The best souvenirs are the ones you make yourself! Take home some tasty tempura and traditional Japanese paper from Gujo Hachiman and Mino.
Gujo Hachiman, a small town in the mountains of Gifu, draws many visitors with its charmingly retro streets, picturesque castle, and lively summer dancing. However, it has another claim to fame, as the birthplace of the amazingly realistic plastic food displayed outside restaurants throughout the country!
Create Some Unique Foodie Souvenirs
It's hard to believe these tasty box lunches are not edible! -- Photo by Emma Parker
Sample Village Iwasaki, a short walk from the historic centre, you can not only see and purchase replicas of everything from bento
boxes to spaghetti but also try making the fake food for yourself. The “menu” varies each day, but the standard items are tempura
and ice-cream sundaes. The latter look very tempting but are rather expensive, so I decided to make three pieces of tempura with lettuce, for 1,200 yen.
Today's "menu" at Sample Village Iwasaki -- Photo from Emma Parker
In theory, prior booking is necessary, but in fact, you can often book on the spot. You will not usually need to wait much longer than 15 minutes. However, avoid first thing in the morning or after lunch, when the tour groups tend to arrive. While waiting, you can browse the tempting treats on sale at the rear of the building, and maybe pick up a gyoza magnet or an edamame key ring.
This looks like a kitchen, but it's actually a plastic model workshop -- Photo by Emma Parker
Nowadays, samples are usually made of silicon, but you will make yours with wax, the method developed in 1932 by Ryuzaburo Iwasaki. If you are making tempura, you need to choose your three “ingredients” beforehand from a delicious-looking range of vegetables and shrimp.
Choosing my ingredients -- Emma Parker
The staff member in charge will first demonstrate how it’s done. Basically, coloured wax is poured onto the surface of cold water and then moulded into the appropriate shapes. The staff do not speak much English, but there are detailed illustrations on the website
, and if you watch them carefully, you can figure it out.
This tempura makes you wanna take a bite out of it -- Photo by Emma Parker
The whole process only takes about 15 minutes, after which you will be able to take your culinary creation home!
My finished tempura and lettuce -- Photo by Emma Parker
A very different hands-on experience awaits in Mino, an hour from Gujo Hachiman on the scenic Nagaragawa railway line or 30 minutes by car. Now a sleepy country town, the historic centre displays evidence of a livelier and more prosperous past. The rows of elegant wooden townhouses with their distinctive udatsu tile barriers on the roofs once belonged to paper merchants and associated tradesmen.
Udatsu are elaborate tiled gables separating terraced houses, originally serving as fire breaks
paper has been made in Mino since the sixth century, making use of the area’s pure water, and is used even today for important documents because it is much more durable than regular paper. Another use is for paper lanterns, and the annual Lighting Festival gathers together unique lanterns created by artists from across Japan and beyond. Many of these creations are on display at the
Mino Paper Lighting Art Hall in the centre of town, while you can watch craftsmen making traditional round paper lanterns at
Rantanya, a fascinating small shop on the main street.
Making a paper lantern the traditional way -- Photo by Emma Parker
If your time is limited and you want to make a cute souvenir out of colourful printed paper, head to
Ishikawa Paper Goods, just along the street. At the back of the shop is an area where you can make small ornaments, such as a frog, penguin, or friendly ogre. If you simply use the kit provided, you can complete it in less than 10 minutes. However, you can decide to be more creative, using the extra paper and tools which are on hand.
My one-of-a-kind carp! -- Photo by Emma Parker
If you want to try making washi
paper itself, you will need to head out to the
Mino Washi Paper Museum, located in a quiet river valley about 15 minutes’ drive from the historic centre (there are buses, but they are not frequent - enquire about the schedule beforehand). Here, you can make either one large sheet of paper or a set of six postcards by scooping up watery pulp with a bamboo and wood sieve and shaking it back and forth. After making the paper, you can add maple leaves if you wish, and also create a criss-cross pattern by placing a net over the paper and then spraying it with a hose.
The pulp of Mino paper is shaken in two different directions, enmeshing the fibres
more firmly together -- Photo by Emma Parker
Once you have made your paper, it will be dried on a copper boiler so that you can take it home. While you wait, you can look around the rest of the museum. The top floor has a good overview of the manufacturing of Japanese paper, with English-language captions, models, and paper from different regions which you can touch. The middle floor houses a temporary exhibition space, while there is a table at which you are free to make origami next to the extensive museum shop on the ground floor.
A paper statue of the shogun Oda Nobunaga presides over the entrance hall -- Photo by Emma Parker
The paper-making experience costs 500 yen in addition to the museum entrance fee. Reservations are not required, though staff suggest that you email in advance if you do not speak Japanese, in order to ensure smooth communication. Staff in the workshop do not necessarily speak English, but they have a good leaflet, and you can watch them and copy their gestures.
My helpful instructor with my finished sheet of paper -- Photo by Emma Parker
Plastic food and washi paper - two very different, yet equally typical, Japanese crafts. Making them is a fun, all-weather experience for visitors of every age, which will leave you with both memories and concrete souvenirs. And as a bonus, you get to enjoy the green mountains and clear water of Gujo and Mino. So head over to Gifu and get creative!
Paper lanterns made by the experts at the Mino Paper Lighting Art Hall -- Photo by Emma Parker
Gujo and Mino can both be reached by train from Nagoya (about 1 hour 45 minutes to Mino-shi and a further 45 minutes to Gujo Hachiman, changing in Tajimi and again in Mino-Ota). The final segment of the journey is on the picturesque Nagaragawa Tetsudo private line. If you are driving, you can also enjoy visits to Hida-Takayama and Shirakawago.
Want to read more about Japan's craftsmanship?
Read more about Japan's craftsmanship!