Gifu Prefecture – Rich with Japanese Traditions
Many symbols of Gifu’s cultural heritage are still present today, including 250-year-old farmhouses and catching fish with aquatic birds!
Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県) comprises of 21 cities and derives its name from its capital, Gifu City (岐阜市). Historically, it has been a significant location for Japan.
Its location in the centre of the country led it to become the site of several decisive battles, including The Battle of Sekigahara (關ヶ原の戰い). This conflict took place between the Eastern and Western Armies of Japan at the start of the 17th century, and resulted in the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate – Japan’s last feudal military government.
Gifu was also known as Japan’s sword-making capital, with Seki City commonly known for creating the country’s finest quality swords. Though there isn’t much need for sword manufacturing these days, two of Gifu Prefecture’s cultural industries are still very much alive: mino-paper production and cormorant fishing. The most acclaimed areas of the prefecture are Gero Onsen (下呂温泉), Shirakawa (白川) and Takayama (高山).
Gero Onsen is often referred to as “The Bath of Beauty” because of its outstanding hot springs. But Takayama (高山) and Shirakawa are recognised for their cultural heritage and traditional farmhouses.
Traditional Crafts of Gifu
Gifu’s traditional industries of 鵜飼 (cormorant fishing) and 美濃和紙 (mino-paper production), both make use of the crystal-clear water available from the River Nagara that flows through half of the prefecture.
In Gifu, cormorant fishing – called ukai (鵜飼) in Japanese – involves catching sweetfish with the use of an aquatic bird known as the Japanese cormorant (うむう). They prefecture first started practising ukai around 1300 years, and it has since become one of the area’s greatest biggest tourist attractions.
Mino-washi was created in Mino City during the Nara Era (8th century). Washi mean Japanese (和) paper (紙), and the craft of its manufacture has been registered as a “UNESCO intangible cultural heritage”. Amongst other things, washi production relies heavily upon cold, pure running water, which makes Mino City’s proximity to the Nagara River invaluable. One way to learn more about Mino-washi is to visit the Mino Washi Akari Art Exhibition which is held for two days every October
Shirakawa Village (白川村)
Shirakawa is a stunning mountain village renowned for its traditional farmhouses known as gassho-zukuri (合掌造り). The area is approximately 95% mountainous forests, and it receives some of the heaviest snowfall in the world. Gassho-zukuri can be distinguished by their steep thatched-roofing and simple structure. Their interiors and exteriors have been developed to withstand harsh precipitation making them perfectly suited to the climate of Shirakawa. Their name was chosen because of the similarity between their roof shape and two hands in prayer; 合掌造り means “clasped-hands style”.
Tourist popularity to the area has increased since it became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005. A common way for visitors to experience the traditional atmosphere of the village now, is to spend a night at one of the farmhouses .
Takayama City (高山市)
As there are other Takayama’s throughout Japan, Gifu’s Takayama is often referred to as Hida-Takayama in reference to the old Hida province of northern Gifu Prefecture. With only 50 km between them, Takayama and Shirakawa have similar climates and geography. Hence, gassho-zukuri can also be found here – namely at an open air museum called Hida Village.
Another cultural attraction that puts Takayama on the map is the Takayama Matsuri (高山祭). This festival occurs twice annually – in spring and autumn – and is dedicated to the Hie Shrine and Hachiman shrine respectively.
Gero Onsen (下呂温泉)
Gero Onsen lies in the Hidagawa River Valley within 100km of both Gifu City and Nagoya. Gero means lower (下) bath (呂) and it rated as one of Japan’s top three hot spring resorts. The numerous ryokans, footbaths and public baths throughout the area draw in over one million visitors annually.
What makes Gero Onsen so special is its water quality and type – you see, not all onsen were created equal. There are various hot spring types around Japan, each with their own water type, properties and benefits. Gero Onsen’s water is held in high-esteem because it is of the “simple alkaline” variety. This water type is said to help exfoliate the skin, boost metabolism and remove spots. This has earnt Gero Onsen the title “美人のゆ” which means “Onsen of Beautiful Ladies”, but it is of course available for men too!
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