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5 Hidden Gems You Never Knew Existed in Japan


Are you looking for some unique places to visit in Japan that are quieter and easy to access by public transport?


If so, it’s worth stopping by the Chubu region of Japan. Located in the central part of Japan’s main island, Chubu is a region you’ll be travelling through when you’re moving from Tokyo to Kyoto and Osaka or vice versa.


There are a lot of hidden gems that you don’t want to miss in this region. Among them, I would like to introduce the 5 lesser-known places with rich history that are well worth seeing and are not crowded with lots of tourists.


1. Hikone


Hikone is mostly known for the Hikone castle, one of Japan’s 5 national treasure castles that remain intact from more than 400 years ago.

Hikone Castle

What makes Hikone castle stand out from other castles is that it is a great example of an authentic Japanese castle that tells stories from both the battle times and peaceful times of the samurai period, which is reflected in both the interior and exterior of the castle buildings.


Apart from the main tower (known as the castle’s keep), the museum is also something you don’t want to miss. It exhibits great collections of arts and crafts, armours and Japanese swords as well as items that were used for tea ceremonies and Noh theatrical performances, both of which were fundamental parts of building bonds among samurai and high-class people.


One thing you may notice when visiting Hikone castle is that there are a few tea houses within the castle grounds. That’s partly because tea culture flourished, as the peaceful era gave samurai the opportunity to pursue cultural activities such as the tea ceremony.


The tea house in the Genkyuen garden was originally built by the Ii family who ruled the Hikone domain. You can sit inside the tea house and look at the original garden, which is another way of enjoying the garden apart from strolling around a pond in the middle. And of course, you can try a proper matcha tea, together with a traditional Japanese sweet that’s locally made.


Access: It only takes half an hour from Kyoto by high-speed train Shinkansen to Hikone via Maibara where you’ll change to a local Japan Railway (JR) train. It will also be a 45-minute train ride from Nagoya to Hikone.


2. Sekigahara


Sekigahara is mostly known for the battle of Sekigahara that completely changed the history of Japan, bringing the warring states period to a close and leading to more than 200 years of peace in the country.

Sekigahara

Battlefield memorial museum, which opened in 2020, is a state of the art museum with digital content that will take you to the battlefields virtually and walk you through every major movement in the battle.


Sekigahara is the place where major samurai warriors that lived around 1600 came together. Visiting this place does give you a chance to learn about different samurai warriors and their stories. I found it particularly fascinating to see the replicas of armour that these samurai warriors are said to have worn in the battles. You would be surprised at how distinct each of them are. There is also a place you can try on the exact model of these replicas, which looks very real.


After visiting the museum, you can explore the town and visit actual sites where these samurai warriors had a base.


Sekigahara is a small town with rice fields, which is a great place to enjoy countryside landscapes. You’ll also find modern art sites and museums, which really stand out in the natural scenery. Some of the art objects you find are related to peace, while some others were created by internationally recognised contemporary artists such as Lee Ufan who also has a museum in Japan’s famous art island Naoshima.


Access: It takes less than an hour to travel to Sekigahara from Nagoya on the JR Tokaido main line, or from Kyoto by high-speed train Shinkansen via Maibara where you’ll change to a local JR train.

 

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3. Gifu


Gifu is the biggest city of Gifu prefecture that’s famous for one of Japan’s cleanest rivers, the Nagara river.


One of the benefits of this is fresh Ayu sweetfish. In fact, Gifu city is widely recognised as a notable place for the long-tradition of ukai cormorant birds fishing. Ukai is a type of fishing method in which fishermen and trained cormorant birds work together to catch river fish such as Ayu sweetfish.


Unique cultural activity in Japan
Ukai cormorant fishing by ©️Nobutsugu Sugiyama

Ayu sweetfish caught in the Nagara river are delivered to the Emperor and the Imperial Family of Japan. Fishermen are given an honorary position by the Imperial Household Agency and that role has been handed down from generation to generation in the same family for the past 1,300 years. These fishermen live with cormorant birds and build deep bonds with them like a family member, helping cormorants to live twice or three times longer than wild cormorants in nature.


When visiting Gifu, I recommend visiting the Nagara River Ukai Museum and fishermen’s village before watching the ukai cormorant fishing performance at night. The performance takes place every night from May through October, with some exceptions.


You can also try Ayu sweetfish, which is served as part of the high-quality multi-course kaiseki meals at traditional inns, Ryokan and hotels. The best way to try these meals is to stay at one of those inns. In fact, The area around the Nagara river is an onsen hot spring town that’s famous for terracotta-coloured onsen with rich iron content, which helps your body warm to the core.

Japanese cuisine

If you want to see a spectacular view of the Nagara river and the area around the Chubu region, it’s worth climbing up the top of Mt Kinka using a cable car where Gifu castle is located. You can see a 360- degree view from the top, which includes the Japan Alps and high buildings in Nagoya.


Access: Gifu is only 20 minutes away by train on the JR Tokaido line from Nagoya.


4. Seki


Seki is a town of swords and knife making.


You can watch a sword being made, as the skills have been handed down for multiple generations. It’s just amazing to see how a few swordsmiths are working together to make a blade. If you’d like to try an experience by yourself, it’s possible to make a knife or small sword at a swordsmith’s workshop.

Japanese sword making

There are a few different museums in the city centre. These are a great spot to visit if you want to learn the history of swordsmiths in Seki and to know more about a variety of blades from all over the world.


If you want to get a nice kitchen knife as a souvenir, Seki is the place to be. There are shops where you can find the one you like from a selection of kitchen knives that are on display.


Access:

Seki is about an hour away by train from Gifu city. It’s accessible by the Nagaragawa Railway that operates trains that go along the Nagara river. The best way to enjoy riverside scenery is getting on sightseeing trains, where you can also enjoy a bento lunch full of local speciality such as Hida beef.


5. Mino


Mino is mostly recognised as one of Japan’s 3 major washi producing areas with a history of 1,300 years. Washi artists live near the upper stream of the Nagara river because Japanese handcrafted papers can only be made using clean water.


What’s unique about Japanese hand-crafted paper washi is that they are thinner and yet stronger and more long-lasting than other types of paper.

Japanese handcrafted papers

In the city centre, there is a shop called Washinery where you can find washi paper made in Mino as well as different types of papers made all over Japan. Inside is like a museum and the staff will help you find the one you like. They sell stationary goods too, so it’s a fun place to visit.


There are also a couple of museums related to washi and paper-made lanterns if you want to know more about Japanese handcrafted paper.


Old merchant houses that are kept intact from the old times are worth visiting. These were built during the time when washi making was booming. Nowadays, these houses are operated as a hotel, cafe and shop. You can feel the long-history of washi-making in Mino just by walking around the city centre.


Access: It takes about an hour and a half to travel to Mino from Gifu city. You can take a JR train to Mino Ota, and then take another train on the Nagaragawa Railway.


Keen to find out more? Click here to listen to the Japan Experts Podcast episode!

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