It is a town of low, dark, wood-and-plaster buildings, paved lanes, and running water. The windows of the buildings are narrow and slatted. The lanes, too, are narrow, steeply walled, and end in dimly lanterned eating places or in small stone bridges that arch over splashing streams. It was like an Edo-era stage set.
Alan Booth Looking for the Lost, 1995
Booth’s romantic description captures GUJŌ HACHIMAN (郡上八幡) to a tee: its bygone-days atmosphere and mountain-bound location – with two pristine rivers, the Yoshida and Nagara, running through the centre – lend it great appeal. Tucked in a valley on an old trade route that once led to the Sea of Japan, the town lies around 55km north of Gifu. It’s worth visiting year-round, but the best time is during the Gujō Odori, one of Japan’s top three dance festivals.
The tourist office sells a ¥1500 ticket providing access to nine places of interest around town. The best of these is the Hakurankan (博覧館), on the northern side of the Yoshida River, a ten-minute stroll from the tourist office. This excellent museum has four sections detailing the town’s history, arts and crafts, connection with water, and folk dance.
A good fifteen-minute climb from the Hakurankan, past several attractive temples, is Gujō-Hachiman-jō (郡上八幡城). This photogenic replica of the old castle was rebuilt in 1934 on the stone foundations of the less elaborate original structure. From its ramparts you’ll see that the town resembles the shape of a fish, the elegant concrete span of the motorway accenting the tail. South of the Yoshida-gawa, a ten-minute walk from the tourist office, is Jionzen-ji (慈恩禅寺), a sixteenth-century temple with a lovely attached garden Tetsusō-en, which looks particularly spectacular in autumn.
Rafting trips are available year-round downriver at Minami with Outdoor Support Systems. In summer, you might be tempted to take a swim in the sparkling river. Anglers with long poles and tall straw hats can be seen along both of the town’s rivers trying their luck for the ayu (sweetfish) and trout for which the region is famous. Also seek out the town’s natural spring, dubbed the Fountain of Youth, or Sōgi-sui (宗祇水) – it’s located down the stone pathway that leads to a pretty bridge over the Kodara-gawa, about five minutes’ walk northwest of the tourist office.