Water is everyone’s lifeblood, but for the people of Gujo Hachiman, it is also their pride. Gujo Hachiman townspeople’s bond and unique traditions with water have been passed down for over 400 years and become the symbol of this old castle town.
Located in Gifu Prefecture, Gujo Hachiman (Hachiman Town in Gujo City) is another easy and enjoyable day trip I took from Nagoya. The mountainous landscape and colder climate of Gifu Prefecture never disappoint with how different the atmosphere is in each season and in Gujo Hachiman, visitors get both nature and traditional townscape that has earned the Little Kyoto nickname. Though this kind of comparison is commonly used to promote smaller and lesser known places, I am all for drawing attention to unique charms of the hidden gem as well.
So let’s go see how this Little Kyoto looks, with beautiful additions of a hilltop castle and pristine waterways but without the crowds of Kyoto. As Gujo Hachiman official website says: “not far away, but a world apart”. I visited around the peak of autumn in mid-November, so there were various shades of red as another added bonus too.
I traveled to Gujo Hachiman by train. The final leg of the train trip requires everyone to ride the slow but classic one-man train called Nagaragawa Railway. Nagaragawa means Nagara River, signifying that the river runs through or along the cities and towns along the way.
The building of Gujo Hachiman Station is classic just like the Nagaragawa Railway itself.
It takes around 20 minutes to walk from Gujo Hachiman Station to the town center and the walk wasn’t boring for me. I always enjoy observing local mascots and random creative or artistic elements on Japanese storefronts and traditional houses. Okomeyasan sells rice, hence the rice cartoon.
Three rivers meet in Gujo Hachiman. The Nagara, Yoshida, and Kodara Rivers form a natural moat for the town and this defensive potential was why the local feudal lords chose Gujo Hachiman as the location to build Gujo Hachiman Castle in 1559. Then flourished the town around the castle and wealth and cultural prosperity followed thanks to its location being not too far from Kyoto. Traditional machiya houses around the town included.
Yanaka Lane is one of the streets and alleys with canals in Gujo Hachiman. It is short and small, but quaintly covered by 80,000 stones and pebbles from the Nagara River and the Yoshida River (Hachiman is 80,000 in Japanese), complete with willow trees and the calming sound of the water. The waterways of Gujo Hachiman weren’t there from the beginning, but after the fire razed half the town in 1652, the local feudal lord at the time, Tsunetomo Endo, had them built for fire protection.
Beside the canal in Yanaka Lane is a mizu fune (water boat). These basins are part of the town’s ingenious water system. The waterways in Gujo Hachiman aren’t just for fire protection purpose. They are very clean and well-maintained and the locals have been drinking and using the water in their daily life since the 17th century. It doesn’t look obvious from my photo, but the stone mizu fune in Yanaka Lane is divided into multiple tiers. Water from different tiers of mizu fune around the town is for different purposes. Water from the uppermost tier (closest to the source and purest) is for drinking. Then it flows down to the next tier and used for washing vegetables, and then for laundry, for example.
This riverside town has many bridges. The bridges offer nice views for a visitor like me, but for young locals, it is also where their rite of passage happens. Nowadays, some local children still jump into the Yoshida River from the Shinbashi Bridge in summer. They are taught how to observe the level of water in the river and do it safely. For us non-locals, this activity isn’t recommended.
Near the Miyagase Bridge is Sogisui Water Shrine, Gujo Hachiman’s most famous and spiritual water spot. Although it is a very small and simple shrine, Sogisui Spring is the water source of the town and regarded as one of Japan’s 100 Remarkable Waters, for both environmental and historical reasons. Water from the spring is divided for different purposes as well: drinking, washing rice, washing vegetables, and washing other items.
Above Sogisui Spring is Sogian, a traditional cafe with unique parfait. We can choose from matcha green tea flavor and sweet potato flavor. To be honest, I am usually not a big fan of either flavor, but I really wanted to try Sogian parfait, so I ordered the matcha-flavored one and ended up enjoying it. Rich flavors with various textures in the cup and pretty matcha art shaped like a traditional dancer. Sogian has a little garden attached too, so guests can enjoy the autumn leaves while eating.
While walking around the water town, you will see red and black buckets hanging outside many houses. This is also a time-honored local tradition. In case of fire, the townspeople use these buckets to scoop up water from their waterways to help extinguish the fire.
Among the temples and shrines of Gujo Hachiman, Jionzenji Temple is the most noteworthy. First constructed in the 1606 as the lord of the castle’s family temple, this Zen temple also has the priest-designed Tetsusoen Zen Garden. It is small and we aren’t allowed to stroll, but it still looks pretty with a waterfall and fall foliage.
After exiting Jionzenji Temple, I continued toward Gujo Hachiman Castle, but not without being distracted by other lovely things on the way there.
Such as the Former Town Hall of Gujo Hachiman, which has been transformed into Gujo Hachiman Tourist Information Center.
Nearby is Igawa Lane, where not only some locals but also koi carp call home. The canal in Igawa Lane runs behind some houses and the townspeople who live nearby still use water from this canal for laundry. Canalside platforms have been constructed for this reason.
From the town center area, it is a 30-minute hike up Shiroyama (castle hill) to Gujo Hachiman Castle.
The trail has a parking lot that is also a good viewpoint with maple trees. You can see Anyoji Temple (the biggest wooden temple in Gifu Prefecture) and the town from there.
There is also the historic Statue of Chiyo and her husband Kazutoyo with their horse. Chiyo was one of the castle lords’ daughter and because she sacrificed her dowry to buy a good horse for Kazutoyo and contributed to his achievement while serving the prominent samurai lords, the statue was built in her honor.
I hiked the trail after Halloween, but this carved pumpkin was somehow still there in the forest and I love it.
After reaching the top of Shiroyama, I was awed by Gujo Hachiman Castle among autumn red. Although I didn’t enter the castle, walking to the top of the hill was worth it and I had a lot of fun exploring the area around the castle.
I heart autumn.
Gujo Hachiman Castle was originally built by order of the first feudal lord Morikazu Endo in the 16th century and the current castle keep was actually a reconstruction after being torn down at the end of the shogunate era. That said, this fortress from 1933 was reconstructed with wood instead of commonly used concrete and it is also the oldest wooden castle reconstruction in Japan.
Gujo Hachiman Castle grounds is such a great observatory. We can see the town in the valley below, surrounded by the Okumino mountains.
Gifu Prefecture’s red lucky dolls, Sarubobo.
My Japanese might be broken, but I know some random, not-so-common words. Like komorebi or sunlight filtering through leaves.
After getting my fill of fall beauty, I walked down the hill to another part of the traditional town area. Shokuninmachi and Kajiyamachi are well-preserved legacies from the castle town era. As mentioned before, Gujo Hachiman Castle brought financial and cultural wealth and attracted craftsmen and merchants to the town. Shokuninmachi and Kajiyamachi were their residential areas and some of their descendants still live in these houses.
Streetside canal, red buckets, and sodekabe sleeve walls between each house to help protect the neighborhoods from fire and also add character to Gujo Hachiman townscape.
I didn’t eat at this restaurant, but their deep-fried Godzilla has to be among the quirkiest store decorations I have seen. Although small, it still grabbed my attention.
Speaking of fake food, food sample production in Gujo Hachiman is a big thing and well-known craftsmanship. The small town produces more than 70% of sampuru in Japan, so even if you haven’t heard of Gujo Hachiman before, you might have already seen its products (without realizing it) displayed in front of restaurants and cafes around the country. Gujo Hachiman food replicas are handmade with plastic and if buying them (available as magnets, models, etc.) isn’t enough for you, you can join a food sample making workshop at Sample Kobo or Sample Village Iwasaki.
I finished my Gujo Hachiman trip with a visit to food sample shop and my first light leak experience. I had problem winding the film and had no choice but to open my camera. This is a massive light leak, but if I have to be optimistic, red and orange don’t look too bad on this photo…
Gujo Hachiman Station
When to visit: Always accessible
How to get there: If you start from Nagoya like me, you can take JR trains like Limited Express Hida train to Mino-Ota Station, then change to Nagaragawa Railway there and get off at Gujo Hachiman Station. (If you don’t want to take the limited express train, you can take JR Chuo Line Rapid from JR Nagoya Station to Tajimi Station, transfer to JR Taita Line, and take the train until Mino-Ota Station as well.) From Gujo Hachiman Station, it is about 15-20 minutes’ walk to the town center where attractions are. For those who don’t want to walk, I read that there is a community bus called Mame Bus to Gujo Hachiman Jokamachi Plaza near the attractions, but I don’t know how frequent these buses are.
It is actually faster and more direct to take Gifu Bus from Meitetsu Bus Center in Nagoya to Gujo Hachiman Jokamachi Plaza (also situated in the old town center). However, there are only two buses per day. If the Gifu Bus schedule doesn’t work with your plan, you can take the train like I did and I enjoyed the local Nagaragawa train ride as well.
If you are staying or traveling in Gifu or Takayama and Shirakawa-go area, you can take JR Takayama Line or Limited Express Hida from Gifu Station or Takayama Station to Mino-Ota Station too. Then continue with the Nagaragawa Railway until Gujo Hachiman Station.
It is possible to visit Gujo Hachiman as a day trip from Osaka, Kyoto, or even Tokyo, but it takes extra hours and you have to change trains in Nagoya.
When to visit: Always accessible
How to get there: From Gujo Hachiman Station, it is about 15-20 minutes on foot.
Sogisui Water Shrine (Sogisui Spring or Sogisui Source)
When to visit: Always accessible
How to get there: Walk for about three minutes from Yanaka Lane.
When to visit: 11am-5pm, Thursday-Tuesday
How to get there: Sogian Cafe is located just above Sogisui Spring.
When to visit: 10am-4pm, Wednesday-Monday
How to get there: Walk for about ten minutes from Sogisui Spring.
Entrance fee: 500 yen
When to visit: Always accessible
How to get there: Walk for about five minutes from Jionzenji Temple.
Gujo Hachiman Castle
When to visit: Please check their official website for different hours for different seasons.
How to get there: About 10-minute walk from Igawa Lane to the start of the trail. Then you can hike up Shiroyama to the castle keep in 20-30 minutes.
Entrance fee: There are tickets just for Gujo Hachiman Castle and combination tickets with other museums in the town. You can compare the prices on the official website.
Shokuninmachi and Kajiyamachi
When to visit: Always accessible, but shops’ and restaurants’ hours vary.
How to get there: Walk for about ten minutes from the trail to Gujo Hachiman Castle.
This post is part of the #giftograph_film series (roll #5: Fuji Pro 400H with Kodak M35 film camera)
This post is also part of the Sunday Stills (Ruby Red), Flower of the Day (recent challenge), Photographing Public Art Challenge (recent challenge), Water Water Everywhere (recent challenge), and Which Way (recent challenge) Photo Challenges.