When you're in Gifu, a city of 410,00 people, you are pretty much at the geographical center of Japan. This doesn't mean that all roads lead to Gifu, though. They mostly pass through on to somewhere else. At first sight, the city's appearance suggests that this may be because riveting attractions don't exactly stick out. The physical view of Gifu from the train station is similar to that of many other medium-sized burgs in Japan. Most buildings are a whiter shade of pale, with color provided by advertising signs. To the south of the tracks more raffish elements enjoy the nightlife, to the north it's businesses, a superabundance of traffic signals and everything your shopping lifeh would desire. But there's more.
For instance, Gifu has something of an artistic flavor. Lanterns and paper parasols have been made there for hundreds of years. These are now sold throughout Japan and exported abroad. It has Japan's tallest lacquered Buddha; a seemingly odd claim though at 13.7 meters it clearly involved some dedicated labor. And there is the very well known spectacle of ukai, or cormorant fishing along the Nagara River, which bisects the city.
This custom in Gifu dates back at least 1200 years and it often received shogunal patronage. Now, during evenings from mid-May through mid-October and for the benefit of tourists, fishermen in uncovered yakata-bune vessels use their leashed cormonants to capture fish. Rings placed around the bird's necks means they can't swallow their prey, something that undoubtedly pleases the fishermen but probably not the cormorants. This spectacle is famous enough but for some reason the city lets readers of its English-language tourist brochure in on the fact that the well-known silent movie actor, Charles Chaplin, was truly delighted with cormorant fishing.
I have to confess that sometimes what delights me more are the odd sights and sounds, those you might find in an another roadside attractionh type of coffee table volume. Gifu and the surrounding area are certainly not lacking in these.
I took a bus to Gifu-koen (park) some 20 minutes from the station. The park is large and crowned by the 329-meter high Mt. Kinka. It may not be the breathtaking tourist zone the tourism office suggests but it is relaxing. And for those interested in creepy crawlies, among the buildings at the base is the Nawa Insect Museum, the only one of its kind in Japan. For any Japanese kid who grew up with stag beetles as pets, this is a must see. The museum, though small, claims to possess over 18,000 different types of insects. No need to bring your own.
There is a ropeway, that links the base of Mt. Kinka with the summit area. Gifu castle commands the top, though it is a reconstruction. Another oddity lies there, though, just outside the ropeway exit.
If you pay entrance fee you can enter the small Squirrel Village and have those animals climb all over you, particularly if you have the food the assistant provides. Animal-rights activists would likely get apoplectic over all this but the village seems to be popular with many children or with the childishly inclined.
Further afield from Gifu-koen the roadside attractions are even more impressive. Twenty minutes by train from Gifu is the smaller city of Ogaki. If you go down Route 365 you will come across billboards advertising War Land, a theme park of incredibly garish taste. And for a country where peace is supposedly enshrined in the constitution, the name itself attracts skeptical attention.
It all has to do with the famous battle of Sekigahara, that was fought nearby on September 15, 1600 and decided the future of Japan. After a rainstorm that left both sides a bit worse for wear, 80,000 warriors, the Army of the East led by Ishida Mitsunari, faced off against their enemies, the Army of the West. Tokugawa Ieyasu commanded those forces, 74,000 in number.
The fighting, which began at 8 AM with an attack by the East, was fierce. However, just before noon it seemed the West had it won. Ishida then called upon several of his fellow daimyos, who were in reserve, to deliver the coup de grace. Unfortunately for Ishida, many of those decided to switch sides. Within an hour the battle was won for the East. The Tokugawa Era now dawned and power shifted to the Kanto area where it remains today.
Thirty-seven years old and occupying 30,000 square meters of land, War Land does contain a small museum with artifacts of interest. Armor, helmets, bows, arrows, and rifles from the conflict are displayed along with Ieyasu's handprint. Step outside the museum, however, and your eyes may protest vehemently at what they see.
Some 200 concrete statues appear before you. These are supposedly life-size replicas of the warriors shown in what is claimed to be the height of battle. Some are carrying severed heads. The numbers are more suggestive of a minor skirmish than of a decisive encounter and the spacing is designed for visitorsf ease of passage more than for any realistic representation. The artist, if that word's appropriate, appears to have a predilection for an incongruous mixture of pastels and loud colors. The total effect is utterly ridiculous. Nonetheless, the park receives 40,000 visitors a year so they must be doing something right.
Travel north a bit from Ogaki on the Tarumi train line to Neo village and you'll find another unusual sight, though one where a more serious attempt at making something useful has been attempted.
Today Neo is a sleepy hamlet of 2,419 people who are mostly engaged in rice farming and forestry. Annual festivals are held to ensure good harvests but otherwise there isn't much of interest. Step into the town's Earthquake Fault Observation Museum, which opened in 1991, and you'll learn why such quiet is to be appreciated.
On October 28, 1891 at 6:37 A.M., the ground literally shifted vertically by six meters right under the village of Neo. Most of Neo was destroyed and 145 villagers were killed. Several thousands more died in the surrounding areas. This shake, the Great Nobi Earthquake, caused tremors felt as far away as Sendai. By some measurements, it was the largest ever felt in Japan.
A section of the fault line, which totals some 80 kilometers in length, has been dug up for visitors to see and for scientists to study. Other parts of the museum display photographs of the aftermath, seismic instruments used at the time, and explanations of the geology behind the earthquake.
This is all very interesting and quite sobering, but to some extent the museum designers seem to have suffered from an excess of zeal. The central exhibits are entered via a shaking, earthquake simulation sensory room whose walls are painted in bright red. Walk through and you are treated to a series of ominous sounds produced by high-powered speakers and assaulted by strobe lights. The museum also shows a short drama, made by Neo residents, that recreates the shake. You watch it wearing 3D glasses, and all sorts of unfriendly objects seem to fly at your face. The chair under you moves and shakes as well.
All joking aside, if there is one real reason to visit the Gifu area, it's the magnificent scenery. There are hidden temples, quiet valleys and plenty of scraggly peaks. I remember traveling along one stretch of the Ibi River valley and up to the pass that forms the border with Fukui prefecture. For 45 minutes there wasn't a single house. There was just the requisite amount of stillness and repose for contemplation of difficult topics like the mystery of War Land.