GIFU – the treasure of traditional culture of Japan
Known as the most modern countries in the world, Japan’s cities continue urbanizing and modernizing as years go by. Gifu, a prefecture in central Japan, still embraces the old-style cityscape with rich traditions from centuries ago, and is one of the major destinations as “the original heartland of Japan.”
The prefecture’s location has advantages for transportation and cultural development and the region has been influenced by major cities such as Kyoto, Edo (today’s Tokyo) and other shogunates in the country.
The historic villages of Shirakawa-go
Gifu doesn’t have any coastline but many elevations overland, which produce a great amount of snow in winter. For the heavy precipitation and harsh winter, villages in Shirakwa-go region, the northwestern part of Gifu, developed a unique architecture for local housing known as Gassho style. This architectural style is established upon a very ancient A-frame structure to support the roof. Through several additions and modifications for the harsh wind and heavy snow, the basic structure of the Gassho style came in shape after the 18th century. The houses have very high and steep thatched roof, which creates a large attic space. Then the attic is split into two or three levels for silkworm farming, the region’s major industry. Another characteristic of the Gassho style is the very steep roof and the gigantic rafters for support. They use particularly flexible woods for the rafters to make the high room windproof, and there is no metal nail used in the house. In addition, the houses are facing south or north to minimize the wind pressure to the roof and to maximize the sun light so that the roof keeps the house cool in summer and warm in winter.
With all these unique characteristics developed and engineered for the regional nature and the climate as well as the high-quality preservation of the traditional lifestyle among Japan’s increasing modernization, UNESCO inscribed the entire Shirakawa-go region on the World Cultural Heritage Site in 1995. Today, Shirakawa-go showcases the historic Gassho-style houses and there are cultural workshops for tourists that show the interior of the house as well as handcrafts such as straw sandal making.
Ukai – Cormorant Fishing
Cormorant fishing may sound very bizarre, but noblemen in England and France enjoyed this as a sport in the late 16th to the early 17th century. In Gifu, this unique fishing method has been conducted for 1300 years on the Nagara River and remains today.
Ukai fishing, translated as taming cormorant (for fishing), uses cormorants with a rope around the neck: cormorants catch and swallow sweetfish (a family of smelt) from the water, but the fishermen catch larger fish that don’t get swallowed through the roped neck. Ukai fishing methods keep the fish very fresh because cormorants never damage the fish when they try to swallow them, and the fish instantly get passed out. Fishermen row the boat and attract sweetfish with a torch on the bow, and release the cormorants to catch them. To attract the fish most efficiently with the torch, they don’t fish under the full moon.
During its long history, this fishing tradition had both good and bad eras: sweetfish caught in ukai fishing was very popular particularly among the Imperial family and received strong support and protection from them. However, it once became endangered at the end of the samurai era around 1868 when they lost the support because of the major government system change from the Meiji Restoration. In 1891, the Imperial family support came back and since then, ukai fishing tradition is still conducted at three imperial fishing area of the Nagara River today.
Today ukai is more for tourist attractions and cultural preservation than a profession. However the ukai fishing is preserved in hereditary system, and the fishermen keep original tools and traditional costumes, which adds more authentic and nostalgic atmosphere to visitors who sail out on the boat to observe the fishing. The Nagara River bank is lively with many tourists who are amazed by magical views of fishing with torches in the dusk, and amicable ukai fishermen exchange friendly conversation with anybody during the fishing season that start from May 11 and ends on October 15 every year.
Takayama Festival is one of Japan’s most beautiful festivals with over three centuries of history. The festival is famous for its floats with beauty of traditional crafts and arts. This festival consists of two events: spring festival in April to celebrate the beginning of the warm season and autumn festival in October to prepare for the harsh winter weather. For both events, the tradition of the festival float parade continues since 1718, and each float is magnificently decorated with local crafts, displaying Japan’s exquisite traditional arts and techniques. In particular, traditional mechanical dolls on the float are must-see crafts, and their movement is so detailed and sophisticated that the doll performances look just like real traditional play at a theatre.
Other than the festival floats, portable shrine called mikoshi is carried down the street, which is a tradition in Shinto festivals in general. Mikoshi is considered to house a Shinto god, and the entire community receives the blessing from it through the mikoshi parade during the festival.
In both seasons, the highlight of the lavish festival is in the evening of the first day: All the ornaments are lit up on the festival floats and when they parade down the streets in the dusk, Takayama’s old district appears as magical as a fantasy world.
MORE HIDDEN TREASURES IN GIFU
Swords are something strongly connected to the Japanese culture and that cultivated global reputation on the Japanese cutlery, and the city of Seki has been the epicenter of high-caliber swords smiths over centuries. Seki’s swords smiths traveled all over the country and brought the best iron, water and clay for the ultimate swords. Since then, swords from Seki were highly reputed in the country, then in the world.
With approximately 780 years of history, the City of Seki produces one of the world’s best knives along with the German knife brand Zwilling J.A. Henckels from Solingen City. As the time passed and the demand for swords declined, some swords smiths switched their product to cooking knives, sickles and farming tools. When the government banned sword-making in 1877 due to the total change on the constitution from the Meiji Restoration, almost all the swords smiths and knife smiths were forced to switch to household knife product manufacturing as well as some Western style cutleries such as pocket knives and fruit knives. Still, their superior quality of materials and production techniques remain today and are well-applied to all the products that consequently raise the highest reputation in the world. The 40% of Seki’s products is exported to outside of Japan.
The unique history of Seki’s cutlery industry is exhibited at Seki Sword Tradition Museum with the city’s long history of cutlery manufacturing including development of the techniques, old tools and sword smiths’ demonstrations.
Japan’s “Mr. Schindler”
Along with Osker Schindler’s great humanitarian rescue of Jews from the Holocaust during the Second World War, there was a brave Japanese from Gifu who saved over 6,000 of Jews. Serving as the Japanese ambassador to Lithuania, Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara issued about 6,000 transit visas to Japan to Jewish refugees against the Japanese government’s policy for the alliance with Germany. After his retirement, he became the first Japanese who received the Yad Vashem Prize for the Martyrs and Heroes in 1977. In his hometown Yaotsu in Gifu, the cozy wooden house displays his dynamic life and humanitarian work.
Located in central Japan, Gifu is where major passages crisscross. Magome is one of the station towns of Nakasendo Passage and there are many accommodations for travelers and the town is still full of traditional hospitality for travelers. Streets wind through lanes of old houses, ryokans, cafés, regional cuisine restaurants and souvenir stores that reappear the original Japanese town. Magome is one of the few places in the country that recaptures nostalgic traditional scenes.
— Nori Akashi : Public Relations Manager at the New York Office of JNTO
*All photos provided by Gifu City