After staying in Tokyo for ten days, the time had come to visit Gujo-Hachiman, a pretty historic small town of around 17,000 people located in the mountainous spine of Honshu island, north of Nagoya. We were fortunate to have been invited to stay with our companion’s friends.
The journey began at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, used by an average of 3.5 million passengers daily. With typical Japanese efficiency, the train ticket specified the exact spot on the platform to wait, requiring just a few steps to reach our seats through the carriage doors that opened right in front of us.
We took the Shinkansen, Japan’s bullet train, for the first part of the journey to Nagoya, about 520 kilometres and a couple of hours away. A regional train then took us north into the hinterland, to catch the final leg of the journey in a single carriage that slowly ascended the narrow valley to Gujo-Hachiman. This last trip was the highlight of the train journeys of the day.
In the Shinkansen the country-side speeds by in a blur, at speeds of up to 320 kph – there goes Mount Fuji – while the local train to Gujo-Hachiman allows passengers to savour the views at a leisurely pace.
Gujo-Hachiman is a castle town, and sits in a narrow valley straddling the picturesque Yoshida River which is renowned for having some of Japan’s purest water. Traditional wooden buildings and narrow lanes from earlier centuries abound in the old town centre and are flanked by more modern apartments and homes. A deep sense of history pervades the town. The castle dates back to the 1590s, although reconstructed in the 1930s. Whenever you glance up , it is always there, perched on a hill-top overlooking the town, and floodlit at night.
Water is central to Gujo-Hachiman. Numerous streams and waterfalls descend from the hills in untamed forms, or tamed by stone canals that provide water for drinking, through using a bamboo ladle that sits in a small stone pool awaiting a thirsty passer-by. Stone fish traps are channelled off the river, although today they’re used more for leisurely fish feeding than their original purpose of providing food.
Gujo-Hachiman hosts a renowned month-long summer folk dancing festival, the Gujo Odori, which began in the 1590s, where dancing takes place all night long. It also celebrates the river, illustrated by young men diving from the town’s bridges in the warmer months. For us, the town offered superb walks through the old streets and lanes, along the river, visiting Shinto temples, the castle, the hills and forests, as well as workshops and galleries of artists who reside in this neighbourhood. Our April visit coincided with cherry blossom time, and the steeply forested hills were peppered with flowers of cherries and other trees,
My companions and I stayed with friends whose riverside house offered the soothing sounds of the river flowing over the weir. Sleeping in a tatami room, a traditional style room with mats on the floor upon which roll up bedding is placed, and partitioned off by sliding paper screens, was very relaxing, aided by the calming sounds of flowing water below. We also enjoyed assisting Yuka in her English classes in the evening, both with young teenagers and an adult conversation group, as our hosts ran a small private school.
Although sceptically inclined, I recall Gujo-Hachiman by the mysterious events experienced one evening when we three Aussies went out for an enjoyable dinner in the old part of town. On our walk back through the centre of town to our hosts’ home, we came upon a large black rock engraved with Japanese characters, glistening with water from another small waterfall trickling down from the hills. We heard odd noises, like the voices of children, all sounding quite unsettled, softly wailing, keening or lamenting. We walked around to the rear of the rock, but could see no electronic contrivances, no source, no explanation for the apparently human sounds.
We described our experience to our hosts who are very modern, highly educated and rational people. They said that they hadn’t heard of such a thing, but did describe how the rock was a memorial to the victims of the devastating fire of 1652 that destroyed much of the town’s wooden buildings, killing many people. This was the first we visitors had heard of the fire, even though we had noticed red metal buckets hanging from the front of buildings throughout the town. We left the topic there as an interesting and unresolved mystery.
This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter G.