Mino, Japan: Railway to the Lights

With how reliable, convenient, and well-connected trains in Japan are, vacations and even staycations in the countryside from major cities are pretty much effortless.

While living in the Chubu region’s center of Nagoya, I had many chances to make easy day trips to charming small towns around Chubu. One of the most memorable experience for me has to be how I managed to jump onto a train ride after my morning class, visit the traditional merchant town of Mino in the countryside with an atmospheric paper lantern festival, and come back to Nagoya on the same day.

Frankly, I would recommend spending a whole day or even staying overnight in Mino for a vacation in that area, but considering how busy I was with my thesis at the time, I was thankful it was possible to set aside some time at all for a pick-me-up staycation. Even the train ride in the area is in and of itself an interesting experience.

From Nagoya to Mino, everyone must make one transfer to the slower but nice local train called Nagaragawa Railway. This is our opportunity to take in the countryside scenery in Gifu Prefecture. I visited around late-October and saw some patches of kochia, cosmos, and other fall flowers along the route. Too bad I only got blurry photos of the views, but I do have a photo of the unique train to share.

01MinoNagaragawaRailway

One of the most special features of Japanese trains for me is that, if we are lucky, we can get to ride a train with themed decorations. No additional costs. I like the sleek-looking trains as well as the classic or retro ones too, but on this particular trip, I happened to catch a very cool train adorned with the local superhero mascot, GJ8man. Pronounced “G-J-hachi-man”, this is a pun on the water town of Gujo Hachiman along the Nagaragawa Railway that I visited before. “Hachi” means eight in Japanese and Gujohachiman is creatively stylized as “GJ8man” to make it like a superhero name. Look at the superhero’s head, it resembles water droplet. Props to the people’s creativity in city branding and how they show it through one of their local trains. I am not surprised the railfanning “subculture” is a pretty big thing in Japan.

02Mino

03Mino

04MinoekiStation

05MinoekiStation

The historical district of Mino is about 20 minutes on foot from Minoshi Station, but I wasn’t too tired thanks to a few splashes of autumn colors along the way. Around five minutes into my walk, I dropped by the old Minoeki Station building, also known as the Site of Meitetsu Mino Station. From 1923 to 1999, Minoeki Station served as the terminal station for the Meitetsu Railway in this area of Gifu Prefecture. The former Minoeki Station has now been preserved in its original form as a free museum. Albeit very small, the building offers a glimpse into the Taisho Period (1912-1926), which was the beginning of the modern Japanese way of life, and train lovers can get up close and personal with four old Meitetsu trains at their original platforms.

06MinoekiStation

07MinoekiStation

I have seen photos inside these classic Meitetsu trains, but all the doors were closed when I went there. In the end, I can’t confirm if the trains are usually open or not, but I got some quick looks through the windows.

I also like these animal stickers warning to be careful of the train doors.

08Mino

Peek-a-Pooh. It is cute and funny how plushies are displayed beside the windows of some shops and houses in Japan. I don’t know if it is also a thing in other countries, but it isn’t for sure in Thailand and I didn’t see them in a few other countries that I have been to either (many years ago).

09MinoUdatsuWallHistoricalDistrict

Here we finally are on Menoji Street in the Udatsu Wall Historical District. A legacy from the Edo and Meiji Periods (1868-1912), the district has Japan’s biggest cluster of traditional merchant houses with udatsu or the traditional earthen wall structure between each house to prevent fire from spreading to the others. Udatsu walls were installed on the second floor, under the roof.

10MinoUdatsuWallHistoricalDistrict

Some of the udatsu walls are beautiful with the roof structure built on top. These roof decorations contain each family’s crest, so each one isn’t the same, and some roofs were also constructed or shaped uniquely.

11MinoNishioFamilyResidence

For example, the shingled roof of Nishio Family Residence.

12MinoKosakaFamilyResidenceB

The arched roof of Kosaka Family Residence. The Kosaka family has been sake (Japanese rice wine)-making merchants for generations and their famed sake still flows in the house in present days.

The fireproof udatsu walls were rich people’s exclusive things because they were expensive. But as you have seen, all the houses in Udatsu Wall Historical District seem to have them. This is because the merchants in the area have got very rich from their trades, especially from washi paper making.

Some of you may already be familiar with colorful washi tapes that have spread around craft shops in many countries. There are actually multiple types of washi paper and among them, Mino washi is deemed the highest quality in Japan, even recognized as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Using pure water from the Nagaragawa River, Mino washi remains meticulously handmade with traditional techniques until now and the culturally important paper is also so sturdy that it is used for repairing other cultural artifacts. Even for those who don’t work in the field, we can shop for handcrafted souvenirs made from Mino washi paper, from cards and fans to lamps and other home decors, in the few shops along Menoji Street.

13MinoUdatsuWallHistoricalDistrict

I had a lot of fun checking the Mino washi paper shops, as well as the paper lantern placed in front of the traditional houses. These paper lanterns have become the most well-known Mino washi art today and the evening Mino Washi Akari Art Festival (translated to Mino Washi Light Art Festival) was the main reason why I was there in October.

20MinoFormerImaiFamilyResidence

The wealthiest paper merchant family, consequently the most powerful, in the Udatsu Wall Historical District was the Imai family. The Former Imai Family Residence is the largest house in the area and it is now also known as Mino Archives, a local museum telling the traditional city’s history.

21Mino

I would have liked to enter the Former Imai Family Residence, but I realized that I got too carried away by the Site of Meitetsu Mino Station and the Udatsu Wall Historical District. The Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery was nearing its closing time.

The Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery was just a short distance from the Udatsu Wall Historical District, but when I got there, along with two other Japanese visitors, the gallery staff regretfully smiled at us and said that they were closing for the day. However, after we visitors returned her regretful smile with our own, the gallery staff said that she would like to let us in for a short while!

25MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

The other Japanese visitors and I were so pleasantly surprised and we thanked the staff so much. Her kindness didn’t stop there. The art gallery admission fee is pretty small, but she still gave each of us a little discount because we wouldn’t be able to spend a long time there. She was also friendly and happy to see a foreigner like me.

26MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

Since the Mino Washi Akari Art Festival is held only in October each year, the local people have the Former Mino Industrial Association Building refurbished as the art gallery, so that visitors can admire the light art year-round. The Mino Washi Akari Art Festival is actually an international lantern competition with contestants from Japan and around the world, so Mino receives new one-of-a-kind lanterns every year. It is great that they have this gallery to showcase some of the winning lanterns from the previous years. A few are exhibited in the gallery shop on the first floor, but most of them are in the dark wooden room on the second floor, which emulates the nighttime atmosphere in the Udatsu Wall Historical District.

27MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

This rainbow sheep was created by an elementary school kid.

28MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

We walked upstairs to the dark room full of gentle glows from Mino washi akari art.

29MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

30MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

Imagine the amount of handmade effort and painstaking attention to detail put into these lanterns.

31MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

32MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

33MinoWashiAkariArtMuseum

The Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery isn’t very big and we were very thankful to have been able to see quite a lot of paper lanterns in a short time.

It wasn’t dark out yet when I exited the Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery, so I had time to walk for one more destination before returning to the Udatsu Wall Historical District for the lantern lightup.

34Mino

37Mino

I went to Mino for the lantern lights, but the evening light was nice too.

38MinohashiBridge

39MinohashiBridge

Around ten minutes’ walk from the old town area through residential area and tunnel is Mino Bridge. Spanning 116 meters over the Nagaragawa River, the red suspension bridge was the longest in Japan at the time of its construction. Mino Bridge was completed in 1916 and it is also the oldest existing suspension bridge in Japan.

40MinoOgurayamaCastle

Ruins of Ogurayama Castle at the top of the hill. You can do a short hike up through Ogura Park on the way to Mino Bridge, but I had no time.

41MinohashiBridge

42MinoNagaragawaRiver

Peaceful scenery around the Nagaragawa River.

43MinoWashiAkariFestival

44MinoWashiAkariFestival

Back to the Udatsu Wall Historical District. Time to spam the photos of Mino washi paper lanterns from the 2021 Mino Washi Akari Art Festival.

48MinoMutouFamilyResidence

49MinoWashiAkariFestival

50MinoWashiAkariFestival

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The glass cases on the lanterns are for protective purpose and I also like how they reflect the lights at night.

54Mino

Not a Mino washi akari art, but I just had to photograph this shiba inu dog chilling in the night air. (Or maybe, akita inu… I am not sure. Experts can feel free to correct me.)

55MinoWashiAkariFestival

56MinoWashiAkariFestival

58MinoWashiAkariFestival

Mino saw fewer lanterns that year due to the pandemic, but there were a few international akari arts around.

59MinoWashiAkariFestival

61MinoWashiAkariFestival

62MinoWashiAkariFestival

To this day, it still feels a little surreal that I could conveniently made a trip to Gifu countryside in the afternoon and went back to Nagoya on the same night. How great it is to have reliable public transportation even outside big cities, especially trains since they don’t always require advance reservation and can be boarded pretty easily without much pre-departure procedure. Having been able to travel to destress that easily by train is one of the best experience in Japan for me and I admire that even small, locally-operated trains (and other modes of public transport) are universally-designed.

63MinoWashiAkariFestival

64MinoWashiAkariFestival

Compared to when I want to vacation or even make a day trip to another city in Thailand, train would be my last option, honestly. I can’t avoid flights if I want to save time when traveling far from Bangkok and buses are more well-connected than trains in Thailand. In fact, it is more practical to get around 99% of the cities in Thailand by car or by booking a tour. As a person who has no driving license at the moment, I usually travel to and around other cities with my family or friends. It is a pity because I know that Thailand has many hidden gems that are very beautiful and culturally rich like Japanese cities, but it is difficult to travel for foreigners and Thai people who don’t drive alike.

65MinoWashiAkariFestival

But in recent years, we have more and more visionaries who are very determined to develop trains and also buses in Thailand. Thai trains as well as other public transport still have a long way to go with possibly a lot of corruption awaiting along the way… and infrastructure development can take decades, but I still hope to see in the not-too-far future our own reliable, universally-accessible, and sustainable public transportation systems like in Japan.

Guide

The Site of Meitetsu Mino Station (Former Minoeki Station)
When to visit: 9am-4.30pm, Wednesday to Monday
How to get there: Starting from JR Nagoya Station, take the JR Tokaido Line train to Gifu Station. Transfer to the JR Takayama Line train and get off at Mino-Ota Station. Then change to Nagaragawa Railway at Mino-Ota Station and ride until Minoshi Station. I took this route (around two hours) because it was cheaper to travel with slower trains, but if you have the JR Rail Pass, you can take the Limited Express Hide train straight from Nagoya Station to Mino-Ota Station and cut down travel time.

From Minoshi Station to the Former Minoeki Station, walk for about five minutes.

Udatsu Wall Historical District (Mino Washi Akari Art Festival)
When to visit: Always accessible, but traditional houses and shops are mostly open from 9am to 4pm or 5pm. For readers who want to visit during the Mino Washi Akari Art Festival in October, please check the dates for each year at the festival official website.
How to get there: Walk for about 15 minutes from the Site of Meitetsu Mino Station.

Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery
When to visit: Please check the seasonal hours on the official website of Mino.
How to get there: Walk for a couple of minutes from Udatsu Wall Historical District.
Entrance fee: 200 yen, but there are also combination tickets with other museums in Mino. Find out the details here.

Mino Bridge and Nagaragawa River
When to visit: Always accessible, but I recommend getting back into the town area before dark.
How to get there: Walk for about ten minutes from Mino Washi Akari Art Gallery.

* I am sorry for being even slower with replying and catching up with everyone’s beautiful photos and posts lately. I have been very busy IRL, but I hope I can come back to your posts tomorrow or within a few days from now. Please take care.

This post is also part of the Lens-Artists (week #215: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles… and the Places They Take Us), Sunday Stills (Staycation or Vacation), Flower of the Day (recent challenge), Cee’s Midweek Madness (September Close Up or Macro), Water Water Everywhere (recent challenge), Photographing Public Art Challenge (recent challenge), Thursday Doors (recent challenge), and Which Way (recent challenge) Photo Challenges.

24 thoughts on “Mino, Japan: Railway to the Lights

  1. I just love the first decorated train – a great way to capture our attention to want to read the rest. Without your wonderful description, the cute picture would not have had any meaning, in which case a picture is not worth a thousand words. Your pictures are all fabulous, Gift. I love the picture of the pathway with the trees on the left side. The lights are so beautiful and the town is spotless. I think I could move there in a heartbeat. 🙂

    Like

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