Cover image: Live Jikabuki peformance © Kaori Mahajan for WhereNYC
Bottom Line: Any traveler fortunate to visit Japan must include Gifu on the itinerary. Although too often overlooked by outsiders, the Japanese have a certain affinity for its arts and crafts, fine foods and breathtaking views. At the Japan Society, armed with hidagyu beef, sake and jikabuki performers the Gifu Office of Tourism put on a spectacular show.
Review: A trip to Japan without visiting Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, may seem unthinkable or unforgivable to many Japanophiles, but the Gifu prefecture has always held a special place in the Japanese people’s hearts. Its rustic charm of thatched roofed houses in villages like Shirakawa-go in the picturesque satoyama, reminiscent of a Hobbit Shire, have long drawn Japanese tourists, escaping modern Japan, to its famous onsen spas, beautiful nature parks and peaceful environment, completely devoid of animé, bright lights and Hello Kitty. For the Japanese, Gifu is a sanctuary, where one can connect to a region that “still embraces tradition,” according Gifu Tourism spokesman, Graeme Howard, a Canadian expat who has made Gifu his home. Thanks to the efforts of the local government and the Japanese people, Gifu is finally getting the recognition it richly deserves. As of 2016, UNESCO declared Shirakawa-go a world heritage site, with several more places in Gifu on the waiting list. Then of course, there is Hida-Takayama, a city whose roots can be traced back to thousands of years, which is nestled in the satoyama valley. To call it “Little Kyoto”, would be a gross understatement.
Although it may not top an outsider’s list of places to visit in Japan, Gifu has long attracted artists like Isamu Noguchi whose Akari lampshade design was inspired by both the traditional mino washi paper and the glowing lanterns of the night Coromant fisherman, similar to their kin who hunt elvers under the Basque moonlight. Long appreciated as a center for crafts, Gifu has had several living national treasures including mino yaki pottery icons: Toyozō Arakawa and Tōkuro Katō to more recently Takuo Katō who revived an ancient Persian lusterware, a rare type of metal glazed porcelain that had almost vanished in Iran.
For those lucky enough to visit Gifu, it is also known for its onsen, or public spa baths that are so pervasive in the region, according to Mr. Howard, that one can even wade their feet in outdoor foot baths before heading to their next meal.
Americans hear the term Kobe beef or wagyu, often falsely advertised on restaurant menus, but many on this side of the Pacific have never heard of Hidagyu, which for over ten years has been voted best beef in Japan. Following the showcase on Gifu culture, guests at the Japan Society each received a plate of local delicacies including: a perfectly-melt-in-your-mouth grilled Hidagyu brochette and slider, mochi rice on a stick smothered in uni walnut miso and beautiful parcel of salmon and salmon roe wrapped in a hoba leaf. As we savored our dishes, we marveled at the exquisite donburi ramen bowls, handcrafted by some of Japan’s leading artists like Tadanori Yokoo and Tabaimo.
Gifu’s history dates back to the 7th century, but far from a land, where time forgot, it has adapted and intertwined with other communities’ histories in distant continents. In the name of historical preservation of both the Japanese and American civil wars, the societies of Sekigahara and Gettysburg made a campaign to promote peace and understanding for future generations. One of the most unexpectedly moving stories, however, was Dr. Sylvia W. Smoller’s talk of Ambassador Chiune Sugihara. A seemingly ordinary bureaucrat working at a Japanese consulate in Lithuania took an extraordinary stand and issued some 6000 visas to Jews escaping the nazis. What made a man take such risks to save a community with whom he had little connection, we may never know. His courage to help others, however, was inspiring. In honor of his memory, visitors today in Gifu can see the Sugihara House and learn about the lives of the people he saved.
Following the guest speakers and live performances, we chatted over sake and hidagyu beef in the reception lobby. Although the event had come to a close, the buzz still carried as people posed for pictures with the jikabuki performers and gazed at the ramen bowls. As we exited, each of us received a miniature dish from Kohyo. Whatever happens in the future, Gifu now tops my destination list.