An Auto Tour of Japan

A temple in northern Japan.
A temple in northern Japan.

Castles, Cormorants, and Cloud Riding

By Mike Smith

Within 35 minutes of his overnight flight from Singapore landing at Tokyo, Japan Central Airport, I had been photographed, fingerprinted, cleared customs, loaded the Prius hybrid rental car, punched in the map code on his GPS and was heading down the expressway to Nagoya Castle.

Nagoya Castle. Photos by Mike Smith, AsiaPhotoStock.
Nagoya Castle. Photos by Mike Smith, Asia Photo Stock.

Japan has suffered terribly, both emotionally and economically since the horrific earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident and tourists have been staying away.

But much of Japan has seen no physical damage from the disasters and there are great bargains to be had even from premium travel agents such as Prime Follow Me Japan who organized the fly-drive trip I was on.

Fish Master at Gifu
Fish Master at Gifu

Hence, despite comments from friends and family that it was the wrong time to go, I was happy to be in Central Japan with an itinerary that included old castles, historic towns, cormorant fishing and beautiful scenery.

Alone in a car in a foreign country, without a map, and relying totally on GPS was initially daunting but it quickly became routine. For the first time, my “traveling companion” announced “you have reached your destination” a phrase I was always pleased to hear. Nagoya Castle was in front of me.

King of the Castle

Nagoya Castle was built during the Edo Period in the early 17th Century but was severely damaged by heavy bombing in world war two. It has been accurately restored and the main keep with its “fan sloping” stone base is very impressive.

The dwelling areas of the Hommaru Palace are being rebuilt so the complex will look even grander in two years time when the expansion is completed.

I enjoyed my hour strolling in the grounds despite the intense 35 degrees temperature and high humidity. A number of women wore kimonos, teenagers were in bright cosplay costumes depicting characters from Japanese fiction and an assorted bunch of “warriors and storytellers” entertained the visitors. Various ducks and songbirds inhabit the castle grounds and I was surprised to see sika deer grazing in the dry inner moat.

Go Fish with Cormorants

My second destination was Gifu. The main street Kawara Machi was quiet in the late afternoon but there were interesting shops including one making and selling fans and numerous snack bars grilling sweet fish on sticks.

Gifu’s main attraction is cormorant fishing, a tradition going back 1,300 years. I had seen this in China so was curious to see how Japan compared and contrasted. A Cormorant Fishing Master, one of only six remaining, clothed in a dark blue long-sleeved shirt, hat and a straw skirt demonstrated the technique in our briefing room.

Cormorants are left unfed during the day so the hungry birds will try to catch fish at night. Their necks are restricted by ropes just before dusk so they cannot swallow. The captured fish get held in the long necks and are retrieved by the fishermen.

A lantern of burning pine wood lights up the river and helps the birds see the sleepy fish in the crystal clear water. The cormorants are held on leashes with perhaps a dozen controlled by each master.

I was sitting barefoot on the deck, as is the custom on a boat on the Nagara River, beer in hand ready for the action to start at 7:45 pm.

Traditional folk dancers on a floating platform entertained the crowd. I had a horrible feeling this would be chaos as 48 spectator boats lined the shore, 30 passengers per boat, waiting to watch this Ukai.
Fishing with cormorants

Fishing with cormorants
Fishing with cormorants

A sequence of fireworks marked the start of the fishing. My fears were unfounded. Within seconds I realized this would be special. With military precision, eight tourist boats were assigned to follow each fishing boat ensuring a good view for all.

Fire lanterns burned fiercely as the birds darted underwater on their rope leashes, grabbed their prey and were hauled ashore to disgorge their catch of ayu fish to the Master.

For the climax, the six cormorant boats lined up across the river passed us and drove the fish into the shallows. The cormorants went into a feeding frenzy during this sogarami and the fishermen worked furiously to maximize their catch then suddenly the event was over.

The boat was swiftly cleaned; the drinks cans were placed in recycling bins, we put our shoes back on and left behind a spotless vessel. It had been an extremely long first day but very rewarding.
Rickshaw driver

Rickshaw driver
A journey by rickshaw in Japan.

Day two started with a lovely breakfast of ayu fish, salmon, poached eggs and miso soup. Then in a ritual I was rapidly getting used to I keyed in my map codes and departed Gifu stopping on the outskirts of town for some really sweet seedless grapes at a roadside stall.

The old town of Gujo Hachiman with its narrow streets, commanding castle and famous plastic food replica factories was my next port of call.

Ambling in Gujo

Gujo is a walking town. There were plenty of tourists but that didn’t spoil the atmosphere. Color-coordinated fire buckets hang outside each low-rise wooden house and are symbolic protection against fires.

The narrow streets with little canals running through them, old temples, beautiful homely restaurants and souvenir shops were fun to explore. The traditional cinnamon candy was excellent too.

Ice cream made in the replica food factory
Ice cream made in the replica food factory

Both locals and tourists stop at the So Gui Sui water shrine to taste the pure water that emerges from the spring near the Odara River.

I quenched my thirst and continued to the wide, gentle flowing Yoshida River where I stopped for lunch and watched fishermen with large rods and big nets reel in their catch.

There are numerous old temples in Gujo one of which, Anjo Ji, is the largest wooden structure in the area.

A large group of school children happily posed for me before the teacher got them back into line – oops sorry sir! Without a doubt, Daijo ji Temple had the strangest sight: a large collection of kettles in the grounds!

Looks Great – Shame about the Taste!

Rice fields
Rice fields in Northern Japan.

The Iwasaki plastic food replica factory was situated a couple of kilometers outside of the town center. Gujo supplies most of the yummy looking fake food outside restaurants and technology hasn’t been able to automate the process so it is still done by hand. Donning my green apron I took my turn at making a lettuce.

Slowly drizzling hot liquid green wax followed by a few drops of white into the warm water the mix solidified into a sheet.

As instructed I ruffled the edges before gently squeezing it into a ball. Slicing it in half produced a very unprofessional looking lettuce but some of the ice creams, sushi etc made by the experts really did look good enough to eat!

It was time to move on to the hot springs of Hodakaso Sangetsu and the Shin Hodaka Ropeway. It was a good job I left Gujo early as I missed my exit and had to drive 25km to the first U-turn!

Shin Hodaka ropeway
Shin Hodaka ropeway

I got to see firsthand Japanese engineering skills as 22km of my detour was spent passing both ways through a tunnel bored through the mountains.

Shin Hodaka Ropeway – Ride to the Clouds

Looking out of my hotel window the next morning I saw low cloud hanging over the valley but decided to go ahead with my scheduled ride in the double-decker cable car at Shin Hodaka Ropeway. The seven minutes journey to the viewpoint at over 2150 meters was very steep and unlike in a plane there was no turbulence as we went into the clouds.

The view of Japan’s Northern Alps was limited but quite atmospheric as valleys and mountain tops briefly teased with an appearance before being enveloped in mist again.

Lunch was at Train Bleu, ranked as one of the three best bakeries in the world. The hot, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside spicy curry filled buns are to die for.

Shirakawago – Heritage village – Thatched Houses

Having satisfied my hunger and a further 100km later I was looking down on Ogimachi the largest village at the Unesco world heritage site of Shirakawago.

Surrounded by mountains and located alongside the Shokawa River the village contains a large number of 250-year-old Gassho zukuri farmhouses, sheds and barns with their steeply thatched roofs shaped like hands in prayer.

Village of Shirakawa Go
The village of Shirakawa Go

Strong ropes join the roofs to the wooden structures which are designed to be practical in both humid summers and freezing winters.

It was both relaxing and educational to wander around the houses, small shrines and temples to witness the skillful techniques used in the buildings before loitering in the cafes and shops.

Across the suspension bridge, I visited the museum of relocated farmhouses from nearby villages, kept for posterity, set in a lovely rural setting. I was reluctant to leave but the schedule was to head for Kanazawa with promises of glorious gardens and markets.

Kanazawa – Formal Gardens and Restored Castle

The sun was shining as I took my pre-breakfast stroll around Kanazawa Castle. The grounds of the restored castle, with moat and some original walls were extremely peaceful. A heron perched waiting for its fish breakfast as I clicked away on the camera.
Kanazawa Castle

Kanazawa Castle
Kanazawa Castle

Two hours later at 10 am it was already uncomfortably hot as I passed the avenue of statues to enter the spacious Kenrokuen Gardens which were established in the early 17th Century over a period of 170 years.

Ranked in the top three of Japan’s landscaped gardens, it was very tranquil and picturesque with its natural springs, bridges over ponds and streams, water fountains and floral displays.

Omicho – To market, to market!

Only a kilometer away in distance but a complete change of scene was Omicho market which has been supplying fresh produce for 270 years. I love markets! All kinds of fruit, vegetables and pickles were on sale but the main reason for going there was the fantastic selection of fresh seafood. I couldn’t resist the sashimi restaurant and splurged on the chef’s lunch recommendation which had a sample of every fish on display.
Echizen crab

Echizen crab
Echizen crab

Following that sumptuous lunch, I drove to Awara Onsen through lovely green rice fields for the penultimate night. The Hotel Grandiosen is a traditional Japanese style hotel known as a ryokan.

My room was furnished with tatami straw mats, a futon bed on the floor, a chair without legs and a low table. There was also a balcony with views over the rice plantations.

The exquisite dinner included the sweetest boiled Echizen crab, sashimi, abalone (cooked live at the table), miso soup and pickles all washed down with beer and sake. The best meal of the trip!

Tojinbo – Rock Pillars

My last full day started with a short drive to Tojinbo Cliff. The pillar-shaped rocks caused by sea erosion rise 25 meters above the deep blue sea.
Tojinbo Cliffs

Tojinbo Cliffs
Tojinbo Cliffs

Golden eagles soared above and seabirds rested on the small rocky islets offshore. The half-hour boat trip gave a good view of the rock formations as well as a nearby shrine and sea village.

All that remained was a long drive back to Nagoya, a quick last minute shopping spree and a late night drink with friends made on the road before a last night of luxury at the Hilton Hotel.

The recovering economy of Central Japan made touring good value for money. Fly-drive was an easy and flexible way to travel. I traveled alone for 1,000 km, but met up with others doing the same itinerary at dinner so it was a package tour, but not a package tour, if you see what I mean.

The summer was a little warm and humid and I would have preferred a little longer at some locations but the opportunity to visit the cormorant fishing town of Gifu, the old town of Gujo and the unique Shirakawago plus the superb food made this a very enjoyable trip.

Fish at Omicho Market
Fish at Omicho Market


Tour Package – Prime Follow Me Japan – tel Singapore 6221 4250

Car rental – Hertz Nagoya

Gifu – Gifu Miyako Hotel – tel +81 582 95 3100

Hodakaso Sangetsu – tel +81 5788 93267

Hotel Hakuchoro – tel +81 762 22 1212

Hotel Grandia Housen – tel +81 776 77 2555

Hilton Nagoya – tel + 81 52 212 1111

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