Gujo is rightly famous for it’s dance festival, considered amongst the top three in the country by whoever decides these things. Initiated over 400 years ago in an act of socialist generosity by Endo Yoshitaka, the festival was meant as a way of levelling Japan’s rigid social hierarchy and bringing the whole community together. Today there are as many visitors as there are locals, but the spirit remains the same: come one, come all, and boogie the night away. Dancing in the street takes place from mid-July to the end of August, but it’s during Obon that things reach a peak with four nights of mass jigging ending only when the sun rises, exhaustion kicks in, or the effects of the sake make rhythmic movement either impossible or incredibly unwise. Although traditional dance is the main reason most visit Gujo, it is not by any means the only attraction on offer. As always with Japan, there is food. Though here there’s a slight twist – the most famous food is inedible. It was here that some genius realised that what restaurants nationwide were lacking were plastic models of their fare to display in the window.
That’s right, the garish tempura, ramen with levitating chopsticks and hamburg drowned in worryingly static demi glace sauce that grace all but the poshest of eateries had their beginning in Gujo. There are numerous “sample shops” where you can buy sushi keyrings, yakitori ornaments and nama-chu phone straps, where you can watch the experts turn toxic green snot into delightful seaweed squares, and where, should you so desire, you can try your hand at making your very own tempura souvenir. It’s a unique experience, and a must if you have children. The combination of lifelike eels, squishy cakes and hands-on messy tempura manufacture entertains kids for hours, and for those of us of more mature years, there’s still something immensely satisfying about splashing around in water and gloop, making an incredible mess and calling it a ‘cultural experience’.
For a more traditional cultural experience try Gujo-Hachiman castle. Overlooking the town, it’s from the same mould as most Japanese castles, though a little on the small side. The location was chosen for defence and line-of-sight, and so the view of the valley is spectacular, even more so in autumn when the plentiful maple trees change turning Mount Hachiman the colour of fire. There’s a festival in November to celebrate the event. A short drive away is Otaki Shonyudo, a network of caves 800 metres long and boasting the highest underground waterfall in all Japan. Nearby Jomon Shonyudo was a prehistoric shelter. Self-guided tours of both are available, and while the former may interest children, the latter can be a terrifying experience. The only light provided is a small torch given to each visitor. The darkness is so complete, it’s almost like being blind.
The spider shadows cast by the thin flashlight beams scared me with an intensity second only to that caused by the model Neanderthal family slyly secreted around a sharp bend. I have never jumped so high in my life, nor have I ever exposed my students to that many new swearwords in such a short space of time. You have been warned. Gujo is reached by train or bus from Nagoya and the journey will take between two and three hours. Complete travel information can be found at www.gujohachiman.com