Beyond the bright lights of Tokyo with its skyscrapers, hi-tech industries, salarymen and neon lights, lies a mountainous hinterland, where ancient customs meet with serene beauty.
In Gifu Prefecture, wa – the art of living harmoniously – is deeply rooted in culture. When Japan reopened its doors to independent travellers three months ago, I joined the surge of visitors (encouraged by sterling’s relative and unusual strength against the yen) and seized the opportunity to find harmony in Gifu’s forested hills.
Many Japanese words begin with “wa”: washi – Japanese paper; waka – poetry; wafuku – traditional clothes; washoku, cuisine, and washitsu – traditional rooms.
At its simplest, wa means Japanese style, but at a deeper level wa embodies the Japanese philosophy of “balance of all things in and around us.” It was just the tonic I was seeking.
As I travelled on the bullet train to Hashima in Gifu from Tokyo, Mount Fuji rose from the plains, the cone-shaped, snow-topped mountain epitomising the simplicity of form and beauty celebrated in Japanese culture.
In Hashima, I boarded a bus that gently ascended to Gujo Hachiman, autumn colour spreading the golds and reds of mountain oaks and maples between ink-green cedars. The fleeting beauty of the seasons is marked in Japan by countless festivals; Gujo Hachiman is known for its summer dance festival.
I arrived in the castle town as daylight faded out, Yoshida River tumbling off the hills, the sound of running water from street fountains and carp-filled water channels filling the night air.
My first washoku experience was at Daihachi, an inn where I took my place at a low table surrounded by floor cushions in the dining room. Dishes arrived in small decorative bowls set on a tray: sweet ayu fish and juicy hida beef, vegetables, salad and soup.
The food served in traditional restaurants such as these is nearly always local and seasonal, a rainbow of colour and a balance of ingredients and flavours. Meanwhile, my accommodation at The Oak Gujo encapsulated the clean lines and subdued beauty of the Japanese-style washitsu with dark polished wood, light-difusing washi screens and a deep bath tub.
From Gujo Hachiman I climbed further into the hills, exploring narrow Machiya merchant houses in Iwamura with harmonious garden courtyards and sampling sake at Iwamura Brewery, which dates back to the Edo era some 250 years ago.
Light-headed, I ascended higher to the Nakasendo Trail at Magome-juku, an ancient pathway connecting Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto. Above the town, the smoky blues of the Kiso Range opened out, while the autumn colour of the lower slopes seemed brighter, more vivid than home. I felt energised by the hills surrounding me and in harmony with them.
I’d eased into Japanese wa on my journey so far, but it hadn’t prepared me for the Ryokan Suimeikan experience at Gero City. My room had all the elements of the traditional ryokan inn: tatami (woven mat) flooring, a low table and legless chair, washi screens and a raised alcove adorned with a simple Japanese flower arrangement and off-set painting, but curiously no bed.
Three sets of slippers were provided for the bathroom, balcony and the rest of the hotel with its indoor and outdoor baths and Japanese gardens. The nakai – maid – ceremoniously welcomed me with green tea. After a long relaxing soak in my room’s bath, I slipped into a yukato – a cotton kimono for dinner. Back in my room, I discovered that the nakai had laid out a futon. Deeply relaxed, I fell into an easy sleep.
Travelling into the heart of the Kiso Ontake Mountain Range, I arrived at Gandate, a regional park of 200 waterfalls, sheer-sided ravines, dense forest and soaring cliffs carved by lava flows. Breathing in the spray of waterfall and the scent of pine, I felt my heart-rate slow. I was learning the art of shinrin yoku, Japanese forest bathing.
To experience how rural Japanese lives in harmony with nature and each other, I took a bike tour through countryside on the outskirts of Hida City. I cycled through rice-fields, visited a shrine and peered into a multi-generational farm.
In remote Shirakawa-go, west of Hida City, harmony has earned the mountain village Unesco World Heritage status. Here the entire village comes together to re-thatch the triangular-shaped gassho-style houses (so named because they mimic gassho, the pose assumed when praying).
I stayed in a traditional farmhouse of long lacquered corridors with nothing but the thin paper of the washi window between me and the icy mountain air. My host warmed the room by stoking a fire pit and cooked a succession of comforting and beautifully presented dishes.
Warmed through by a long soak in the hot tub and the hot-water bottle provided, sleep came easy. Wa was working its magic.
Throughout my Gifu trip, I experienced respectful friendliness and a tangible desire to please newcomers. The word for yes – hai – is a frequent refrain, while iie meaning “no”, is seldom heard. But wa is much more than the art of living harmoniously; it penetrates everything from architecture, the arts and crafts to peaceful co-existence with nature. It’s a concept that I’m holding on to as we begin a new year.
British Airways and JAL both fly direct from Heathrow to Tokyo.
Inside Japan offers tailor-made tours.
The Oak Gujo, Gujo Hachiman accommodates up to six people from £276.
Gero Hot Springs Hotel Suimeikan, has doubles from £150.
Stay in a traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouse in Shirakawa-go from £50pp half board.
Visitors who are triple vaccinated do not need to take a Covid test prior to arrival. Those who cannot prove vaccination must take a Covid test 72 hours or less before travel.