A Bend in the River

“What I was in fact approaching was a town of a kind I’d dreamed of finding when I’d first arrived in Japan almost twenty years before, a town so extraordinary that, when I went out to stroll around it that evening, I almost forgot to limp.”
“Looking for the Lost,” Alan Booth

Perhaps it is the gurgling brooks that feed the town, the colorful window boxes, or the native 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. A crispness in the eye, a spring to their step, there is something in the air, which writer and long-distance walker Booth was quick to sense.
The little two-carriage train from Gifu to Gujo, a town of just 18,000 people, reduces speed as soon as it reaches 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, pebble-strewn river, alive with ayu (sweetfish) and satsuki masu, a type of trout unique to these waters.
Gujo sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Nagara and the Yoshino, in a valley that was once a way station on an important trade route that led to the Sea of Japan. An imposing fortress once stood here. Built as a symbol of the town’s former importance, the current castle, dating from 1934, replaced the original. It’s a stiff walk to the pinnacle, but the views from the top are commanding. This is the best place to appreciate the shape of the town, which, as all the local travel information will tell you, resembles that of a fish. Alan Booth thought the town looked like “an Edo-era stage set,” and so it does at times.
The area at the bottom of the hill was reserved for the samurai and feudal lords. Most of the district burnt down a century ago, but other quarters have fared better, particularly the Hashimoto-cho merchant area, which remains the commercial heart of the town. Look behind the modern facades here and you will see buildings, which, in some cases, have stood there for centuries.The physical fabric of the town is as appealing as the setting, consisting of dark, stained wood homes and shops, white plastered buildings, wooden bridges, steep walls made from boulders, and narrow stone-paved lanes. Museums, galleries and attractive shops selling local products like Tsumugi textiles can be found along these lanes.
If fish and running water are the ever-present themes of this town, the latter is also a source in the summer months, of entertainment. A contest is held each July in which young men, and these days also women, jump from a 7m high bridge into the deep, fast flowing waters of the Nagara River. The diving in fact, goes on unofficially throughout the summer. It’s a hair-raising plunge, one well worth watching. The youngsters who enjoy the thrill, like the good water sprites they are, appear to sense no danger.
Perhaps it has become a kind of right of passage, a test of courage, to take the plunge into the cold, purifying currents of the river. Those who dare to do this and those who bear witness, are manufacturing future memories.
Raised above the river like a gnat on the Ganges, a sunken stone basin proclaims that you have reached Sogisui, a natural spring. Although the English translation written on a marker reads “The Fountain of Youth,” a closer rendering would be “water of the local god.” More in keeping with Japan’s syncretic Shinto belief in the divinity of natural elements in the environment, an invitation to drink deeply of these waters is an invocation to good health and longevity.
If the town is known at all, it is for the extraordinary, month-long Gujo Odori, or “Gujo Dance.” Held at the height of O-Bon, the summer Festival of the Dead, in which the spirits of the departed are said to return, the entire town seems to erupt in a fever of all-night dancing.
There is something fresh and spontaneous about the dance, which contrasts with the usual well-rehearsed summer events where participants must register with a group or belong to an association.

“You don’t have to belong to anything here,” one elderly resident told me: “You can join in and drop out when they like.” This “anything goes” attitude is reflected in the relaxed attire worn for the event. Although locals favor the light summer kimonos called yukata, there is no dress code for the dance.
The dancers within the inner of the two circles that revolve around bamboo and wood stages replete with choruses, drummers and singers, are the ones to watch, as they are likely to be locals who have been dancing here since they were knee-high. Whether intentionally egalitarian or not, the dance began when Gujo’s feudal lord instituted the event as entertainment for his subjects. As the dances were open to all and sundry, social barriers temporarily melted as farmers danced beside samurai.
Despite the manifold attractions of Gujo, it is inevitably water, the leitmotif of this town, that the visitor returns to. Locals have thoughtfully placed glasses on the springs that dot the town so that visitors can slake their thirst. In this aquatic setting, vegetables and fruit are washed in culverts that are cool with rushing water even in the height of summer, while moss covered waterwheels churn laconically above streams in scenes not unlike those in Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams.

TRAVEL DATA

The mountain fastnesses of Gujo are best reached by bus from Gifu. The Kosoku Gifu Line and the Shiro Tori line both take around one hour and ten minutes. By train, take the JR line to Mino Ota, then change to the Nagaragawa line, a nice route but longish. The tourist information office is located in the handsome, Meiji era Western style building in the center of town. If the walk up to the castle in the summer is too hot, taxis run to the top. Bizen-ya Ryokan (0575-67-007), is the town’s the oldest traditional inn, and has an attractive garden and pond. Nakashimaya (0575-65-2191) is another traditional inn serving excellent food. The set of local dishes served for dinner at Hanamura, a restaurant close to Nakashimaya, is excellent value.
If you stay at Bizen-ya Ryokan during the winter, you can sample boar nabe stew. Tanizawa, near the bus terminal, has a terrific selection of local crafts, including the famous Tsumugi textiles. Wa and Bi, near the post office, has a good all around assortment of gift items. The Gujo Odori runs almost every night from mid-Jult until early September, warming up at about 8pm and finishing around 11.

Story & photos by Stephen Mansfield
From J SELECT Magazine, May 2008