by Greg Beck
Shoryudo, meaning “Rising Dragon Region”, is Japan’s name for its Central Region, designed to grab your attention, because who doesn’t love dragons? Consisting of nine prefectures, there are many routes you can take. One of these, the “Dragon Course” shoots north from Aichi’s Nagoya, through Gifu, and into the “dragon’s head”: the Noto Peninsula of Ishikawa. The route promises and delivers fascinating traditions and awe inspiring natural beauty. Having just completed the trip, I feel the need to add food, sake, and natural hot springs to that list!
Uncovering Ancient Traditions
Spending a great day-one in Nagoya, after visiting Nagoya Castle and a lavish recreated Tokugawa Residence, in Japan’s third-largest city, I dove right into Gifu Prefecture to explore places essentially unknown by Americans. First on that list: Gujo City. Tucked away in the mountains, Gujo is a small castle town, most famous for their river – one of the tastiest sources of water in Japan, as well as Japanese cinnamon, and Aizome, indigo-dyed products. Culturally, they are known for a summer-long, traditional, dance festival, consisting of 30 days of various, lively dances. Four of those days, during their August Obon-holiday, literally go all night long. While wandering the halls of my ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) that night, I was even pulled into another group’s practice dance session, so saying these people love dancing is no joke! From the charming cobblestone streets I admired Gujo Castle and the beautiful river, lined with fishermen stretching out of sight, downstream. At Sample-Kobo (meaning Workshop), I also had fun making some of those artificial food models you find in Japanese restaurant display cases, and they even survived the trip home to become souvenirs for friends.
Next, I stopped at one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, Shirakawago. The Gassho-style thatched roof cottages, traditions, and in many ways life in this village, has been largely unchanged since it was established 1000 years ago! This was actually my third time visiting, but each time, I enjoyed the scenery in a different season. There were a few firsts for me, like eating doburoku-flavored ice cream (doburoku is a strong, sweet, sake made locally), and taking in the entire village from the Ogimachi Castle Observation Deck. I equally looked forward to returning to Irori, a small restaurant serving memorably delicious set-meals, and touring inside of one of a few traditional homes, made open to the public.
Amazing cities steeped in culture and beauty, including the cottages of Shirakawago, dances of Gujo, and sake breweries of Hida, await your visit on Gifu’s leg of the Dragon Course.
A good base to visit these places is Takayama City, for its central location in Gifu, access to public transportation, and the city’s own museums, Old Town Sanmachi – a shopping street selling samples of premium Hida Beef (similar quality to Kobe Beef), snacks, clothing, and several sake breweries. Be careful not to enjoy too much, or you might miss out on the excellent Miyagawa Morning Market, held nearby. In my case, a rainy day spoiled plans to tour the neighboring Hida City by bicycle. Instead, I bussed around Hida, visiting locations that were used in last year’s smash anime film, “Your Name”, and using my camera to recreate scenes at the library, Buddhist temple steps, and train station. You don’t need to see the film to enjoy Hida’s own amazing restaurants and sake breweries, such as the Watanabe Sake Brewery, famous for their Hourai brand of sake, among other tasty labels they produce.
Climbing Higher into Paradise
From Hida, I jumped up to the mouth of this Dragon Course, to the city of Nanao, on the inland bay of Ishikawa Prefecture’s Noto Peninsula. Famous for their Wakura hot spring town. I stayed at a luxury hotel with bayside views, called Ae-no-Kaze, where I was pampered and served a seven-course meal while watching live, dinner theater performed in the round, including several traditional, local arts, such as their intimidating style of taiko drumming. You will pay a premium to stay there, but it is worth the experience, at least once. Heading to historic Ipponsugi District, I visited the Hanayome-Noren (meaning “bridal-curtain”) Museum, to learn about the region’s unique culture of making exquisite door-hangings for brides to pass through before joining their groom’s family. They also featured an exhibit on Dekayama – 20-ton parade floats used in their annual festival, assembled and pushed through the city, entirely by hand, without any machines or metal, including nails or motors! The exhibit had a 360-degree Virtual Reality video that was truly immersive! Before leaving Nanao, I visited shops, like the Kitajima-ya Tea House, Torii Shoyu-ten – the world’s smallest soy sauce manufacturer, where third-generation owner Mrs. Torii makes small-batch soy sauce entirely by hand, and toured the Noto Shokusai Fisherman’s Wharf, going on a “Sea Bird” Bay cruise, feeding sea gulls, drinking local craft beer, and eating some truly amazing sushi! Like Gujo, in Gifu Prefecture, Nanao City is truly a magical destination, hidden in plain sight.
(Clockwise from top-center) Ishikawa’s Nanao City offers a rare window into the private tradition of bridal curtains; a Kanazawa gold shop worker deftly cuts out hundreds of delicate leaflets; the Noto Peninsula offers incredibly fresh and delicious sashimi; The ancient and tranquil Houshi Ryokan in Komatsu.
Just like Gifu’s Takayama, the already well-known Kanazawa is a great central point for exploring Ishikawa Prefecture’s surrounding cities, and has a strong tourism infrastructure. The Nomura-ke samurai household, for example, was teeming with tourists, but for good reason: the guest house, relocated to the same family’s 400 year-old garden, could not be more authentic, including Nomura’s historic samurai armor, a tea ceremony room, and Buddhist altar. There is also Sakuda Gold and Silver Leaf Company, in the traditional Geisha tea house district called Higashi Chaya, where you can peer inside the press room, to witness pure gold being carefully pounded thinner and thinner into leaf, and Kenroku-en, a Central Park-like massive Japanese garden with endless corners to explore.
Heading to Komatsu City, I spent my final night staying at Houshi Ryokan, literally the second oldest hotel in the world (less than 20 years younger than the first, also in Japan). Once again, I ate the finest multi-course dinner, prepared with local, seasonal ingredients, relaxed in the baths of their all-natural hot springs discovered by the hotel’s founder, a Buddhist monk named Houshi, and walked through their carefully maintained 1300 year-old garden and koi ponds. In addition to the warm and aesthetic atmosphere, there is a special, intangible feeling from being somewhere so historic, and speaking to the 46th and 47th generation owners of the family business, and other employees who have also worked there all their lives.
The trip to Komatsu Airport and back to Tokyo for me was quick, but you could just as easily linger, or tour your way back by train. Shoryudo’s Dragon Course left me feeling relaxed, revitalized, and extremely lucky to have experienced so many wonderful new sights, and reverential when reflecting on how many hundreds of years most of what I saw has existed, through the hard work and respect of the people I met, and their families before them.
Greg Beck: writer, journalist, and home brewer. University of Arizona graduate, unrepentant host to the travel bug. @CIRBECK