Shirakawa Village
Photo: © Shirakawa Village Office Shirakawa-go in winter

8 timeless wonders in rural Gifu that will make you see Japan in a new light

Venture into the storied realm of Gifu prefecture, from frozen waterfalls and Unesco villages to onsen and sake breweries

Written by Time Out. Paid for by Gifu Prefecture

The western prefecture of Gifu is a gateway to Japan's storied past, where echoes of shoguns and samurai resonate through its rural landscape. Historical villages dotted with thatched-roof houses and streets lined with Edo-period (1603-1867) buildings transport you back in time to an era where honour and tradition reigned supreme. 

Gifu is not just a place to traverse through history; it’s an invitation to live it. The prefecture offers everything you could want from a peaceful retreat in the Japanese countryside, complete with an abundance of natural hot springs and sake breweries. There are endless forms of accommodation to choose from, whether you want a private stay in an immaculately preserved townhouse or at a ryokan designed for worldly travellers, all tailored to meet different needs.

Here are some of the prefecture’s top attractions to see Japan in a new light. 

Despite its name, the Hida Osaka Waterfalls is found in the northern part of Gifu, not Osaka. Renowned for its picturesque beauty, these waterfalls attract visitors throughout the year. However, they become particularly captivating in winter, as the falling waters freeze into stunning ice sculptures.

The area surrounding the waterfalls – found near the foot of Mt Ontake – offers a variety of picturesque trails and viewing spots, making it a popular destination for hikers and nature enthusiasts. The waterfalls can be found throughout the Hida Osaka Gandate Park, which provides insights into the local geography and ecosystems, further enhancing the visitor experience.

Accessible yet relatively untouched, the Hida Osaka Waterfalls embody the serene beauty and natural wonder of Gifu. This forest park is an essential stop for those eager to explore the region's outdoor attractions and anyone visiting the Hida area during winter should make a special effort to see the Hida Osaka Frozen Waterfalls. 

A Unesco World Heritage site, Shirakawa-go is famed for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old. These farmhouses are characterised by their steep thatched roofs – an increasingly rare sight in Japan – designed to withstand heavy snowfall in winter.

Here you have the opportunity to wander through the beautifully maintained historical houses, many of which now serve as museums, guesthouses and shops, offering a window into Japan's rural heritage. These include the Wada House, which stands as one of the most prominent and well-preserved gassho-zukuri farmhouses in Shirakawa-go. The Wada family, once the largest landowners in the village, amassed great wealth through the production and trading of gunpowder and silk, two of the most valued commodities during the Edo Period. The former residence of the Wada Family historical residence now functions as a museum to showcase the daily lives of the people who once lived there.

Another notable gassho-zukuri farmhouse is the 160-year-old Kanda House, which traces its origins back to a descendant of the Wada family. The Kanda family, branching from this wealthy lineage, established their home after starting a brewery, with the house's inception around 1850. The architectural elegance of the Kanda House is evident in its meticulous floor plan and the impressive long roof beams. 

The craftsmanship is further highlighted by the carpenter's inscriptions on the roof frame, showcasing the refined skill and attention to detail that went into its construction. This dignified house not only serves as a window into the traditional lifestyle of the region but also stands as a testament to the high standards of gassho-style architecture.

This museum, originally the residence of the affluent Kusakabe family, showcases the architectural elegance of the Edo period, especially after it was rebuilt in 1879 by renowned artisan Jisuke Kawashiri. Crafted entirely from Japanese cypress, the building features distinctive gable walls, stepped roofs and the traditional designs of machiya townhouses, making it a prime example of Hida's craftsmanship.

In 1966, this architectural marvel was designated as an Important Cultural Property, the first private residence from the Meiji era to receive such recognition. Today, it serves as a public folk museum looking into the legacy of Takayama, the Kusakabe family, and the enduring craftsmanship that defines this region.

Beyond its role as a guardian of history, the Kusakabe Folk Museum also serves as a vibrant community hub. It hosts an array of seasonal events such as classical concerts in spring and beer festivals in autumn, further enriching the cultural tapestry of Takayama. 

To enhance your experience, consider the luxurious guest house the museum supervises next door. Taniya is an extension of the Kusakabe Family Residence,  renovated from a townhouse with a history spanning 13 generations. Accommodating up to four guests, this remarkable two-storey house boasts earthen walls, Hida timber and sliding doors crafted from the delicate Yamanaka washi. The entire house exudes elegance, though the bathroom is a particular highlight with its hinoki wood bathtub overlooking a small private garden. In the mornings, you're invited to start your day with a traditional Japanese breakfast served by the charcoal irori hearth at the neighbouring folk museum.

This morning market stretches through the heart of Takayama's historic district and along the Miyagawa River, where local farmers and artisans gather to display their goods ranging from fresh fruit and vegetables to traditional crafts and delicious street food. You’ll find everything from cutesy latte served in an edible cookie cup to mini taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries) filled with chocolate custard.

But beyond its snacky delights, the market is a treasure trove of local handicrafts, offering everything from intricate woodwork and ceramics to handmade textiles. This is a unique opportunity to purchase authentic souvenirs and gifts. The friendly vendors, many of whom have been part of the market for generations, are always keen to share stories about their products and the local culture, thus adding a personal touch to the market experience.

The only remaining building of its kind in Japan, the impressively vast Takayama Jinya served as a local government office from the 17th to the 19th century. Its well-preserved architecture and interiors – including an interrogation room used by the Tokugawa Shogunate, exquisite tatami rooms for welcoming important guests and a kitchen for everyday operations – provide a fascinating insight into Edo-period administrations.

The building’s surrounding area, known as the Sanmachi Historic District, has retained much of its historical charm with beautifully preserved merchant houses, sake breweries and traditional shops lining its narrow streets. This area is particularly famous for its atmospheric morning markets and the biannual Takayama Festival, which is considered one of Japan's most beautiful. Walking through the Sanmachi Historic District, with its wooden buildings and traditional lanterns, feels like stepping back in time.

Both the historical Takayama Jinya government house and the old township are integral to understanding the cultural and historical landscape of Takayama. Together, they form a picturesque and educational experience that captures the essence of Takayama's heritage.

With a history spanning over 400 years, this brewery has perfected the art of sake production, combining age-old techniques with modern innovations to create some of the finest sake in the Hida region. The brewery's location in Takayama is particularly advantageous due to the area's access to pristine mountain water, an essential ingredient in sake making.

You don’t need to know anything about sake to enjoy this experience. Simply sign up for a quick guided tour to delve into the intricate process of sake brewing, from the selection of rice and water to the fermentation and ageing processes. These tours not only educate you on the technical aspects of brewing but also provide insights into the cultural significance of sake in Japanese society.

After learning about the brewing process of sake, you can exchange ¥100 coins for tokens, which you can use for the sake vending machines to sample different brews from the region. Each vending machine has a chart describing the featured bottle of sake: its origin, flavour profile and pairing suggestions. If you have a particular liking for any of the sake, you can buy a full-sized bottle at the brewery shop with no added tax. As a bonus, you also get to take your ceramic sample cup home as a souvenir. 

The Iori Stay guesthouses in Takayama offer a unique lodging experience that blends traditional Japanese hospitality with modern comforts. 

Each guesthouse is designed to reflect the architectural and cultural heritage of the region. Think tatami mat flooring, sliding fusuma doors and simple yet elegant Japanese décor. Despite their traditional design, the guesthouses are equipped with modern amenities to ensure a pleasant stay, including updated bathrooms and wi-fi.

The Iori Stay Guesthouses also provide guests with the opportunity to engage in local activities and experiences, such as sake tasting, traditional crafts workshops and guided tours of Takayama's historic sites. This combination of traditional charm, modern convenience and cultural immersion makes the Iori Stay Guesthouses a favoured choice for travellers seeking an authentic Japanese experience in Takayama.

Set along the serene Hida River near Gero Bridge, Funsenchi is a unique and inviting public outdoor hot spring in Gero Onsen. This spacious pool-like bath stands out for its accessibility and communal atmosphere. It’s one of the few mixed-gender hot springs in the area where bathers can soak their tired feet and enjoy the thermal waters together. The bath's design, featuring smooth rocks and a continuous flow of hot water from a nearby source, ensures a relaxing and natural soaking experience.

Conveniently located between Gero Station and the hot spring district, Funsenchi is ideally positioned for travellers looking to unwind before or after their journey. This distinctive hot spring offers a rare opportunity to enjoy Gero Onsen's famed thermal waters in a more communal, scenic setting, making it a memorable stop on any Gero visit. Open 24/7, save for a brief pause for daily cleaning, Funsenchi welcomes visitors at any time of day, though many find the night-time particularly mesmerising. 

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