the forest, “Ojamashimasu”: a gesture to show respect for the creatures living there. Overcoming my fears, I enjoyed the walk, listening to the owls, crickets and other unseen creatures. No bears, thankfully.
Day 3 – Hida
A highlight of the day was lunch at Sobasho Nakaya, which serves up hot and cold soba noodles. Made of buckwheat, soba is typically healthier than other noodles. It is commonly served in a clear soup topped with bonito flakes and Japanese fishcakes; you drink the soup straight from the bowl. For cold soba, sprinkle some salt on the noodles then dip them in tsuyu, which is mixed with fresh wasabi. And by fresh, I mean that you grate it yourself before eating it.
Exploring the rural towns of Takayama and Furukawa is best done on a bicycle for a true experience of satoyama life. We cycled up and down the hills, across train tracks, around buckwheat fields and through tomato orchards where we tasted some of the sweetest, juiciest and fattest tomatoes I’ve seen in my life. The friendly locals never failed to wave hello – even students from a nearby school shouted “konichiwa” from afar.
Located deep within the Japanese Alps, this area offers breathtaking views and, as we discovered when we stopped at a water cooler, the freshest spring water. The locals come with large containers to fill up with what is considered some of the best water in the country.
After collapsing into our hotel after the ride, our kaiseki dinner included hida beef since we were in the city of its origin. Classified as Wagyu, hida beef is highly regarded for its rich marbling and succulent flavour. Not so tasty was the freshwater blowfish sashimi, which I unknowingly ate, unaware that this was the infamous fugu, lethally poisonous if not prepared correctly.
Day 4 – Seki and Gifu City
More amazing food today: this time, a lunch of unagi donburi at Tsuji ya. I’m not a big fan of eel, but this version was crispy and sweet on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. It was also $40 a bowl, but that’s because it has the reputation of being the best unagi don in Seki.
Central Japan is never short of traditions, as the fishermen in Gifu City (20km from Seki) show. They still practise the 1,300-year-old art of ukai. To prevent overfishing, only six cormorant fishermen are allowed on the Nagara River. The sea cormorants are cared for and trained to catch ayu, a sweet fish that swims up to the river in spring.
After watching the action, we ate some fresh ayu at our hotel, Usyonoie Sugiyama, located on the banks of the river. During the dinner, and as a fitting finale to the trip, we had the opportunity to glimpse the world of the geisha, a rare look at this phenomenon associated with Japan’s upper classes and the ultra-rich.
The kindness and friendliness of the Japanese is contagious; I came back home greeting just about anyone I could see. This can get exhausting, though, given our dense population. I guess it works better in Gifu Prefecture’s open spaces and beautiful nature.
A Japanese glossary
|kabuki||performance by local amateur actors at a theatre|
|kurikinton||a traditional autumn sweet: boiled, mashed and sweetened chestnuts|
multi-course meal usually consisting of sashimi, hot pot, pickled
vegetables, grilled fish; normally served at hotels and for special
|ojamashimasu||Sorry to disturb|
|bonito||dried, fermented fish|
|ayu||sweet river fish|