Furukawa: My New Favorite Town

Sometimes when you travel, you stumble on a place that you don’t expect, one that hasn’t been on your radar screen at all. For me, that place on our Japan trip was the small town of Hida-Furukawa in central Honshu (take off the “Hida,” which refers to the region, for the town’s less formal name). Nestled up against the mountains, Furukawa is unassuming and quiet, yet it offers a surprising number of things to do and see.

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Roughly 400 years ago, Lord Kanamori Nagachika built a major canal in this area to irrigate the many rice fields. The Setogawa Canal is now lined with thirty whitewashed storehouses and breweries, and you can walk along it for quite a ways.

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The canal has become home to over 1000 carp — when they’re not “fasting” (and, if the drawing in the lower right is to be believed, hanging out in a truck) for the winter:

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A walk down front of the storehouses will lead you to sake breweries, where you can do tastings and buy yummy sake.

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The breweries are easily located by these large cedar balls, or sugidama, over the doors. These were originally hung to let people know when new sake had been brewed, but now they’re just outside all the time.

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The next block of small storefronts leads you to a candle-maker, Junji Mishima, whose family has been in the business for seven generations.

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Here, you can watch the candle-maker himself at work through a glass window …

… while you transact your candle-buying business.

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There are fewer than ten shops that produce hand-made candles in Japan today, so this stop was pretty special.

The town has multiple large Buddhist Temples. Two of these are Enko-ji, where I was sorry that we weren’t able to go inside to see the “turtles that call water” carvings …

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… and Honkou-ji, the largest wooden temple in Hida:

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My mom, sister, Prescott and I had a great time walking (and leaning — I’m not sure why) along the streets and paths …

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… admiring both the buildings (my Visitor Guide brochure says that “when people renovate or rebuild their houses, those are spontaneously designed to harmonize with the townscape”)…

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… and the plantings.

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The Japanese work hard to keep their trees and shrubs in good shape. Some gardeners use the permanent prop-up poles you see above; others utilize a variety of structures to protect their plants from the heavy winter snows. This conical rope method, called yukizuri, is the most elegant version of protection …

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… but really, it looks like anything will do:

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Another reason to love Furukawa is the food! The restaurants are small and cozy (and the best have no menus). Ordering became an interesting sort of game, but we made it work. Our favorite experience was our dinner at Inaho , where we ate sashimi (three kinds of sea bream, three kinds of tuna, and salmon), bamboo shoots grilled with a butter sauce, red miso soup, a local specialty of baked pickled cabbage and egg, wild greens tempura, and three kinds of grilled fish – including this super-tasty guy, whose face only a mother could love:

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We also had the nicest server ever (who prattled on and on in Japanese with no apparent heed for our inability to understand a word of what she was staying):

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And we really loved the next night’s dinenr at Katsumi, which was a slight bit more elegant and oh-so-delicious …

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… and where the chef and the staff were incredibly attentive and friendly.

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Furukawa is also home to multiple small and delightful museums. We first went to the Hida Furakawa Festival Hall, which is devoted to teaching visitors about the wild and crazy Furukawa Festival. For one night and one day every April, the sleepy town of Furakawa turns into a delightful chaos of drumming, floats, puppetry, prayers, and parades in celebration of spring. For a real sense of what this is all about, you can see it on the big screen in a movie at the Festival Hall. For a smaller digest of the evening component of the festival, they have the whole thing laid out in an apple-wood diorama. Here are the village women carrying the lanterns …

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… the village men carrying two of their own atop a giant drum (note: the men sport nothing but loose white underwear) …

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… and young men doing an ancient version of planking atop tall wooden poles (which are being carried by other men while marching down the crowded streets):

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The next day, everyone turns out for a much more sedate ritual of parading and entertainment. The parade floats themselves are incredible — they’re over two stories tall, grandly ornate, and very old (each village maintains and updates its own float over the centuries). In the main museum space of the Festival Hall, you can admire three of the floats themselves:

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Here’s a mini-version of a float for a better sense of what they look like:

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For a better sense of how the floats are constructed, the museum offers a scale model:

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Also on display are masks from the lion dance …

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… and costumes from different villages:

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You’ll find some fun, interactive elements at the Festival Hall, including an automated puppet show that simulates what you would actually see on festival day…

… marionettes that you can try out yourself …

… and a giant drum just outside …

… that you can “experience” for a small fee.

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Just across the courtyard from the Festival Hall is the Takumikan Craft Museum. This is, in essence, a museum of carving and carpentry. The village of Furukawa was long famous for its carpenters, who contributed work to many of the palaces and temples in large cities like Nagoya, Kanazawa, and even Kyoto. This museum has an interactive play area where you can study up on and feel different kinds of wood …

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… learn the many ways in which joints were made without nails …

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… and try seeing things how fit together for yourself:

There are also display cases where you can see antique carpentry tools, like line markers …

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… plumb bobs …

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… and insanely large curved saws:

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The woodwork and carvings — here, at the Enko-ji Temple just around the corner — are beautiful.

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But my favorite part of all of Furukawa was our hike at the Utsue Shijuhattaki waterfall, just a ten minute drive out of town.

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This isn’t just one waterfall; it’s a series of falls that seem to go on and on and on. Local legend has it that the ravine through which the falls run was created when a dragon lashed its tail and carved up the mountain.

At the base, the walk up to the falls begins as a gentle stroll over easy paths and bridges…

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… keep going, and it becomes an actual hike …

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… and if you go up further still in late March, it becomes a slog through the snow:

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But it’s beautiful at this time of year! You can still play with icicles …

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… and the snow melt comes down the mountain in great torrents:

IMG_2505.jpgIf you hike a good ways up, you reach a panoramic view of Japan’s Northern Alps!

IMG_2488.jpgThere’s a viewing scope that lets you see each peak up close:

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At one of the waterfalls, there’s a tiny secret shrine carved into one of the rock walls:

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We all had so much fun just playing around here:

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JLTG2683IMG_2517IMG_2524If you can make it to Furukawa, I can’t recommend this hike highly enough!

The last thing that I truly loved about Furukawa was the huge onsen-style ceramic tub in our Airbnb guest house … so while we were not able to make it to either of the two local onsens, I could soak and relax in this amazing bath:

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One response to “Furukawa: My New Favorite Town

  1. Pingback: A Day in Takayama | Traveler Tina·

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