The appealing castle town of INUYAMA (犬山), 25km north of Nagoya, lies beside the Kiso-gawa. From May to October the river is the stage for the centuries-old practice of ukai (cormorant fishing), to which the castle’s floodlit exterior provides a dramatic backdrop. Boats sail from the dock beside the Inuyama-bashi bridge, five minutes’ walk north of Inuyama Yūen Station.
The castle is slightly closer to Inuyama-Yūen Station, but if you approach it from the west side of Inuyama Station – which takes around ten minutes on foot – you’ll pass through an area dotted with old wooden houses, some of which house craft galleries, culminating in the small Inuyama Artefacts Museum (犬山市文化史料館). Here you can see two of the thirteen towering, ornate floats (yatai) that are paraded around Inuyama during the major festival on the first weekend of April. If you visit the museum on a Friday or Saturday, you can also see a craftsman demonstrating the art of making karakuri, the mechanical wooden puppets that perform on the yatai.
The museum is just in front of Haritsuna-jinja, the shrine at which the colourful festival takes place. One minute’s walk up the hill behind will bring you to the entrance of the only privately owned castle in Japan, Inuyama-jō (犬山城). This toy-like fortress was built in 1537, making it the oldest in Japan (although parts have been extensively renovated), and it has belonged to the Naruse family since 1618. Inside, the donjon is nothing special, but there’s a pretty view of the river and surrounding country from the top, where you can appreciate the defensive role that this white castle played.
A five-minute walk east of Inuyama-jō, within the grounds of the luxury Meitetsu Inuyama Hotel (名鉄犬山ホテル), is the serene garden of Uraku-en (有楽苑). The mossy lawns and stone pathways act as a verdant frame for the subdued Jo-an, a traditional teahouse. Originally built in Kyoto by Oda Uraku, the younger brother of the warlord Oda Nobunaga, the yellow-walled teahouse has floor space for just over three tatami mats, though it can only be viewed from the outside. Tea (¥500) is served in one of the garden’s larger modern teahouses.