Gujo Hachiman: An Offbeat Foodie Paradise and Pioneer of Plastic Food Samples

Gujo Hachiman is an idyllic, picturesque town nestled in rural Gifu Prefecture, nicknamed “Little Kyoto” for its maze-like rows of traditional townhouses. Beneath this rustic scenery lies an exciting foodie culture rivaling that of traditional gourmet hubs like Osaka and Kanazawa. It’s also the birthplace of Japan’s quirky plastic food samples, and is well-known for its vast network of rivers and canals boasting pristine drinking water. Join us as we uncover the culinary and cultural gems of Gujo Hachiman - including making our own plastic ice-cream and more!

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Food, Traditions, and Cycling in Gujo Hachiman

On a wet and rainy weekend in early July, we journeyed through the densely forested mountains of rural Gifu to the isolated town of Gujo Hachiman. Our purpose was to witness the comeback of the traditional “Gujo Odori” obon festival, which returned after a three-year pandemic hiatus. Setting out from the bustling metropolis of Nagoya, the quiet, rustic Gujo-Hachiman Station drove home just how far off the beaten path we had come, filling us with an exhilarating sense of adventure. Keen to see what Gujo Hachiman had in store, we plunged headfirst into the intricate streetscape to discover the sights, eat the food, and embrace the traditions of this lesser-known slice of outback Japan.

The History of Gujo Hachiman

Gujo Hachiman was originally founded as a castle town in the 16th century by Sengoku period (1467-1615) military commander Endo Morikazu. The site was selected for its geography, with the powerful currents of the Yoshida and Nagara Rivers forming defensible natural moats. The town that grew below Gujo Hachiman Castle prospered as an important stop-over for travelers heading to the Sea of Japan from Nagoya, attracting a community of artists, cooks, craftspeople, merchants, and more, contributing to a rich local culture. 

After being decimated by fire in 1652, Gujo Hachiman was redesigned to include an expansive network of canals with pumps and taps for townsfolk to drink, wash, and immediately extinguish fires. Even to this day, basins dotting the town bubble with fresh water, keeping locals and visitors cool amidst the heat of summer. 

Today, Gujo Hachiman is known for many things, and one of its prime attractions is the “Gujo Odori,” a 400-year-old summertime obon festival running for 30+ nights between mid-July and early September. Considered Japan’s lengthiest obon celebration, it is adored for its friendly, welcoming vibe, inviting spectators far and wide to join the fun. You can read more about the long-awaited 2022 Gujo Odori in this article.

What to Do in Gujo Hachiman

Outside of the Gujo Odori festival, we spent our time in Gujo Hachiman exploring the elaborate townscape both on foot and by bicycle, diving deep into laneways to find hidden restaurants, cafes, traditional workshops, temples, and more. To enjoy the charm of Gujo Hachiman to its fullest extent, a bit of aimless wandering is a must. Whether it's a forgotten dead-end or hidden local gem, those who adore the aesthetics of old-school Japan will no doubt find something remarkable around every corner.

Sample Kobo: Discover the World of Food Samples and Make Your Own!

One of the most offbeat elements of Gujo Hachiman is its deep connection to “food samples,” pronounced as “sampuru” in Japanese. Food samples are realistic replicas of food and drink, serving as three-dimensional dioramas of a restaurant’s menu. Despite being a small city of under 40,000 residents, Gujo produces more than half of all samples in Japan, making it one of the region’s most lucrative industries. The pioneer of samples, Takizo Iwasaki, was a Gujo Hachiman native, and his innovative masterpieces rapidly became the centerpieces of restaurants across the entire country.

For an up-close, interactive encounter with this local craft, we visited Sample Kobo, a 15-minute walk from Gujo-Hachiman Station. Here, visitors can create their own sample at the “Food Replica Workshop,” which takes between 20-60 minutes, depending on the course.

There are three sample choices available: tempura and lettuce, dessert tarts with assorted toppings, or a smartphone stand of melted ice cream. While most samples demand immense skill and time to perfect, these three are surprisingly quick and easy, and can be completed via guidebooks with minimal help from staff. Unfortunately, the guidebooks are in Japanese, but the accompanying images are detailed and simple enough to follow (see above).

We opted for the smartphone holder, which takes the form of melted ice cream spilling out from a paper cup. After settling on the color, we mixed the concoction of chemicals in the ice cream cup until it began emitting heat, then carefully tipped it over to let the mixture flow out. As it changed color and solidified, we placed our wooden spoons into the liquid plastic, holding them steady until they could stand on their own. The plastic hardened after a few minutes, and our one-of-a-kind smartphone stands were complete!

After the workshop, we gawked in awe as professionals flaunted their talents in the accompanying sample-making factory, showing us the stark difference between master and amateur. Many of the display pieces were astonishingly detailed, such as individually handcrafted grains of rice and separate noodles for ramen. Afterwards, we snapped up some more professionally-crafted souvenir samples at the gift shop, which included keychains and magnets of mouthwatering morsels like sushi, strawberries, and even beer!

Relishing the Flavors of Gujo Hachiman

Despite being made of plastic, the replicas at Sample Kobo are bound to whet the appetite. Fortunately, Gujo Hachiman also has plenty of edible cuisine, and the labyrinth of narrow walkways are packed with gourmet discoveries tantalizing hungry travelers.

Fresh Soba at Soba no Hirajin

Gujo Hachiman is largely characterized by down-to-earth, no-frills eateries that prioritize top-quality, wholesome food over trendy appearances. This is perfectly exemplified by Soba no Hirajin, an old-school soba restaurant perched upon the bank of the Yoshida River.

Right in the center of town, Soba no Hirajin is the ideal spot to kick off your culinary quest through Gujo Hachiman. The views of the river from this Showa era (1926-1989) restaurant are utterly entrancing, and it’s worth seeking out a window-side seat if you can! They also provide English menus with pictures, making it a breeze to order.

As per its name, Soba no Hirajin specializes in soba dishes made with local and domestic ingredients, along with hearty bowls of Hida beef, one of Gifu’s most esteemed delicacies, and Japanese yam mashed into a flat, sticky pancake topped with egg, a beloved seasonal specialty. These dishes are available together in the “Soba and Hida Beef Bowl with Japanese Yam” set, so you don’t have to struggle to choose between them. 

The soba noodles, which we ordered cold, were firm and bouncy, with a satisfying texture and nourishing flavor. According to the chef, they are always freshly made, using local water and domestic buckwheat flour. The generous serving of Hida beef was likewise savory and filling, worthy of the hefty “wagyu” reputation. While the slippery, stringy texture of the yam was a tad difficult to handle, our willingness to try something different was rewarded with a refreshingly mild, surprisingly agreeable taste.

Retro Japanese Desserts at Sougian

After a sizable lunch, we sought to settle our stomachs with dessert at Sougian, just a minute’s walk from Soba no Hirajin. Tucked beside a charming cobblestone slope, this nostalgic eatery embodies everything loveable about old-school Japan. Behind the humble facade, the interior is beautifully furnished with both breezy traditional tatami matting and lavish Western-style decor, a unique aesthetic blend popular during the Meiji period (1868-1912).

The entire menu tempts the taste buds, and it was a struggle to settle on just one dessert. The confection most symbolic of Gujo Hachiman is the Sougian Parfait, which is built from layers of roasted tea jelly, green tea pudding, matcha ice cream, red bean paste, and rice flour dumplings topped by matcha art of a yukata-clad woman performing the Gujo Odori dance. Every mouthful was a stimulating jolt, halting our conversation as we fell into a trance-like state until the finishing bite. Depending on the time of year, seasonal parfaits are also available, such as the springtime parfait with strawberry and cherry blossom syrup, or the autumn iteration jazzed up with mashed sweet potatoes with sweetened chestnuts.

Other Sougian highlights are the “Wasanbon Matcha Latte Float,” made of top-tier Japanese sugar and locally-sourced matcha, and the enormous summer-limited “Castle in the Sky” matcha-flavored shaved ice bowl, inspired by the grandeur of Gujo Hachiman Castle. If you’re not hungry, hot or iced matcha tea, freshly brewed from pristine local water, is an equally refreshing treat for the palate.

The Summertime Delicacy of Ayu at Shinbashi-tei

One of the most popular seasonal specialties of Gujo Hachiman is “Gujo ayu,” a sweetfish caught in local rivers during summer, coinciding with the Gujo Odori festival. When visiting during this time, you’ll spot fervent fishermen often standing waist-deep in the town's rivers, using all their might to withstand being swept away by the currents.

One of Gujo Hachiman’s premier hubs of sweetfish cuisine is the restaurant Shinbashi-tei, which towers over the bank of the Yoshida River. As our visit was during the peak of summer, we naturally ordered the “Gujo Tennen Ayu Set,” which came with three servings of sweetfish individually cooked and flavored.

The closest sweetfish in the picture above is grilled without seasoning and topped with a generous dollop of rich, dark miso paste. The fish directly behind is salt-roasted, while the one at the very back is deep fried, allowing this local speciality to be relished three different ways.

While some may be put off, the bones of sweetfish are soft and brittle, and you can eat the entire fish whole - including the head! Beneath the miso, salt, and batter lies a potent, powerful bitterness, sparking a dynamic mouthful. Above all, the freshness of the sweetfish shone through, and the three servings left us happy and satisfied.

The Gujo Tennen Ayu Set is limited to summer and mid-autumn, while dishes featuring “ochiayu,” a special name given to sweetfish heading downstream to spawn, can be enjoyed in autumn. When visiting during other seasons, or for those who want to try something different, Shinbashi-tei also prides themselves on the mouthwatering “Kagaribi Set” featuring Hida Beef, which you can roast yourself on a flame-heated iron plate.

Hearty Ramen at Matsubaya

For lunch the following day, we sought out a bowl of Chinese-style ramen at Matsubaya, a simple, unpretentious eatery with a sound reputation. Matsubaya's lack of flair is more than made up for by the menu, the crux of which are the savory “chuka soba” noodles in a light broth filled with umami.

Established in 1914, and currently run by the fourth generation family owner, Matsubaya have continued thriving as countless culinary fads pass them by, serving a familiar taste locals can trust never to disappoint. Stomachs rumbling, we went with the “tempura chuka soba,” enticed by the hefty piece of tempura shrimp crowning the ramen. The tempura was a satisfying collation of a crispy outer layer and juicy morsel buried within, while the broth was rich and flavorful, yet light enough to be enjoyed until the very last drop.

Exploring Gujo Hachiman By Bike With the Nagara River Cycle Cruise

After munching our way through Gujo Hachiman, we found the Nagara River Cycle Cruise, which offers visitors guided bicycle tours around the streets, forests, and rivers of Gujo Hachiman.

Longing to dive deeper into the city’s dense alleyways, we decided to participate in the “Old City Bike Tour” cycling course. 

Criss-crossing mainstreets and laneways, we were led through a tapestry of charming hole-in-the-wall guesthouses, yukata makers, restaurants, bars, shops, cafes, and more, many of which were lovingly repurposed from old, forgotten townhouses. 

One noteworthy stopover was the “Yanaka Mizu no Komichi,” an alluring canal-lined cobblestone alleyway crowned by a concrete water fountain adorned by beautiful turquoise stones. Separated between two steps, the upper tub of the fountain receives water directly from the source, preventing pollution and making it suitable for drinking, while the lower tub is reserved for washing dishes, clothes, and more. The leftover food from dishes then flows directly into the canals, feeding the colorful carp frolicking within. This ingenious traditional system can be spotted all over town, ensuring that we were never far from a rejuvenating drink. It’s no surprise that, along with Little Kyoto, Gujo Hachiman is also nicknamed “The Town of Water.”

Another highlight was Jionzen-ji Temple, a historic complex established in 1606 by Endo Yoshitaka, the lord of Gujo Hachiman Castle and son of its founder, Endo Morikazu. The heart of the temple is a spectacular inner garden, framed magnificently from the airy tatami balcony. We sat down and let ourselves become entranced by the groves of luscious maple trees, moss-covered earth, and dazzling pond fed by its own miniature waterfall. 

Of course, it wouldn’t be Gujo Hachiman without one final bite to wrap up, which we eagerly received at “Dango Chaya.” Contained in a typical traditional townhouse, known for having a narrow front and elongated hallways, Dango Chaya specializes in “mitarashi dango” dumplings made from local Gujo rice and coated in a signature sweet soy sauce glaze. 

Having encountered dango in the past and been left disappointed, I honestly didn’t expect much. However, the tender sweetness and gratifying squishiness were worlds apart from my former encounter, and all my adorable dango disappeared in a flash, sowing the seeds for a new favorite snack. We cleared our palates with a glass of refreshing “ume” plum juice, another iconic summertime flavor of Japan. 

Gujo Hachiman: More Than Just Little Kyoto

Alongside its castles and festivals, Gujo Hachiman is a culinary destination filled to the brim with both classic and unique gourmet dishes. During our two days in the city, we enjoyed fresh soba, retro desserts, seasonal river fish, hearty ramen, and squishy dango dumplings, washing it all down at the dozens of laneway water springs. We also dove into the fascinating world of food samples, explored the idyllic streets on rental bikes, and took a moment to unwind at a stunning temple garden. For such a small city, Gujo Hachiman has enough food, history, culture, and experiences to make its nickname “Little Kyoto” feel like an understatement!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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