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.Read More
One of Japan’s best open-air architectural museums, Meiji Mura (明治村), is 7km east of Inuyama. Dotted around a huge park are 67 structures, including churches, banks, a kabuki theatre, a lighthouse and a telephone exchange (from Sapporo). All the structures date from around the Meiji era when Western influences were flooding into Japan, which resulted in some unique hybrid architecture. A highlight is the front of the original Imperial Hotel, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Allow at least half a day to see the park fully. If you don’t fancy walking, there’s an electric bus that beetles from one end of the park to the other, or you could hop on an old Kyoto tram and steam locomotive, though these only go part of the way. There are several places to snack or eat lunch within the park.
Buses to Meiji Mura leave at regular intervals from the east side of Inuyama Station (20min).
Inuyama and Gifu are two of the main locations for ukai, or night-time fishing with cormorants, a skill developed back in the seventh century; others include Kyoto, Iwakuni and Ōzu in Shikoku. The specially trained, slender-necked birds are used to catch ayu, a sweet freshwater fish, which is in season between May and September. Traditionally dressed fishermen handle up to twelve cormorants on long leashes, which are attached at the birds’ throats with a ring to prevent them from swallowing the fish. The birds dive into the water, hunting the ayu, which are attracted to the light of the fire blazing in the metal braziers hanging from the bows of the narrow fishing boats.
The fast-moving show usually only lasts around thirty minutes, but an ukai jaunt is not just about fishing. Around two hours before the start of the fishing, the audience boards long, canopied boats, decorated with paper lanterns, which sail upriver and then moor to allow a pre-show picnic. Unless you pay extra you’ll have to bring your own food and drink, but sometimes a boat will drift by selling beer, snacks and fireworks – another essential ukai component. Although you can watch the show for free from the riverbank, you won’t experience the thrill of racing alongside the fishing boats, the birds splashing furiously in the reflected light of the pine wood burning in the brazier hanging from the boats’ prows.