Gujo-Hachiman in 80 Photos

I found out about Gujo-Hachiman’s existence at Friday at 3pm, bought tickets by 5pm, and got up the next day at 6am to catch the Shinkansen. I’d banked on the weekend to work and pack (moving again), but instead I got a paid weekend holiday in a mountain town I’d never heard of. Such is life: happy problems. 

In this photo essay you’ll find:

Getting there on the Nagatetsu – Nagara River Railway

Gujo-Hachiman is about 4.5 hours from Tokyo with the Shinkansen, but much of the route is quite scenic. In fact, the Nagara River Railway, known as the “Nagatetsu”, is the only rail route into our destination. I took so many photos, it will become a separate post.

Tips for ad hoc weekenders from Tokyo: get your tickets, know your transfers (preferably the platform too), get your breakfast for the express train, and enjoy the ride.

Nagara River Railway Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

View from the front of the Nagatetsu

Everyone stared while I wobbled my way up to the front of the swaying and clattering one-compartment train. After I finished getting my shots, everyone else herded to the front. By then, I was mesmerized by the conductor driving the polished-clean driving room.

Nagara River Railway Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

Nagatetsu train conductor.

Nagara River Railway Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

The travellers only interested in the destination and avoiding the sun.

Nagara River Railway Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道-1110617

The “Wanman” = One man train ワンマン opened in 2016

Gujo-Hachiman Station

The destination was a small town deep inland in the shadow of one of Japan’s 3 holy mountains, Hakusan – the White Mountain. Even though the line was opened recently, the station has a venerable air about its modest wooden planks.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

My soft spot for little station outposts.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

This place transports me back to the mines of British Columbia during the Gold rush.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 Nagatetsu 長良川鉄道

Nagatetsu  (長良川鉄道) heading off.

I was part of a trip arranged by the JTB (Japan Travel Bureau) that was aiming to promote this historic town – famous for its summer Odori dance festival – to international cultural visitors. I only knew to meet someone at the train station by 1:00pm. When was the last time I’d arranged to meet somewhere, hoping intuition and anxious looking would direct me to the people I was to meet? In some ways, the arrangement is a refreshing change.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110640

Drop off before our walking tour.

Our local guide was Takada-san and our JTB guides were Hirose-san and Sakai-san. In total, our monitor group had 5 people from entirely different backgrounds: two JETs, two married Americans, and me.

With introductions finished, we waited for the city shuttle bus to take us to the town centre.

The Streets of Gujo Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110696

Our local guide, Takada-san who explained the details of the village.

Gujo is quaint and small. Give yourself an hour, and you’ve not only traversed the entire town, but are on your way to the next mountain village. Given only an hour, our monitor group – with iPhones and cameras ready – barely managed the expanse of a street.

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Public washroom in the middle of town.

You can tell a lot about a place by how the people treat their washrooms. Of course, my fascinations left me lagging perpetually behind.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120227

The Odori lanterns hung throughout the shops in the old and new town.

Gujo Hachiman Ohmamiya Candy 郡上八幡 桜間見屋 黑肉桂

Ohmamiya Candy Shop making Cinnamon candy for 120+ years (桜間見屋)

Most shop patrons were not like this. We were an atypical troop armed with briefcases and cameras. At every corner and shop, we swooped in, looking for that magic angle to highlight. (More on this candy shop later).

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Sake shop interior

Gujo-Hachiman sits at the convergence of three fast-flowing rivers. That translates to great water for sake!

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One of the low-key shops just one street over with perfectly kept boards above its gutter.

We actually started on a quieter street with shops that were neither open nor shuttered. They were a mysterious, well-kept bunch. Takada-san took us through and pointed out small details such as the thick wooden boards above the shops.

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Natural accents everywhere

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Daily living tools also readily available!

The town sees many visitors since Japan is quite good about educating its people on regional history and scenic places. However, this felt like a town that wasn’t dependent on memories. While half the newer shops and restaurants catered to weekend urbanites’ tastes, the other half are content to serve their neighbours who need their usual tools, gadgets, and materials.

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The local geta (wooden clogs) shops

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Handmade geta (traditional wooden clogs)

The geta stacks in the shelves would have seemed like the souvenirs to my ignorant eye. However, once I walked into the back, I saw a local sitting down to chat while waiting for her shoes to be fixed.

Takada-san told us she’d just remade geta a few days ago. Her daughter had worn through the straps already after dancing all night last week, so they had to take them in to replace them as well. One thing I love about Japan is that fixing an item is often a matter of course.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120194

Small details like shop curtains set the mood.

Gujo Water

Gujo Hachiman canals 郡上八幡 River and Mountain-1120162

Igawakomichi 井川小道 – the small backyard canals

Cool emerald streams flow through the town, bringing with them shade and a breeze that hugs the water. This tree-lined canal section is officially called the Igawakomichi, the Igawa little water lane.

Igawakomichi 井川小道 郡上八幡-1120165

Feed the Koi (carp) with ¥100 fish food packets!

Gujo Hachiman canals 郡上八幡-1120144

A platform on top the canals to wash vegetables in preparation for pickling.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 River and Mountain-7012

Names of the community canal caretakers written in ink.

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Segi-ita are barriers for diverting water as needed.

One of the first things Takada-san showed us the water system. The gutters of the town were crystal clear. Some filter to wash vegetables. Others are for drinking. Neighbourhood groups are responsible for keeping them clean.

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Everything in clean water just looks tastier.

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Drinkable water is indicated by public cups. Wash after drinking!

Help yourself to the cups laid out in front of public fountains. Signs (in Japanese) mention when water is not drinkable. Part of me wonders if it’s just high standards because the water in the wheel below looked about the same as the fountain just in front.

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Old-school water wheel.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110718

Down it goes!

soji sui Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Soji-sui spring covered by its shrine and the three pools that flow into the river.

The Soji-sui spring is perhaps the clearest demonstration of water segregation that has kept the systems clean for three centuries. The water pool closest to the spring is for drinking, the second for washing vegetables and cooling drinks, and the third for washing dishes. These practices have been kept since the village was first settled by a warlord who built the Hachiman castle here.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110789

Soji-Sui Spring 宗祇水

River Life

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 river-1120151

A view that could make you momentarily forget the incredible summer heat.

The town sits at the confluence of the Yoshida, Nagara, and small Kodara Rivers. Bridges criss-cross various ends of the town, providing a pristine view of the clear, deep-bottomed river. These rivers are the lifeblood of the town, providing fish, water for crops, sake, tofu, soba, and also textile dying. But beyond its utilitarian purposes, the river is also the best source of entertainment and recreation.

Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Kodara River 小駄良川

Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Floating downriver

One of my rare moments of envy. If I wasn’t already shown the town’s historical gems, I’d have gone on strike and just slid down with the kids.

Determined to cool down and actually enjoy (not just admire) the water, I took my time marching across to the other side. I’d worn sandals because I was determined to soak in mountain river water, whether it was part of the itinerary or not. Taking photos was just an excuse.

Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Families soaking in the Kodara River in their backyard. 

Gujo Hachiman River 郡上八幡

Appreciating nature with refinement. Lay out the mats and put your feet in!

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110798

Even the dog can enjoy it, why are we walking again?!

riverside gujo hachiman gifu

The Yoshida River 吉田川

The next day, while admiring the view from the bridge connecting the old and new towns of Hachiman, we learned that the townspeople had various levels for playing in the river. The young ones began in the shallow one I stepped into. Then, they graduated to jumping off a distant rock in the photo above, just below the white school building. Next, the adventurous ones jumped off Gakkoubashi, the School Bridge in front of the school. The last stage was off the bridge I stood on.

riverside gujo hachiman gifu

The three local guys that were jumping from Shinbashi 新橋 above the Yoshida River

My second moment of envy: these guys not only got to enjoy the water, they could climb the rockface with impunity while I roasted in the afternoon sun. Actually, they were climbing up to do me a favour, they were going to jump again just for me to take a photo.

Gujo Life

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Anyoji, the largest temple in the town

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Otemon leading to Hachiman Castle

To this day, one sign of modernity is ubiquitous in its absence: traffic lights. Hachiman’s drivers are in no rush and pause at every intersection.

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Flower pole

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110746

What struck me about Gujo is how clean it was, even by Japanese standards. This is a village that has the pragmaticism to hang onions and the aesthetics to keep their ikebana, natural flower arrangement, fresh. Traditional Japanese houses use natural wood that usually are not oiled. Half of these houses have water-proof coats or used water-resistant hardwood.

firework's maybe

Fireworks?

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡-1110772

Streets.

Gujo Food

Water is essential to great food, and Hachiman has made great use of its three rivers. The local fish is called ayu and can be grilled, braised, eaten and as sashimi.

gujo-hachiman ayu fish

Grilled ayu from the river

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Hida beef. Hida is the historical name of the region, which includes the more famous Hida-Takayama.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Ayu, the local river fish, on tofu noodles

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Ayu sashimi

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Hotel Gujo-Hachiman gave us a full-course washoku dinner

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Winter melon is a summer vegetable in Japan, just saying.

Hida Beef 飛騨牛肉 郡上八幡-6985

Beef seared to your taste, with ample butter and a bit of sauce.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡-6995

Dessert

The town is known for its ayu river fish, sake, soba and I’ve heard they like their tofu. I saw fishermen all throughout the area patiently waiting with their poles and wading into the water to get a good spot. The fish they caught were deposited into a bag at their hip (which I assume had holes so the fish could survive).

One other item the town is famous for is cinnamon candy, which is probably an acquired taste. The candy is hard, and while distinctly cinnamon-y, also comes with a spicy punch!

Ohmamiya Cinnamon candy 桜間見屋 黑肉桂 肉桂玉

Ohmamiya Cinnamon candy is 120+ years old and a bit spicy! 桜間見屋 黑肉桂 肉桂玉

Soba Buckwheat Noodles 郡上八幡-7017

Soba Buckwheat Noodles

Local fish

Soba Buckwheat Noodles with a local fish

Ryokan Culture

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

First thing, make tea and relax in the room. Futons will be laid out at night.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Waiting out the storm in the Hotel Gujo Hachiman (ホテル郡上八幡) lobby.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Old friends not the least ruffled by the storm that’s delaying their odori dancing.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

The owner, Nakashima-san, waiting out the storm with us!

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Traditional Gujo fabric and dying technique on display in the hotel.

One figure was a fixture in the lobby: Nakashima-san gets up around 6am every day and comes to work soon after. I struck up conversation with him while waiting to check-out and he introduced the kimono on display to me. He told me if the place burned down, the three pieces were the first things he’d save. When I pointed out the phoenix design at a door, he told me it was the emblem of Gujo-Hachiman. Later, he even showed us the winter community odori practices and told us about the monthly cultural gatherings the hotel hosted. In January, the hotel also hosts a paper mache making event and the lobby is covered with creations of all shapes and sizes.

Hotel Gujo hachiman ホテル郡上八幡

Nakashima-san is fond of this odori miniature that represents his cultural heritage

Gujo Culture and Dance

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Odori lanterns hung throughout the street

Gujo Hachiman Odori 郡上八幡 踊り

What it looks like at night! (Look out for a special Odori photo essay)

I’ll cover the Gujo Odori dances in another photo essay because I think the experience is incredible. As a non-dancer, it was easy to join in and feel a part. For this photo essay, I’ll talk a bit more about the cultural centre and how you can learn more about the different styles of dance.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上 八幡博覧館 踊り-1110643

Gujo Hachiman Odori lanterns that I would see later throughout town

The only thing I knew about the trip was that it involved trying on yukata, and without context I was dreading an imitation of the popularised Kyoto tourism activity. I was way off the mark. The yukata is for Gujo’s famous 30 days of odori community dancing.

Gujo Hachiman Odori 郡上 八幡博覧館 踊り

Odori schedule, listing the date, location, and name for each day.

These panels show the sequence of steps for each odori dance. The text beside is the story that each dance represents and many of them reference historical events. For example one of the dances we were taught shows the events of the Gujo Incident – the one successful uprising during Edo Japan where the peasants petitioned the government and overturned a tax increase. Even though there were only a handful of steps, each gesture suddenly re-enacted an event.

Gujo Hachiman Odori 郡上 八幡博覧館 踊り

Gujo Hachiman Odori dance demonstration at the cultural centre (郡上 八幡博覧館 )

Geta essential for keeping rhythm in odori dancing.

Geta essential for keeping the rhythm in Odori dancing.

The sequence is much easier to learn interactively, so the museum has professionals do an explanation of the festival’s various dance styles (in Japanese) before demonstrating them. At the end, attendees are invited to join along and try. Language isn’t a barrier: just follow!

The steps are easy to pick up and accommodating to people of all skills, but difficult to perfectly time!

Gujo Hachiman Fabric Dyes 郡上 八幡博覧館

Gujo Hachiman Fabric Dyes on display at the cultural centre.

Up until a century or two ago, many places were mostly self-sufficient. Gujo is also famous for its textiles, but only one traditional master is left.

Gujo Hachiman Fake Food 郡上 八幡博覧館

Food replicas were invented by a Gujo native.

Mention Gujo to a Japanese national, and you will get one of three answers:

  • a blank stare
  • Odori!
  • food replicas

In reality, imitation food was created in Osaka, but the creator, Takizo Iwasaki, hails from this Edo mountain village.

Around the Area

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Limestone caves in the area

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Modern Fudoson carving

limestone cave Gujo Hachiman

Car bringing us to the cave

Coffee

After our tour officially ended, I had a few hours to finally wander the town at my own pace and revisit places that had previously caught my eye. One of them was the Yoshida River, where I took more photos and stood on a stream. My other must-do was to just sit down and enjoy a break while sipping ice-cold coffee.

gujo-hachiman water

More water, while on the search for coffee. Take off your shoes.

Fortunately, I bumped into Robert, who also opted to wander around, and he agreed to a cafe hunt with me as we meandered our way back to the train station. Everything caught our eye en route, including yet another play-canal. Take off your shoes before entering this one. 🙂

Cafe Machiya Saito カフェ・町家さいとう

Cafe Machiya Saito looks like a well-kept traditional Japanese store

Traditional Japanese shops don’t give much away. They have curtains, then closed slated windows, and a deep, dark entrance. Still, the menus at entrances and photos of food are obvious signs.

Cafe Machiya Saito カフェ・町家さいとう

Entrance reception area where you order first

I will sum up the Cafe Machiya-Saito experience as: never judge a Japanese restaurant by its entrance. They have a photo menu, so English-speakers feel welcome! Order, take a seat with your ticket, and give the ticket to the server after you’re seated.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Many old houses are cafes, and old shops are still used as modern shops.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

The symbol of Gujo-Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Gold-leaf poetry casually gracing the walls of a cafe.

In the end, Robert and I basically had to inhale our coffee because we spent so much time gasping at the interior. Even so, no regrets that we came! We could even have taken seats in the outside garden! After that, we speed-walked through the ‘new town’ to get back to our station and hop on the train home.

Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 street-1120245

Traditional shops have openings for carts to enter.

The local Nagatetsu takes just over an hour to get back to the main interchange, but we ended up standing most of the time taking photos of the spots I’d marked as scenic. (Tip to photographers, star the towns you pass so you can take the perfect photo on the way back!)

I’ll finish off with a small moment I stumbled upon just before running into Robert again and going off on our coffee hunt and train-catching speed-walk.

Gujo Hachiman Yoshida River 郡上八幡 吉田川

Caught a couple watching the Yoshida

Gujo Hachiman Yoshida River 郡上八幡 吉田川

Under the bridge

Thanks for checking this out! I’ve made a map of most of the spots I went to.

Other resources:

If you liked this series, look out for additional posts about Gujo Hachiman in the future.

In the meantime, you can check out my photo essay of Rural Japan in Yahiko.

7 responses to “Gujo-Hachiman in 80 Photos

  1. Pingback: 500px Tokyo Photo Walk: An Experimental Tricking Essay | The Cup and the Road·

    • Thanks. 🙂 Yes, I like history and literature, so they’re good inspiration points for destinations.

      I love your cycling blog and that we’ve lived in the same cities. ^^

      Are you planning a Japan cycling trip?

      Like

      • No, right now we’re going to Europe with some cycling. I actually have not been to Asia yet.

        I liked some of your hiking/temple blog posts in Japan. Rare to see those areas reviewed.

        But you haven’t lived in Calgary..? I was born in Ontario.

        Like

  2. Pingback: 2016 Year in Review – A Photo Collection | The Cup and the Road·

  3. Pingback: Things I’ll Miss about Japan: 16 Habits and Customs | The Cup and the Road·

  4. Pingback: Gujo Hachiman’s Odori | The Cup and the Road·

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