Japan’s Fairytale Country

The beauty of Tokyo for first-time visitors traveling in family groups is there’s something for everybody right at one’s (hotel) doorstep, from trendy cafés and neighborhoods to historic landmarks, numerous museums, green parks and uniquely Japanese pop culture-focused attractions. And if something’s not right there, it’s an easy commuter train ride away.

On the other hand, those who feel they’ve “done” Tokyo or simply prefer the “great outdoors” and quieter, more rural settings will probably fall in love with the prospect of exploring the quaint towns and natural wonders of the Gifu prefecture — especially in the spring or fall. It is interesting to note the heart of the “Japanese Alps,” in the center of the country, is already a hit with European families used to seeing castles and mountain ranges in their own backyards. According to the JTB, a travel agency that provides various tours and information, Gifu ranks fifth in Japanese tourism destinations among Spanish and Italian travelers.

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© Elyse Glickman

It will take effort to get to this magical corner of Japan, as well as advance preparation to book hotels, research restaurants, rent a car or plot an itinerary with tour bus schedules to determine how to go from place to place. However, with a little patience, and a little help from English-speaking professionals at JTB or Japanese National Tourism Organization, websites, planning the trip together as a family can be a fun part of the experience. Working with maps and brochures to work out logistics will also allow kids to learn about Japanese history, traditional foods and architecture, which in turn will make experiencing these places in real time all the more rewarding.

After landing in Tokyo or Osaka, a Shinkansen train or short flight to Haneda will follow. Gifu City, the logical starting and ending point, is about an hour from Haneda by car or bus. From there, immersion into local culture is as easy as “hitting the trail” to see the city views and exterior of Gifu Castle, or landscaping and squirrels at Gifu Park (once a hotspot for Pokemon Go fans), Gifu Shoho-ji Temple Daibutsu (home of the local Great Buddha) and Mt. Kinka. The generations-old tradition of cormorant fishing (ukai) along the Nagara River is worth a look, as is a visit to the beautifully laid-out Nagaragawa Ukai Museum. The museum not only explains how cormorant birds helped build a local economy, but also details interesting facts about the area’s eco-system, boat building and the emperor’s efforts to save the sacred profession during the Edo period.

Opting for the rental car route or even exploring the different areas via bike tour permits the family to uncover some unusual roadside attractions, as well as heart-stopping views along the mountain and river roads crisscrossing the prefecture. In tiny Seki City, the Shanshu Cutlery shop will make a big impact, particularly among those fascinated with the ways of the Samurai. In addition to selling impressive knives, swords and the best manicure tools anywhere, the proprietors demonstrate construction of their swords, their role in imperial Japanese history and demonstrations of just how sharp those blades are.

There are numerous small towns to explore, one more charming than the next thanks to the intermingling of landscaping, architecture and the rivers, hills and mountains that shape them. The “post town” of Magome-juku, a town where travelers rested for a night, is a delightful village full of craft shops and cafés built alongside a slope navigable by a network of cobblestone streets and staircases. Though family cooking classes abound in this region, Gujo-Hachiman offers a food replica workshop where one can create a truly personalized souvenir of his or her favorite nosh in wax.

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© Elyse Glickman

Mino City, a center of art papermaking (washi) for more than 1,300 years, is known for its annual October lantern festival. The Mino-Washi “Akari” Art Gallery includes a year-round gallery of award-winning lanterns by professional and amateur artists. At this gallery, and the Mino-Washi Museum, one can not only see how this special art paper is made (with a papermaking experience), but also see how far it can go in color and texture in a variety of artwork.

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© Elyse Glickman

Ogimachi, within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, is recognized for its photogenic triangular houses designed to withstand the heavy snowfall in winter. While some are private residences handed down through generations of families, others are open to the public for “farmhouse stays” or museums (including Wada-ke House, Kanda-ke House and Nagase-ke House) that display and preserve the different aspects of the region’s former way of life.

Takayama City (a.k.a. “Little Kyoto”) the main city in the Hida region of the prefecture requires two days with its abundance of one-of-a kind museums including the Karakuri Museum (showcasing a vibrant and ornate collection of hand-crafted puppets and parade floats used in the Takayama Matsuri festival held every April), Takayama Jinya (the sole surviving district office of the Tokugawa shogunate, lasting 1692–1868) and the Miyaji Heritage House. The walkable city is also home to several stunning temples and their grounds, and morning markets with an array of local produce, artisanal snacks and traditional foods.

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© Elyse Glickman

The unassuming Yaotsu Town is a must-visit for the Chiune Sugihara Memorial Hall. If your teens are currently studying European history in high school or college, this comprehensive collection of artifacts and documents covering the life, work and deeds of the former diplomat tells a story of selflessness and heroism during World War II that deserves to be as well-known as those of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. Sugihara, stationed in Lithuania in 1940, defied the Japanese government to issue thousands of transit visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis, saving an estimated 6,000 lives. At the time, his actions garnered little fanfare and he ultimately sacrificed his diplomatic career for doing what he felt was right.

If time allows, a detour to the Port of Humanity/Tsuruga Museum in neighboring Fukui Prefecture, continues the story of what happened to those recipients of Sugihara’s transit visas. If your budget allows and you are traveling with older kids and teens, why not splurge in the immersive experience of a Ryokan stay? Excellent choices in Gifu include Juhachiro in Gifu City, Suimeikan in Gero City, and the Honkin Haranoya Kachoan in Takayama City. All offer the use of traditional yukata attire (casual versions of kimonos), breakfast, kaiseki (multicourse) dinners and onsens (natural spring baths).