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Gifu 岐阜

View of Gifu and the Nagara River from the castle

More photos of Gifu

Gifu (pop. 420,000) is the capital of the prefecture of the same name. The city has played an important part in Japanese history thanks to its strategic location in the centre of the Chūbu region (central Honshū) and as a post town on the Nakasendō highway between Kyoto and Edo. Built on the banks of the Nagara River, one of the Kiso Three Rivers, it controls the great Nōbi alluvial plain, around which Nagoya grew.

Gifu was razed by an earthquake in 1891 and carpet bombed by the US Air Force in 1945. As a consequence few historical buildings have survived, and the city itself is mostly a concrete expanse like so many others in Japan. A pocket of traditional wooden houses are still standing in the Kawaramachi (川原町) neighbourhood between Gifu Park and the river. But what brings visitors here is the ancestral practice of cormorant fishing ("ukai" in Japanese), the views from the castle, perched on top of Mount Kinka (金華山 "Kinkazan"), and the Great Buddha of Gifu.

Cormorant fishing 鵜飼い

Cormorant fishing is a 1300 year-old tradition particularly famous in the Gifu prefecture. Gifu city made of "ukai" its local tourist speciality. The birds can be seen in action from flat-bottom fishing boat. Tours (¥3000) on the Nagara River leave from the Nagara Bridge, accessible by bus from the JR or Meitetsu train station. It is a short walk from Gifu Park (see below). The great English comic actor Charlie Chaplin came to view cormorant fishing on the Nagara River twice.

Gifu Castle 岐阜城

Gifu-jō is unremarkable in itself. Indeed it is tiny, and it is just a modern reconstruction from 1956. What makes it worthwhile is its exceptional location atop a 329m high hill, commanding splendid views on the city, nearby hills and Nagara valley. A ropeway will bring you close to the top for ¥600 one-way. An observation platform awaits you between the ropeway station and the castle. You can visit the interior of the castle for a small fee. The ticket provides admission to a small museum (more like a document room).

If you feel fit enough you can ascend the densely wooded hill through one of the well-marked paths leading to the castle. Beware that the climb is strenuous, especially the upper third towards the summit which is just a pile of big, sharp rocks. Don't expect an asphalted or even paved path like in some other places in Japan (e.g. Takaosan). Do not venture there with sandals or light shoes. It takes about an hour for a fit person to reach the top. The descend is not easier and can even be hazardous in the upper reaches for people with little experience of mountain climbing.

Gifu Castle was first built by the Nikaidō clan during the Kamakura period, and was then called Inabayama Castle, after Mount Kinka's old name, Mount Inaba. There once were two other castles in Gifu, the Kanō Castle and Kawate Castle, now long gone.

Gifu Castle
Gifu Park & History Museum
Cormorant fishing boats on the Nagara River, Gifu

Gifu Park 岐阜公園

The park ("Gifu Kōen") at the bottom of Mount Kinka is very attractive in itself and has enough attractions to keep visitors busy for a while. Entering the park from the bus stop, visitors are greeted by a fountain, with the Gifu City Museum of History on its right. It has exhibits from every period of the city's history. One of its specificity is that visitors can try wearing an old samurai armour or other historical clothing.

Opposite the museum, on the other side of the road from the bus stop, is the Shōhō-ji Temple (正法寺), which houses a 13.6m tall Daibutsu (giant Buddha statue). It is only 1.4m shorter than the Daibutsu in Nara and 2.3m taller than the one in Kamakura. The Great Buddha of Gifu took 38 years to manufacture and was completed in 1832. The temple belongs to the Rinzai Zen school of Buddhism and is affiliated to the Obakusan Mampuku-ji Temple near Kyoto.

Wandering past the pond and the waterfalls and crossing an arched bridge above the road (there is a tunnel passing under Kinkazan), one reaches the Gokoku Shrine (護国神社), locked between the river and the northern slope of the hill. The greenery surrounding it give it an air of tranquility. Note the small Chinese garden and pagoda nearby. It was built by the Japan-China Friendship Association.

How to get there

Gifu is best accessed from Nagoya. The Japan Railway and Meitetsu Nagoya Railway both connect the two cities. The JR train takes 25 minutes and costs ¥450. The Meitetsu is slightly slower (30 min) and more expensive (¥540). Gifu is one the JR Takayama line. It is also convenient to stop there on the way to or from Takayama. Make sure to board a Limited Express train (2 hours, ¥4610) as local trains are very slow (nearly 3h30min).

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