One of the best things about moving to Japan and somehow slipping into a job that requires me to travel around the country is not just going to visit new places, but really getting to experience them as a tourist while capturing spots for our website. Not only are we building our content through our community of contributors but we’re also discovering spots first hand, adding to the local and authentic experience.
Gifu City View – Photo by Kuv Ahmad
I had not heard of Gifu Prefecture until I was introduced to the youngest mayor in Japan, Hiroto Fujii. We chatted for some time about his area, Minokamo City. His enthusiasm for welcoming visitors was contagious. So off I went on a mission to capture spots for Odigo, travelling as a non-Japanese speaking person to see how easy (or not) it is, and picking at random a couple of places to visit on my way to Minokamo City.
I spent three days in Gifu Prefecture earlier this year during spring. Here are the highlights from my trip.
When I stepped off the train into the station the first thing I saw was a ‘Welcome to Gifu’ sign greeting me in about eight different languages. The mayor wasn’t wrong when he said that they were making an effort to welcome people from around the world. Gifu City is fairly small but that makes it really easy to get around from spot to spot. With the help of a map I picked up at the tourist centre in the station, I was easily able to head to Gifu Park and ride on the cable car up to Gifu Castle. The whole area was beautiful, peaceful and the views from the top near the castle were breathtaking. Spring was in the air and my first few hours in Gifu felt pretty good. You can spend a whole day at Gifu Park; there are museums, and other nooks and crannies for you to wander around. However, what really piqued my interest was a little bit further down the road — The Big Buddha of Gifu. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but I really enjoy visiting slightly dark and ‘scary’ places. This one had everything set for a scary movie: old torii (gates) that looked like they needed to be painted and polished, and inside where the Big Buddha sits, row upon row of scary ghost-like Buddha statues. I was suitably freaked out.
Old Torii Gates Leading to the Big Buddha of Gifu – Photo by Kuv Ahmad
'I LOVE TAKAYAMA' is the text message I sent my colleague when asked how my trip was going. What can I say about this place... I was completely astounded by the level of tourist-friendly signs everywhere; it made me wonder why other towns and cities aren’t following their lead. Coupled with the fact that I spent nearly two hours gaping out of the window on the train at some of the most beautiful scenery, I knew it was going to be a great day. To get to Takayama you must ride on the Wide View Hida train. By 'wide view' I assume they mean that the train has big windows for you to enjoy the passing scenery (and if there's four of you in a group you can swivel the seats around!). I would highly recommend this to anyone planning a trip to Japan: Spend a few extra days somewhere outside of the big cities and you'll be pleasantly surprised, it's not as hard as you might think (as I always thought).
Takayama itself is filled with well-preserved old buildings that house many different types of shops, arts & crafts, clothes & jewellery, traditional Japanese sweets & sake, cafes, and galleries. Start your day off by visiting Blue Penguin Bakers for some savoury treats and sweet cream cakes, then stroll through the streets of the old town, along the colourful bridges and amongst the cherry blossoms if you're there in spring. I was in my element with the great weather and meeting lots of friendly locals! Although I didn't go this time, Takayama is most famous for the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakawa-go with its thatched roof houses. It would be great to spend the night here, particularly in the place that one of our contributors Joey wrote about (you can read his spot tip in the previous link).
Red Bridge and Cherry Blossoms in Takayama – Photo by Kuv Ahmad
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived early morning at Mino-ota train station. I had told Fujii-san that I was coming but I wasn’t quite prepared to be greeted by a welcoming party! My hosts were incredibly hospitable and I couldn’t have been more grateful to them for the brilliant day I had. What really struck me was the passion they all had for the city and different reasons as to why it is special to them. We toured around by car so that I could get a sense of the area. We even went to a secret location that's not for tourists so I can’t tell you about it! All I can say is that it is a hidden temple...
Minokamo is famous for persimmons, grown in the fields nearby and sold fresh, dried, and used in local dishes. At lunch we ate rice mixed with locally produced grains — the tastiest rice I've eaten in Japan by far! Wherever we went Fujii-San was warmly greeted by the locals, whether they were school teachers, elderly passers-by, or patrons of the local restaurants we visited. When I was in Gifu City I even met people who were excited that I was going to meet him, singing his praises for the genuine interest, care and time he takes in promoting the area.
I particularly enjoyed the Heisei Memorial Park where they have re-created country life during the Showa era. There are several houses dotted around the park where you can take part in activities such as cooking and eating your own sembei (Japanese rice crackers). There are so many parts to my trip that I enjoyed, a visit to the Monteur factory for one. Monteur is a popular Japanese bakery brand, specialising in creamy, spongy desserts. The factory floor had mountains of cream, butter and milk on display that made me want to jump right in and make a fluffy, cloudy mess. Not sure that would've go down too well... I haven't visited many food factories, so I was pretty impressed with the specialised, clockwork nature of the operation. The best part was, of course, trying the free samples at the end... I'm salivating just thinking about it all!
Entrance to Minokamo City Temple – Photo by Kuv Ahmad
With Hiroto Fujii, the youngest mayor in Japan, and the great team from City Hall. Margaux Flores on the right was one of my guides for the day. She's awesome. – Photo by Kuv Ahmad
I'm a fair weather traveller, so I will admit that good weather (read: dry - I'm from Scotland, "not raining" means good weather) really makes a difference to me when I visit new places. Gifu is great. I would highly recommend you take a few days out to visit. Youngest mayor of Japan, Fujii-San, was clear and passionate in his explanation of their strategy to promote the city, and I also think it fits in quite well with Odigo Travel's mission. As he said to me, “Remember, not only Tokyo”.