Winter Tour: Strolling and Snowshoeing Through Gifu’s Hidden Spots
By Iain Maloney
On February 5, 2018
One of central Japan’s best kept secrets is Hida-Furukawa, a stop or three (for rapid or local trains) past Takayama station. Hida-Furukawa is a well-preserved old town replete with dark wood and white-washed walls, carp-filled waterways winding along its narrow streets and a riotous spring festival boasting semi-naked men competing in shows of strength and agility, elaborately decorated floats and some of the loudest drums this side of Armageddon. Unlike Takayama, however, its historic streets aren’t clogged with tourists and there is a strong sense of the town being, well, a “town” rather than an open-air museum.
My wife and I have lived in Gifu Prefecture for many years and have grown tired of the same old same olds. Hida-Furukawa was a new destination for us and Satoyama Experience’s tour options looked like an interesting way to explore the area.
Satoyama Experience snowshoe tour
First on the itinerary was the snowshoe tour. Before this trip, my idea of snowshoes were those tennis racket-like contraptions Victorian gentlemen strapped to their feet before scaling the Alps dressed head-to-toe in tweed, a smoldering pipe clutched firmly in their jaws. I was a little disappointed to discover a much more modern and professional setup.
The trek takes place a 30-minute drive from Hida-Furukawa around the hamlet of Tanekura. Once a populous, bustling village in the mountains along the border between Gifu and Toyama prefectures, urban migration and a declining birthrate have brought Tanekura to the brink of extinction. Only a handful of homes remain inhabited and the community’s bleak future is represented by the only two children living there.
Gifu’s Machu Picchu
Yet it is an area of dramatic beauty. The hillsides are carved into perfect terraces for rice cultivation, each raised and bordered by intricate dry, stone walls. Their appearance has led to the slopes above Tanekura being nicknamed “Gifu’s Machu Picchu.”
Our guide, Sasaki-san, led us to through the hamlet’s twisting paths, around frozen rice fields and the wooden kura or storehouses from which the town derives half its name, to where the snow lay pristine, marked only by the footprints of the wild traffic that criss-cross the hills. Sasaki took time to point out the deep two-toed mark of deer, the light, cute splay of the raccoon’s paw, the spiky shuffle of the wild boar, explaining clearly enough that we felt a secret of the woods had been unlocked for us.
The hills are alive
After a brief introduction to snowshoe dos and don’ts, we’re off up the winding path towards Machu Picchu. Walking with snowshoes is an acquired art. Your feet are a good couple of inches wider on each side, which is great to stay above the snow. I adopted a gait like the Incredible Hulk doing an impersonation of John Wayne. I wasn’t going to win any points for style but as my aim was to remain vertical, it seemed a fair price to pay.
Like its Peruvian namesake, there is something ruinous about the walls above Tanekura. The rocks that make up these walls — countless millions of them — were sourced from the riverbed far below and the mountain peaks towering above. Gathered in the summer, villagers would wait until winter then pull sledges of stones up the steep inclines. They were then set into place by hand. It took 15 years of continuous work. When war came and took all the men away, the labor was continued by women, children and the elderly. The oldest fortification has been standing for 90 years but there is now insufficient people to maintain them. The weight of snow, incursions by grass and weeds, and the ever-present threat of earthquakes leaves them in a tenuous position. When these walls fall, who will rebuild?
Man versus nature
The hiking is interspersed with frequent stops to share information or because we have come across something interesting and unexpected. In the trees above Sasaki points out clumps of leaves.
“Nests?” I venture.
We’re no more than five minutes from the nearest house and each tree has half-a-dozen clumps.
“The bear pulls the leaves in to make a comfortable seat. Then she sits and eats.”
No one asks what she eats.
“Why does she eat up a tree?”
“It’s a nice view.”
We resume padding across the snow.
“What do we do if we encounter a bear?”
Clearly, climbing is out. I review the database of animals facts at my disposal. Sharks get a punch in the nose. Wolves get a display of strength. Snakes you back away from. Bears you… play dead? Make yourself big?
I look at Sasaki, a triathlete, lithe and fit. I look at my wife, small and strong, a muscular rock-climber. Both of them, perched on the snow like ducks on water, and me, shin deep and in danger of sinking further. I recall the old joke about two wildlife photographers on the Serengeti filming a lion. It spots them and begins to make its way over. One photographer slips his boots off and pulls on running shoes.
“What are you doing?” says his partner. “You can’t outrun a lion.”
“I don’t have to,” he replies. “I only have to outrun you.”
I wish I hadn’t watched The Revenant over Christmas.
Of course nothing happens. The bears are safely hibernating and the Satoyama Experience guides are professionals who would never expose anyone to that kind of danger. The only grizzly creature lumbering about the woods was me.
Rest and recuperation
The whole tour takes a little over two hours and we cover something like 2 kilometers, most of it off-piste. The route loops clockwise so we end up back where we started, invigorated, refreshed, full of fascinating insight into the area’s flora, fauna and cultural history — and already raring for another snowshoe trek.
Guided town walk
The next day we join the Satoyama Experience Guided Town Walk. Leaving from the Satoyama office, a seven-minute walk from the station, our group of four was led by Ogawa-san, a bubbling fount of energy and knowledge. On paper 2 ½ hours seems a long time for a walking tour but in reality there is so much to see that the time passes quickly. The actual walking is broken by forays into museums, breweries and candle-making shops, plus a break in a gorgeous little coffee shop in the shadow of Honkou-ji temple.
Hida-Furukawa has a compact center radiating from Matsuri Square, home to the Hida-Furukawa Festival Museum, where a brief film outlines the history and key events of the two-day festival. Ogawa is full of fascinating details about the design of the festival floats and the effort that goes into maintaining and displaying them. There are marionettes visitors can have a hand in manipulating and opposite the entrance a replica of the official festival drum stands in the open for anyone to have a crack at.
Town tours often touch on the locale’s superficial details but the Satoyama guides go the extra mile. Ogawa’s explanations of the intricacies of local architecture brought the buildings to life. The playful rivalry Hida-Furukawa maintains with its bigger, more famous neighbor shone through in a kind of subtle pride in everything from carpentry and cuisine to the sprinklers cunningly embedded in the road to keep it snow free winterlong.
The whole tour was conducted, like the snowshoe hike, in the manner of a proud resident politely showing off their home to new friends. The love and care each guide exhibited for the area was infectious, guaranteeing that I’ll be back to Hida-Furukawa as soon as I can.
Address: Furukawa-cho, Hida-shi, Gifu-ken
Best Time: Specific tours are seasonal but Satoyama Experience has something on offer all year round.
Price: Snowshoe trekking in Tanekura is ¥7,000 per person. The town walk is ¥4,500 per person.
Access: Hida-Furukawa is the next major stop on the JR Takayama line after Takayama station. The office is a seven-minute walk southwest of the station. Satoyama Experience also has an office in Takayama and offers tours in Takayama and around Shin-Hotaka. See their website for specific details: www.satoyama-experience.com.