While both picturesque and historic, Gifu, located next to Aichi Prefecture, tends to be engulfed by its more famous cousin. Nagoya City in Aichi is usually the tourist destination of choice for many. Yet Gifu City, a small attractive town only 30 minutes from Nagoya by train, holds some wonderful sights and is ideal for the more discerning tourist to explore. The city boasts a lovely river famous for its cormorant fishing, an attractive replica castle, forest shrines, and an excellent array of mountain passages and nature trails.
During the Sengoku period, there was a famous expression – “Control Gifu and you control Japan.” At that time, the area was known as Mino and under the leadership of the Toki Clan. It was a place of history and intrigue, tradition and battle.
Sadly, nowadays, Gifu’s colorful past has been forgotten, and the area has become a ‘satellite’ for people who work in Nagoya. Yet, the Gifu City Council is trying to change this image through a “Slow Life” initiative, designed to encourage residents to view Gifu City as a relaxing change from the modern world and to promote Gifu’s locally grown food, rich history, traditional culture, and arts to tourists.
Here are four spots in Gifu that make it a must-visit city!
One of Gifu City’s best secrets is its Gokoku Shrine, which lies near the famous Nagara River and at the foothills of the Mt. Kinka forest. The shrine is perhaps the most beautiful I have seen in this part of Japan – simple, elegant, and surrounded by natural woods and a river stream. It is dedicated to the soldiers from Gifu Prefecture who died in battle, and is relatively new, being incepted after the Russo-Japanese War and built in 1940.
Situated amongst such a wonderful backdrop, you can spend hours traversing the natural trails that lead from the shrine into the mountains. The sounds of birds and insects and the fresh breeze from the nearby river make a wonderful change from Japan’s city noise.
Some of the trees that surround the shrine are over 100 years old. It is well known for its cherry blossoms which come out in spring. The shrine also houses several sub-shrines, as well as an ancient rock formation which, from a distance, might remind you of Stonehenge.
A protected forest full of nature, clean air, and wildlife, Mt. Kinka is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols of Gifu City. 329 meters above sea level, it towers above the riverside. Surrounded by lush green forest, the mountain, while not large, offers numerous walking trails.
On top of the mountain stands Gifu Castle, which can be accessed via one of the walkways or via the Kinkazan – an electric ropeway which links the foot of the mountain to the top. The mountain was once called “Inabayama” and Gifu’s main Inaba Shrine is dedicated to it.
Mt. Kinka has four marked trails for hikers, two of which are designed for more experienced walkers, one for intermediates (Hundred-turn trail), and one for beginners (Seven-turn trail). The trails take about an hour to complete and are dotted with historic marker stones. There are also small shrines, a tea house, and resting points along the way where walkers can take a breath and enjoy the views.
Built by the Nikaido family during the Kamakura period, Gifu (or Inabayama) Castle, located on top of Mt. Kinka, is amazing. The current castle was reconstructed in 1956 but still retains an authentic style. The castle has had an amazing history, changing hands several times through battles and deception – the Takenaka Hanbei vs. Saito Tatsuoki saga being a good example.
The walk up to Gifu Castle is a beautiful one, and though a little difficult, is well worth the effort. The forest that surrounds the castle is breathtaking, as is the lovely pagoda that greets you at the start of your journey. For the less adventurous, there is a very convenient cable car which makes the journey less than five minutes.
Once at the top, it’s a short walk to the museum and castle grounds. There is a small Squirrel Village near the cable car exit which is often full of children interacting with Mt. Kinka’s native wildlife. In fact, the squirrel is the official mascot for the mountain. From the top of the mountain, you get spectacular views of Gifu City, and the trees that line the way make for an excellent natural air conditioning system.
While the renovated castle is made of cement, the interior has been preserved as much as possible to imitate the original wooden structure. Old maps and pictures are on display, as are armor and weapons of the 1600s. There is an observation deck, which offers additional views of Gifu, and the museum next to the castle has further artifacts and information to enjoy.
The final place to enjoy in this area is Gifu Park. From the park, you can access all the sites mentioned in this article, yet the park itself is also worth seeing. You can rent bikes from the main reception area, and there is a beautiful tea house where you can rest and get refreshments.
The Gifu City Museum of History is also located within the park, as well as an impressive Japan-China Friendship Garden with its own small pond filled with fat fish and wonderfully carved statues.
Gifu City truly is a lovely place to explore. Rich with history and nature, it is more than a mere commuter town. The city has the right idea, highlighting through its promotion the traditions of this area. “He who controls Gifu controls Japan,” – the adage might no longer be true, but one thing is, Gifu City is still a place of discovery and one that many native Japanese would never think of visiting. This perhaps is the biggest tragedy of all.