For a town so closely associated with water, it’s rather fitting that Gujo-Hachiman is shaped like a fish.
“An ayu (sweetfish), to be exact,” clarifies Yuka Tanaka, my guide for the afternoon and a native of this small town of approximately 18,000 inhabitants tucked away in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. “Ayu need clear water to thrive, and we have plenty of that in Gujo-Hachiman.”
The town sits at the confluence of four rivers: the tiny Otohime and the Kodara, which both flow into the mighty Yoshida. Together, all three join the Nagara River to the west of town.
In Gujo-Hachiman water is more than a necessary resource that emerges from a faucet, it is the heartbeat of the town: It runs in channels that crisscross through the compact downtown area; it’s imbibed straight from roadside wells by thirsty locals and travelers alike; and it’s a precious commodity that enables the region to produce high-quality sake, soba and the aforementioned sweetfish.
Yuka leads me down the mountain from where we viewed the fish-shaped township, stopping in the town center for a drink from one of the many waterspouts that supply a seemingly unending stream of free water to local residents. The cold liquid refreshes me for our walk through the nearby Shokunin-machi (Craftsmen Street).
Though the nearby tourist site of Hida-Takayama, famous for its quaint old town and folk village, looks almost Disneyfied in its prettiness, the historic districts in Gujo-Hachiman seem lived-in and well-loved. The houses in the merchants’ quarters sport latticed fronts just like their Takayama counterparts, but residents’ bicycles, brooms and occasional laundry pepper the scene. Overhead power lines crop up in my camera viewfinder. It’s an authentic portrait of daily life in Japan’s old trading towns, and — perhaps due to the lack of tourist polish — there are almost no other travelers here to share it with me.
Tanaka points out the buckets that hang on the exterior of every home. Just under a century ago, she explains, a devastating fire ripped through the city’s northern district. Today, as a precaution, each house in Gujo-Hachiman has a fire bucket, color-coded according to the various neighborhoods.
We poke our heads into a few of the open shops, including a store hawking traditional — and rather fiery — cinnamon candies, before turning down a small alley near the end of the district. The cobbled lane leads to a multilevel series of pools, once used as a communal washing space for clothes and produce, a few meters from the edge of the Kodara River. The small Sogu Sui Shrine perches over the top-most pool, commemorating the spot where 15th-century poet Sogi traded parting poems with the town’s local feudal lord at the time, marking the end of the famed scribe’s visit to the town. Even to this day, the terraced waters are still used by elderly residents. Vegetables get a good scrub in the top pool, and lower sections are used for rinsing clothes and other goods. The last pool once held koi that would feed on the scraps that trickled down from the food washed above — a natural purification system before the water emptied into the nearby river.
Tanaka leads me across Miyagase Bridge, where the waning light bathes the landscape in an attractive glow. We pause in the middle of our crossing, peering down into impressively translucent waters.
“Local children jump off the bridge in the summertime,” she explains, a feat that’s as much fun as it is a rite of passage among Gujo-Hachiman’s youth. Tanaka’s own daughter conquered the challenge as a teen, and my guide is certain the next generation will follow suit.
I bid farewell to Tanaka after dinner and return to Nakashimaya, my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the historic district. The water in the baths at my inn may not be fed from mineral-rich hot springs, but the quality of Gujo’s water is so high, it’s hard to know the difference.
In the morning, I set out for some solo exploration of the surrounding streets. As I leave, the young proprietor of the Tirol kissaten (traditional coffee shop) up the street from my ryokan peels back a metal grate covering a canal on the street in front of the cafe and ladles the fast-running water out by the bucketful.
“Every morning,” she confirms, when I ask how often she makes use of the water channel. “I always water the plants with it.” I ask if the water has ever overflowed, or risen high enough to flood the narrow street.
She says no, but hastens to add, “When it rains quite heavily, the water looks like chocolate.”
I follow one of the canal offshoots into a backstreet, where wooden homes and storefronts crowd next to modern concrete dwellings. A detailed self-guided tour, written by a former Gujo-Hachiman resident who decamped to Canada, leads me to the dark blue noren (shop curtain) of Watanabe Indigo, one of the town’s most famous aizome (indigo dyeing) houses. No other sign indicates they’re open for business, so I summon my courage and slide open the door.
The earthen floor rises to meet a tatami area in the front of the building on which numerous examples of the town’s famous dyed carp-shaped streamers are displayed. The bespectacled shopkeeper gives me a nod, but carries on his conversation with a customer, attempting to convince the man that a certain streamer is indeed “too large for his front porch.”
I’m deciphering — slowly — a series of news articles on the wall of the shop about Gujo-Hachiman’s winter dyeing festival, when an elderly woman appears at my elbow and kindly explains the event to me.
“It’s always held on the coldest day of the year,” she explains, a date that in recent years has been fixed as Jan. 20. On that morning, the town’s indigo workshops bring their small and medium-sized carp streamers down to the Kodara River to be washed. The bitter winter water helps set the dyes; afterward, the flags are laid out on the banks to dry. I admire the rest of the streamer collection before admitting to myself that my porch isn’t of adequate size either and take my leave of the workshop.
I weave my way back to the main street, wandering past the tourist office, and somehow stumble on a part of Gujo-Hachiman I haven’t seen yet: the Igawa Komichi canal. The narrow lane beside the water here is barely 1 meter wide, and I wait for a group to exit the path before proceeding in the opposite direction. No bikes can use the path, and certainly no vehicles. The peaceful scene is reserved simply for pedestrians or the inhabitants of the nearby homes, who may come to make use of the washing platforms erected over the fast-running channel. The small river curves slightly and narrows as I follow it through the quiet neighborhood. Here I am once more reminded that, unlike some popular destinations in Japan, Gujo-Hachiman’s beauty lies in small things.
Gujo-Hachiman can be reached via highway bus from either Nagoya or Takayama. Most highway buses arrive at the edge of the city; the route to reach the center of town is posted at the bus stop. Taxis are also available (Japanese-speaking drivers only).
Yoshidaya Ryokan (www.yoshidayaryokan.com) offers Japanese and Western-style rooms in the center of Gujo-Hachiman.
Nakashimaya Ryokan (www.nakashimaya.net) has large rooms and beautifully decorated common spaces.
Food and drink
Sobasho Matsui (774-2 Hachimancho Kajiyamachi, Gujo) serves the town’s famous handmade soba buckwheat noodles.
Omamiya (www.ohmamiya.com), a 120-year-old sweets shop, serves cinnamon nikkidama hard-ball candies.
Watanabe Indigo (737 Shimadani, Hachimancho, Gujo) showcases the carp streamers made by one of the town’s most-respected craftsmen. The streamers are also sold in the nearby tourism office.