Travel

Gujo-Hachiman: Travel along the rivers of time

Where spirits are lifted in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

Alan Booth, a writer rarely given to dispensing easy compliments, could be a dyspeptic traveler when destinations did not live up to his expectations.

After a long walk through the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, the riverine settlement of Gujo-Hachiman raised his spirits and added a spring to his step. It was, in his own words, from his book “The Roads to Sata,” “a town of a kind I’d dreamed of finding when I’d first arrived in Japan almost 20 years before, a town so extraordinary that, when I went out to stroll around it that evening, I almost forgot to limp.”

Lowering his critical guard a little, Booth found himself experiencing, if not exactly love at first sight, then the uncomplicated sensation of being thoroughly smitten.

A Labrador serves as an unofficial mascot for Gujo Hachiman Station. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A Labrador serves as an unofficial mascot for Gujo Hachiman Station. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Perhaps it is the gurgling brooks that feed the town’s roadside culverts, the colorful, vaguely Pyrenean window boxes, or the friendly, natural disposition of those who live in this well-appointed hill town, but Gujo-Hachiman does seem a place where people’s spirits are pitched a notch or two higher than elsewhere.

If you come, as I did, by train from Gifu, the small, two-carriage engine reduces speed upon reaching the first bend of the Nagara River. These are trains where you can roll down the windows, breath in the slightly elevated air, mixed with the rustic smell of earth and straw, and peer out at the crystal-clear river, where ayu (sweetfish) and satsuki masu, a type of trout, glide above beds of pebble. Gujo-Hachiman, in fact, sits at the confluence of two rivers — the Nagara and the Yoshida — in a valley that was once a way station on an important trade route leading to the Sea of Japan.

A local man in Gujo Hachiman fishes for sweetfish and trout. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A local man in Gujo Hachiman fishes for sweetfish and trout. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

During the torrid months of summer, rivers of people inundate public spaces during its annual Gujo Odori, a traditional dance event, held on either side of the August o-Bon festival of the dead, during which the spirits of the departed are said to return. Venues for the dances change nightly. Portable lighting rigs add a phantasmagoric orange and green veneer to the self-choreography of figures in trance states that can last for hours.

The dances here are decidedly more spontaneous, the experience fresher and more liberating than they are in many other parts of the country, where participants are often required to register before taking part. “You don’t have to be a member of a club or association,” one woman confides. “You can join and then drop out whenever you like.” This laissez faire approach is reflected in the fact that, although many locals enjoy wearing light, summer kimono, there is no dress code.

Brightly lit floats add color and drama to the dances at the annual Gujo Odori. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Brightly lit floats add color and drama to the dances at the annual Gujo Odori. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Unlike large gatherings of people at events, such as demonstrations where, if you watch carefully, you can pick out the ringleaders, the people orchestrating or agitating events — the town’s nocturnal crowd, intoxicated by the flute and drum music, collective motion and sultry heat — are more amorphous, channeling each other’s energy and impulses. The dancers within the inner of the two circles that revolve around wooden floats replete with singers and instrumentalists, are the ones to watch. They are likely to be locals who have been dancing here since they were knee-high.

It is not known whether it was intentionally egalitarian or not, but the dances appear to have begun when one of Gujo-Hachiman’s highest-ranking feudal lords instituted the event as an entertainment for his subjects. Open to all and sundry, social barriers temporarily melted, as they did during the tea ceremony or at the gates of the old pleasure quarters, where warriors were obliged to surrender their swords. In Gujo-Hachiman, farmers danced beside samurai in a state of delirium that momentarily transcended class.

Human rivers are temporary; real ones, in this instance the Nagara and Yoshida, infuse the town with a special character that is both visual and audible. Coursing down from the mountains that surround the town, water, spluttering and trickling in streams and rivulets, forms a soundscape to any exploration of its streets. When the waters reach full velocity under the arches of Shinbashi bridge, a roaring power asserts itself, as cobalt-blue knots of current form.

It has become something akin to a rite of passage during the summer months among the town’s youth to jump off the bridge into the swift waters below. None of the divers, including young teenage girls, appear to have ever been seriously injured, but this is a form of extreme initiation definitely not for the faint-hearted.

A view of the faithfully reconstructed Gujo Hachiman Castle. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
A view of the faithfully reconstructed Gujo Hachiman Castle. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Winters can be bitterly cold and snow-bound in these deeply rural crannies, blocked in between mountains, and a slightly alpine mood clings to the air even during the summer, especially when you ascend to Gujo Hachiman Castle, sited on a promontory above the town. There are only 12 original castles remaining in Japan, the remainder dismantled during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when fortresses were seen as symbols of feudalism. The vandalism was another instance of Japan’s periodic pogroms against history, fever-driven movements to erase the past. Gujo Hachiman Castle was reconstructed in 1934, and appears to be a fairly authentic design.

The views from the upper floor of the donjon (castle keep) are, as they were meant to be, commanding and confirm the oft-made comment that the shape of the town resembles that of a fish. The district beneath the castle walls was originally reserved for the samurai class and the nobility. You might expect that to translate into a tony residential district, but the homes here are modest, nondescript structures devoid of distinctive architectural features native to the region.

Hashimotocho is a more interesting quarter. Located in the old merchant heart of the town, it is graced with a good number of buildings whose materials — dark, stained wood, plaster, copper gutters — have stood, in some instances, for centuries. A degree of commercialization has taken place, with implants of galleries, museums and souvenir shops selling local wares like Gujo-tsumugi textiles, but walking its stone-paved lanes and wooden bridges, running your fingers along the surfaces of walls roughly hewn from boulders, one can sense the underlying historical infrastructure.

Cobblestones in a backstreet of Gujo Hachiman become art. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Cobblestones in a backstreet of Gujo Hachiman become art. | STEPHEN MANSFIELD

Wandering without a conscious itinerary in mind can get you a long way in a town formed from the blending of a feudal infrastructure with an overlay of contemporary, albeit fairly nonintrusive roads and transport adjuncts. It was purely by chance that I stumbled upon the 16th-century temple of Jionzenji, tucked into the foot of a hillside in an old residential district not far from the historical center of the town.

Zen temples are often architecturally joined at the hip with gardens, often of the dry landscape type, fondly, though somewhat misleadingly known abroad as Zen gardens. Which was why I was surprised to find myself facing a Muromachi Period-influenced landscape classified not as a stone garden, but a stroll-pond design. Created by Jionzenji’s first head priest, a man known simply as Hanzan, the Tessoen garden is ideal for meditation, a sounding board for one’s own thoughts.

Set in a cliff surrounded by woodland, the soothing flow from a waterfall is accompanied by the sound of a suikin kutsu. This delightful device consists of an upturned earthen jar with a hole, which is positioned under a stone basin. When water from the basin passes through the hole, it produces a quietly resonant splashing sound. Despite a mossy foreground implanted with rocks, weathered stone lanterns, granite bridges and maple trees, water is the garden’s leitmotif. Few people visit this temple, whose garden is of a design one only occasionally encounters, in which a natural backdrop is co-opted to blend seamlessly into the garden itself, which is an interpretation of nature.

The priest was surprised to see me back on the same day for a second visit. I explained that, as a photographer, there were differences in light that interested me, that the morning glare severed the garden into unequal segments that were difficult to resolve, while the afternoon light was more subdued and even, but the truth was that I simply wanted to reclaim my place on a reed mat in the viewing chamber and sit in awe in front of this magisterial landscape.

I wondered if it cast the same spell on everyone who stepped across its threshold.

Kosoku Hachiman Line buses take around 70 minutes from the city of Gifu. By train, take the JR Hida or Takayama lines to Mino-Ota, then change to the Nagaragawa Tetsudo Line. The Gujo-Hachiman Tourism Association is located in a Meiji Era Western-style building in the center of town. Nakashimaya (0575-65-2191) is a traditional inn serving excellent food. The Gujo Odori runs almost every night from mid-July until early September.