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:
- Gujo-Hachiman Station
- The Streets of Gujo-Hachiman
- Gujo Water
- River Life
- Gujo Life
- Gujo Food
- Ryokan Culture
- Gujo Culture and Dance
- Around the Area
- Itinerary Map
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
You can tell a lot about a place by how the people treat their washrooms. Of course, my fascinations left me lagging perpetually behind.
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).
Gujo-Hachiman sits at the convergence of three fast-flowing rivers. That translates to great water for sake!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Gujo Culture and Dance
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Mention Gujo to a Japanese national, and you will get one of three answers:
- a blank stare
- food replicas
In reality, imitation food was created in Osaka, but the creator, Takizo Iwasaki, hails from this Edo mountain village.
Around the Area
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.
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. 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks for checking this out! I’ve made a map of most of the spots I went to.
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.