It’s a joy when you stumble on a little gem of a place on your travels – unheralded, unplanned -but a delight that finds a forever place in your heart.
For me, Hida Furukawa in Japan’s Gifu region is such a place. I feel so comfortable and relaxed exploring this historical little town, so easy to do on foot. Surrounded by picturesque farmlands with a backdrop of Japanese alps, Hida Furukawa refuses to leave my travel itinerary. It simply draws me back.
The first time I visited Japan 20 years ago, I was staying a 15 minute country train ride from Furukawa in the popular tourist city of Takayama. But I didn’t know Furukawa existed. So I missed it. I returned to Gifu in 2017, booking a cycling trip with the Satsuma company, which is headquartered in Furukawa and starts its cycling tours there. And that’s how I ended up in Furukawa – finding not only that I could still remain upright on a bicycle, but falling in love with this historical town as I cycled through its quiet streets and surrounding countryside. *See my story on the cycling trip at https://travellingtherese.com/2021/03/10/cycling-in-japan-furukawa-gifu/
This old castle town is much smaller than Takayama, offering a lot to see in a tranquil environment and beautiful old Japanese buildings. And, importantly, with less tourists- always a plus with me! I’ve since returned to Furukawa several times and I intend to return again because there is so much here to discover. Plus, I have to go back for Furukawa’s unique ginger flavoured miso wheat crackers – I’m addicted to them, and haven’t been able to find them outside of Gifu. More on that later!
Walking from the town’s railway station, you will be within the heart of Furukawa within minutes, coming across delightful side streets, some lined with small canals filled with around one thousand colourful carp. I’m told the fish help keep the water clean, and when the icy winter arrives, locals remove them to a safe warmer place, returning them in spring.
Every April, the town buzzes with its annual Festival, first held around 1685. There’s elaborate Festival floats accompanied by around one thousand scantily clad townsmen, lot of impressive traditional drumming, hundreds of red and white small paper lit lanterns creating light for the festival procession at night, and amazing mechanical marionettes.
If you are not visiting in April or are avoiding crowds because of Covid, head for Furukawa’s magnificent Festival Hall where year round you can view some of these amazing floats up close. You can also view an impressive film of the Festival in the Hall’s movie theatre. When I visited with my husband and sister in law in 2019, we were the only people there visiting! But the kind assistants still ran the film for us, and were on hand to answer any questions we had. They lend you little festival coats for photos and selfies. It’s a place you can easily spend an hour or more. The Festival Hall is located in Festival Square, less than ten minutes walk from the train station. There is a small entrance fee – under eight Australian each when I checked last. Definitely worth it.
In the centre of town, there is a large Japanese drum that you can try out yourself. I didn’t do it, but I watched other visitors having a go, making it apparent that it takes talent to do it properly!
Time for a cuppa? If you are partial to cheese cake, there is a cosy little museum in a small machiya – a traditional wooden townhouse. It showcases Japanese paintings by famous Japanese artists, furniture, ceramics, and makie lacquerware from the 16th through 20th centuries. Home baked cheesecake is served on exquisite antique Japanese plates that are hundreds of years old! I was a little nervous in case I accidentally dropped a plate or my cup!
I understand a simple lunch is also served if you book a few days ahead. My visit was a walk in, so it was the cheesecake for me, and pretty good it was too. However – don’t go comparing cheesecakes you’ve had before because the cheesecake – cooked from a 50 year old recipe – is just part of the over-all experience. It is such a unique and beautiful place that you feel privileged to be there. The Hineno Art Museum and cafe is about five minutes walk from the railway station and worth the entry price.
Make time for a wander by the river that flows through the town to view white walled storehouses, or to check out some of the small quality craft shops such as the Mishima Candle Shop, which has specialised in traditional Japanese candle-making since the Edo period hundreds of years ago.
Or the little glass museum, that looks like a tiny shop in a traditional Furukawa house. It has a sizeable collection of glass pieces, some dating back to Roman times. The museum was empty when we entered, but eventually the owner appeared from the back. He didn’t speak english, and at first we thought he was a little grumpy. Perhaps we had interrupted his lunch. But he beckoned us to sit down at the small Japanese table in the centre of the museum, and he kindly served us complimentary traditional tea. This was one of those times I wished I was fluent in Japanese so that we could have had a good chat about the exhibits with him. Suffice to say, they are fascinating to see and the owner’s hospitality was welcome.
Lunch? Well, there are plenty of good choices. On one visit, we wandered into a small cafe – Ichinomachi Coffee – in what appeared to be another traditional home. It turned out to be quite a find – wonderful food, using in season local produce, at a very reasonable price. They have an interesting range of unique postcards and cards on offer here too, along with some locally made preserves, bread and sauces. And, friendly staff! We rated it a top discovery!
On another visit to Furukawa, we arrived late for lunch at a central cafe, finding it closing for the day. The owner gave us such a cheery smile, urging us to return. So we did, the next day. And his curry was worth the effort!
One place I still haven’t had the time to see is the Takumikan Craft Museum that showcases traditional Hida region craftsmanship. The museum was built by local carpenters using local lumber and traditional Japanese carpentry techniques that do not use nails. The museum offers some interactive challenges for visitors such as putting together carpentry joints and puzzles. So, that’s on my itinerary for my next Furukawa visit.
Another place I’ve yet to visit is the Watanabe Hourai Sake Brewery , established in the mid 1800’s and now a leading sake producer in the region. I’ve come a long way with my sake knowledge in recent years, realising that it is much like wine – there are all sorts of standards, qualities and flavours. So, I’m better placed now to sample and appreciate some of this brewery’s sake than I was several years ago.
The Watanabe family have had businesses in this town since the early 1700’s. You can do a tour of the brewery, with several days notice. They have a website that you can check.
You might wonder why I have still places to see in this little town after several visits already. Firstly, Furukawa is a place you like to explore at a leisurely place. And because leaving some things undone gives me a good reason to return!
Not that I need a reason for revisiting Furukawa, because its biscuits will always draw me back. Remember them? The addiction I mentioned earlier. The biscuits (crackers) are made by the Inohiro confectionary store, established in 1908, and known for the high quality of its Miso wheat crackers (Miso Senbei) baked in a traditional style. They use their own homemade miso for their handmade crackers, with flavourings including wild sesame, ginger, coffee, green tea, tomato, and granola.
The store is about an 8 minute walk from the railway station in the central town area, close to the river.
My favourite is the ginger biscuits that I first tasted for morning tea on my 2017 Furukawa bike ride. I was immediately in love with them, something noted by our cycling guide Hiro who kindly had delivered to me another two packets for my birthday the following day! On my 2019 visit, I bought a heap more to take back to Australia with me!
Covid prevented our planned 2020 and 2021 trips back to Japan. And unless Japan’s borders open to individual travellers soon, our 2022 plans look like they will be dashed as well.
And what’s one of the worst things about that? Missing out on more of those ginger biscuits and other Furukawa delights!
Read my other stories about Japan on this blog including: