If you’re active at all on social media, chances are high that you’ve seen photos of the northern parts of Gifu Prefecture somewhere before. From the ever-picturesque hamlet of Shirakawago to the historic town of Hida-Takayama, this part of Japan really needs no introduction. In fact, if anything, these locales are already inundated with an overwhelming number of visitors and really need no more attention. Alas, as well as the northern sections of the prefecture have done in recent years, Gifu City and the other lower parts are still a largely undiscovered treasure trove of hidden gems.
In the following sections, we’ll get into the weeds on each of the various allures in Gifu’s capital city as well as the surrounding areas. For now though, allow me to say that this part of the prefecture has an extremely wide selection of attractions. Here, you’ll find something for the history buffs, the foodies and the outdoor enthusiasts. In all honesty, I am really not sure if there is anything that can’t be found in the southern portions of Gifu. Whether you’re a hands on type or you prefer to just stand back and take it all in, this lower section of the prefecture is sure to deliver.
Next time you’re in Gifu for Hida-Takayama or Shirakawago, consider budgeting an extra day or so to enjoy this yet-to-be-discovered portion of the prefecture. As you’ll see in the upcoming section, Gifu City and its neighboring allures are a logistically easy add-on to most standard interaries. As such, this part of Japan is easy to explore both for those traveling through Nagoya as well as those heading down from Hida-Takayama or Shirakawago up north. Whether as a mere half-day add-on or as a multi-day stint, Gifu City is sure to provide a memorable experience for all.
How to Get There
As alluded to, Gifu City is really easy to get to. How one actually reaches Gifu Station though will be largely based on where he or she is coming from. For example, those coming from Nagoya just need to hop on JR’s Tokaido Line and they’ll be there in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, those starting in a place like Hida-Takayama will likely need to make use of a limited express train. In either case, just let a service like Jorudan do all of the hard work of calculating the connections for you.
Once you’ve arrived at Gifu Station, you’ll need to get yourself from this central transportation hub over to where the main cluster of attractions is located. Unless you’re an idiot like me who appreciates long walks, this will require that you make use of the buses. Luckily though, a large number of the buses in Gifu City pass by the main tourism spot. To figure out which bus you should take, I suggest plugging in Gifu Castle and letting good old Google figure out the rest.
Here, I want to take a second to also introduce the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass. With this in hand, you’ll be able to ride all of the JR trains that travel throughout the area. While you can’t use it on the buses in Gifu City, the 15,280-yen pass is still a real steal and will greatly reduce the overall cost-of-travel. You can read more about what is and isn’t covered on the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass on the official website but it’s amazing how many train and bus routes are included.
In my case, I started up in Nagoya and worked my way up through Gokayama and Shirakawago to Toyama Prefecture. All in all, it was quite the adventure and it’s hard to believe just how much money I saved by making use of the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass. Normally, these are only reserved for overseas visa holders but the timing of my trip was still during the pandemic, meaning that many passes were available to foreign residents of Japan.
Gifu Castle & Oda Nobunaga
Let’s now dive on into why one would want to visit Gifu City and the surrounding areas. First and foremost, my fellow fans of history will want to know that this part of Japan was once the stronghold of the famed warlord Oda Nobunaga. Regularly hailed as one of the three great unifiers of Japan from the end of the warring states period (1467–1603), Oda Nobunaga used this centrally located spot as his seat of power for many years. Even after seizing Kyoto in 1568, present-day Gifu City continued to be a key base for the Oda clan.
Unfortunately, the area that was once Oda Nobunaga’s actual residence has now been turned into the current Gifu Park and no longer houses anything related to the warlord. Instead, you’ll find the Mt. Kinka Ropeway here. While not a the breathtaking palace that Oda Nobunaga once called home, this handy ropeway will take you to the top of Mt. Kinka where the reconstructed keep of Gifu Castle resides. Note that I’ve been told that you can actually hike up if you prefer to sweat.
For starters, I cannot more highly suggest that you check out the Gifu City Museum of History. This facility chronicles the entire legacy of the area from the early midsts of time all the way up until the modern era. Inside the Gifu City Museum of History, you’ll learn all about what it would have been like to live in this part of the country when it was Oda Nobunaga’s local bastion of power. Moreover, they’ve put together some great video content that helps visitors slip back in time to a previous period of Japanese history.
Unfortunately, the area that was once Oda Nobunaga’s actual residence has now been turned into a park and no longer houses anything related to the warlord. Instead, you’ll find the Mt. Kinka Ropeway here. While not a the breathtaking palace that Oda Nobunaga once called home, this handy ropeway will take you to the top of Mt. Kinka where the reconstructed keep of Gifu Castle resides. Note that I’ve been told that you can actually hike up if you prefer to sweat.
When seen from down below, the main keep of Gifu Castle looks tiny and rather unassuming. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to understand why Oda Nobunaga chose this location for his administrative headquarters. Once you get up to the observatory deck of the keep though, you’ll be treated with an amazing vista that will make you understand in an instant. Simply put, though the view of Gifu Castle from the ground may be meh, the view of the ground from Gifu Castle will blow your mind.
Oh, and did I mention that they let people up to the top of Mt. Kinka at night during the summer months too. As you might imagine, the evening view from the castle tower will blow your mind. Definitely consider going up to the top of Mt. Kinka after sunset should you be in Gifu when they are allowing nighttime visits. Trust me when I say the view is EPIC!
By the Nagara River
While much of the former town that surrounded Gifu Castle is gone now, there are a few historical areas that have been well preserved. You’ll find them down by the all-important Nagara River which flows through the heart of the region. Here, during the warmer months of the year, you can observe the tradition of ukai (or cormorant fishing in English). This ancient art form makes use of the medium-to-large birds to catch ayu sweetfish that dwell in the Nagara River. Considered to be one of the famous local specialties, fishing for ayu is just one of those things that you absolutely ought to witness if the timing works out for you.
Technically speaking, you can see ukai in many places in Japan. That said, the best place to experience this classical method of fishing is here on the Nagara River. Historically, the practice was revived and then heavily backed by none other than Oda Nobunaga. Since his reign over Gifu, ukai has been a tradition that has been honored for centuries. Even today, using cormorants to fish for ayu sweetfish is something that is greatly cherished by the locals of Gifu City and a bit of culture that they fight fiercely to protect.
By the way, if you’re thinking that you’ll be the one doing the fishing, know that you’ve got ukai all wrong. Instead, ukai is more of a performance. While there are indeed professional fishermen on the Nagara River that make their living with nets and other such contraptions, the act of catching ayu sweetfish with cormorants is more of a spectacle to be seen than an efficient means of fishing. Spectators typically board boats meant for entertainment and enjoy interacting with a geiko while observing the ukai masters at work.
Generally speaking, the art of ukai is undertaken by a trio of master fishermen. Making use of long wooden boats, these teams of three employ around a dozen or so cormorants who are tethered to the hand of the boatmaster via a leash. The birds will swim along the side of the boat while they wait for an ayu sweetfish to appear. When they find one, they will dive down and try to swallow it whole. This, however, is ultimately prevented by a snare around the cormorant’s neck and the team on the boat can then retrieve the fish from their feathery friends.
Tragically, as was the case during my last visit to Gifu City, ukai outings can often be canceled at the last minute should the weather conditions make going out on the Nagara River dangerous. Still, if you can somehow appease the storm gods and avoid the rains, I cannot more highly suggest you partake in the ukai festivities. While there has been more and more people these days who claim that it is animal cruelty, these misguided individuals fail to realize just how well the fishermen treat their cormorants. In fact, for many, they are just as much a part of the family as a beloved dog or cat might be.
Anyway, though ukai is most certainly the primary draw of the Nagara River, know that this part of Gifu City is also home to a strip called Kawara-machi. Here, you’ll find all sorts of craftsmen as well as some amazing restaurants. Though most visitors to Japan are unaware, Gifu City and the surrounding areas in the prefecture are known as some of the best producers of Japanese umbrellas and lanterns. Should crafts like these tickle your fancy, you definitely ought to check out some shops like this. Here, you can purchase the finest Japanese umbrellas and lanterns that history has produced.
Finally, if you want to have some of the best ayu sweetfish to be had in all of Japan, I highly suggest that you make a reservation at Kawara-machi Izumiya. The head chef here is a fanatic about the fish and has gone to any and all lengths possible to extract the best possible flavors. Despite being the antithesis of a foodie, even I was brought to tears by the tastes that this madman was able to concoct with Gifu City’s iconic ayu sweetfish. Though Kawara-machi Izumiya is indeed a bit on the pricey side, it’s worth every single yen.
Some Gifu City Add-ons
In addition to Gifu Castle and the allures down by the Nagara River, there are a few other attractions within the city that you might also want to check out. For example, there is the great Buddha of Shobo-ji which can be reached on foot in about 20 minutes from the banks of the Nagara River. Should you have more than just an hour or so though, I highly suggest that you also consider some of the following locales in the greater Gifu Prefecture. Seeing as each of these deserves its own blog post, I am going to just provide the CliffNotes version and link out to something a bit longer…
This castle town is famous all across Japan for its unique and oh so festive Obon dance. Known as the Gujo Odori, this annual celebration lasts for many weeks and is considered to be one of the three most important dance festivals in all of Japan. The tradition has over a 400-year history to it and has served as a means of bringing all of the townsfolk of Gujo-Hachiman together. If you ever find yourself in Gifu during the sultry months of summer, definitely consider adding Gujo-Hachiman to your itinerary.
- Seki & Its Swords
First things first, it’s a real shame that fans of the Japanese katana do not know about Sekii. This unassuming part of Gifu was actually home to some of the best bladesmiths in all of Japan. Moreover, given its important location at the center of Japan, Seki was perfectly positioned to distribute its deadly wares. These days, the town still does produce a few swords but their industry has largely shifted towards making professional knives. Should you make a pilgrimage here, be sure to check out the Seki Traditional Swordsmith Museum as well as the newly opened Seki Terrace!
- Traditional Mino
Calling all fans of Japanese pottery (you know who you are)! Gifu’s town of Mino is home to one of Japan’s most respected kilns in all of the country. Moreover, the town produces some of the best washi or Japanese paper that you can find. Should you love Japanese craftsmen as much as I and some of my friends do, you definitely should swing by Mino if you have an extra half a day or so. While I doubt you will, be sure not to miss the photogenic Udatsu Wall Historical District!
Of course, Gifu City also combines nicely with the ever-famous Shirakawago and Hida-Takayama. Given how popular these destinations are though, there’s really no need for me to push them any further. Instead, I’d like to reiterate that just because they’ve recently gained a lot of notoriety overseas doesn’t mean that the lower parts of Gifu Prefecture are any less appealing than their more iconic counterparts up north!
Other Nearby Attraction
Sick of Gifu yet? Well, I hope not because there’s a lot more to do in addition to the already famous destinations of Hida-Takayama and Shirakawago. I’ve detailed thus far some locals that go well with the greater historical narrative that Gifu City represents but there’s so much more to the prefecture than just these. Luckily for you, the reader, I’ve already written about many of these so please refer to the following list of allures for more inspiration.
- Gero Onsen
One of Japan’s Top Three Hot Springs
- The Site of Reversible Destiny
Gifu’s Bizarre Yoro Park
- The Ultimate Kiso Valley Guide
Exploring this Hidden Gem
Lastly, the epic battlefield of Sekigahara is also located not too far away from Gifu City. While I have been there over a decade ago, it’s high time that I get my behind back to Sekigahara and cover the historical turning point for the future Tokugawa shogunate. From what I’ve been told, the recently renewed museum is absolutely to die for.
Until next time travelers…