Gujo(郡上)

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Gujo has been my home away from home here in Japan for the last 6 years.  And over those past 6 years I have always wanted to write about my experiences here and share them with everyone, but never really had a channel to do so.  So I would like to start by giving a brief introduction to Gujo City.  This city follows one of the cleanest and most famous rivers in Japan!  This river is called Nagara River and is the lifeblood of this city.  This city is more like a bunch of little towns congregated into the valleys following the Nagara River.  Gujo has an extensive history and traditional culture that ultimately stems from its many rich natural resources.
Gujo dates back to the dinosaurs they say, but really got started when a Buddhist monk named Taicho climbed Mt Hakusan in 717.  Apparently, God spoke to him and he had an epiphany and since then there have been pilgrimages and the Hakusan religion centered in my area ever since.  However, Gujo really took off in 1559 when the Hachiman castle was built by Endo Morikazu.  This period of time was very volatile plagued with constant military conflict for Japan and was called the Warring States period(戦国時代,Sengoku jidai ).  A castle town meant security for citizens to carry on with their daily life!  Today, Gujo is a city made up of 7 little towns with a total population of 42,000 people most of them above 60.  Due to elder population this town is resistant to change and therefore retains a very traditional atmosphere which is rare these days.
Gujo is located in the middle of Japan and at the beginning of the Japanese Alps.  Gujos lowest point is 110 meters above sea level in the south where I used to live and 1810 meters at the tallest peak in the north.  Our house now is located around 500 meters.  You can drive through Gujo from north to south in about 90 minutes in the summer but during the winter due to traffic and snow it can take more than 3 hours. You can also go from a blizzard in the mountains to light rain 15 minutes south….kinda crazy!!  Gujos weather has a pretty wide range.  In the north, winters are rough with heavy snow and negative degrees and in the south temperatures don’t dip below 0 and there is no snow at all;)  Summer is the same everywhere with temperatures around 35 and lots of humidity.  The north tends to be a little cooler due to its altitude but not by much!
With all the snow in the winter it creates nice little mountain rivers everywhere.  They all flow into the Nagara river at some point which runs straight through Gujo!  The river is prized for some of the cleanest water in all of Japan and is the backbone for Gujos agriculture production and tourist industry.  Clean water is the secret ingredient in the best Japanese rice and sake products.  Here in the north of Gujo there are the three white industries of Japanese “daikon”, milk, and snow.  “Daikon” is mass produced and famous here in Gujo along with its dairy products.  There are also 6 snow parks here in Gujo all about 15 minutes from my house.  I would say Gujo is in the top 3 places for snowboarding in Japan with Hokkaido and Nagano being number 1 and 2.  Lots of people flock to the ski parks and it creates many much needed jobs here in winter.    Onsens(I linked a picture of the one closest to my house called bijin no yo) or natural hot spring baths are littered all across Gujo as well and are a great way to relax after a long day of snowboarding.  The onsens here are famous due to the high quality of the water.  With the popularity of the parks and onsens the traffic and accidents can be terrible in the winter though.  The fishing here is also extremely popular as Gujo stocks the river with a trout called “Ayu” and fishers flock from everywhere to try their luck in catching the tasty delicacy.  To annoy the fisherman the river rafters and kayakers try their hand at the rapids as well.
In the center of Gujo, in the castle town called Hachiman plastic food replicas like you see in some windows of restaurants is one of the main industries along with tourism. Actually 80% of all food replicas made in Japan are from here in Gujo.  So if ever you come and visit you can try your hand at making a little plastic sushi roll or a plastic bowl of ramen.  It is actually pretty fun just because your replica looks nothing like what it is supposed to look like.
About 100 years ago Hachiman had a huge fire that burned most of the city to the ground.  Endo Tsunetomo was the lead architect bringing Hachiman back to life in 1919.  He devised a system of waterways using the river water that runs through every part of the city that is still used today.  Water literally runs in front of most peoples home and you can still see people washing clothes and using this water as they did a 100 years ago.

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Traditional dancing and music

 

This town is visited by thousands of people every year to see the traditional buildings and visit one of the most famous festivals in all of Japan, Obon Odori.  This festivial is celebrated for over a month long and is very similar to our Halloween where spirits come back to walk the earth.  There are 4 main days where dancing and celebration lasts all night!  Everyone dresses up in their yukattas and dances the night away!  Its one of the major holidays here in Japan where everyone has off so quite a few people attend.  Its quite a spectacle to see with thousands of people dancing all night long up and down the narrow streets of the town.

Another big festival is the Muika Matsuri which literally means the festival on the 6th because it is held on January 6th.  It is meant to celebrate the new year in hopes of bringing luck and longevity for not only life but also the upcoming years harvest.  There are several atificial flowers hung on the ceiling of the temple 6 meters high symbolizing luck and prosperity.  And once the celebration begins people try and grab these flowers anyway they can.  Climbing up poles but usually forming a human ladder.  It is very interesting to see.  But since it is on January 6th and it is one of the last days of winter vacation not to mention freezing cold, not too many people attend.  I highly recommend you see this as there are no rules and some nasty spills.
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December on one of the peaks!

 

With the amount of natural beauty here in Gujo it is hard to stay away.  There is something for everyone here!  Gujo is one of the last places in Japan you can still see traditional Japan how it was 50-100 years ago making it a very special place.  Not too mention all the outdoors activites for all sorts of enthusiasts.  I hope you will get a chance to visit Gujo it will be an experience you will not forget!

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