While exploring Kyoto, the first capital of Japan, I received a text message from someone I had met in Tokyo almost a week earlier, asking if I would like to join them in exploring a little village she had discovered called Gujo. Neither one of us had heard anything about this village, but we had discussed before how both us wanted to see some of rural Japan, but had no idea where to go, as there is a lot of information online about the cities, but not a lot about rural Japan. It turned out to be perfect timing for both of us, and after a little bit of messaging it turned out we were both free to explore the village the next day!
The next morning I jumped on the first shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. I soon discovered that Nagoya did not have nearly as many English signs or locals that spoke English as I had found in the cities of Tokyo and Osaka. But I didn’t let this scare me off, and within 20 minutes of using Google translate I had found and boarded the correct bus to Gujo.
From the moment of leaving the bus, we were greeted with the most amazing views. This bus did not stop in the middle of the village, it stopped on the side of the road about a 20-minute walk from the village. The driver told us as he left that we had to be back at this stop by 7:45 pm and that there would be no other buses after that. This shocked us a bit, as we had expected there to be more transportation times, but also reminded us to keep track of time (I’m notoriously bad for being late, so I had to remind myself of this!)
As I made my way towards the village, I was shocked to find myself walking past rice paddy fields, crystal clear rivers, and being surrounded by hills and mountains covered in trees of all colours. I was lucky enough to start to see the tree change colour in autumn on my trip, and that added to the beauty of Japan.
As I continued walking towards the village I chose to take a small detour along the river. I tried to admire as many traditional Japanese houses as possible on my way. As the river slowly became more shallow I started to notice that there were a lot of koi fish swimming along, too many to count! I couldn’t believe that this village would have so many koi just swimming down the river. These koi seemed almost as interested in me trying to touch them as I did with them, but then again they may have thought I had food.
After I stopped trying to touch the fish and catch one in my hands I noticed something on top of one of the hills in the distance. It was a white Japanese castle overlooking the village! I had no idea this village would have such a beautiful castle overlooking it. I felt like this village was made to be in a Disney fairytale. Even the pavement in the village centre had been paved in a beautiful design. It looked almost like cobblestone.
I chose to slowly make my way to the hill that had the castle on it, while also trying to see as many temples and shrines on my way. And there were many shrines in this little village!
After saying goodbye to all the beautiful koi it was only a 5-minute walk from the river to where I came across my first Tori gate. These gates are a symbol of a sacred Shintō shrine. This gate was unlike any I had seen in Kyoto or Tokyo, as this one was not made from wood and painted red. This gate was made from stone and much larger than any I had seen before! I also noticed that the Shinto Shrine at the building had a rope attached to a bell.
While admiring the garden a monk came over and explained that ringing the bell would protect us from evil. I always try to be respectful when entering shines and temples and not take too many pictures or do anything that could be seen as disrespectful. So as this monk explained and showed me how to wash my hands and face, then how to bow before and after ringing the bell 3 times, I figured I had his permission to ring the bell and get some protection for my upcoming hike to the castle.
After receiving my protection from the shrine I made my way back out to the village. At this point, the water levels in the river had decreased, which made it possible to see the amount of stonework that had gone into making this town, as the stones had been laid along the river. I did get a lot of weird looks from the village locals whilst taking pictures of the stream, but they also seemed happy that I was admiring their village and paying attention to the details within it. I got asked a couple of times if I was planning on staying the night or if I was seeing the castle.
As I continued walking to the castle I would occasionally pop into vintage stores that sold Japanese knives. They were amazing to look at. I then came to my next shrine, and what stood out to me about this shrine was that it was in a garden filled with stone statues. It was actually how I would picture ancient Rome, having loads of statues of the gods everywhere ready to be admired.
As I got to the start of the hill leading to the castle, it looked even steeper than I had expected. From the bottom, I couldn’t even see the castle anymore. The hill started with an ascent to a temple made from stone, then lead into what looked like a very thick forest that wasn’t letting any light in. At this point, I did start to think that even if I find my way to the castle, was I even going to be allowed in?
As I conquered the top of the stone stairs, I realized that I must have just walked into another temple complex, during what seemed like prayer time, as it looked like the monks were in the middle of a ceremony. One of the monks was kind enough to point me in the right direction towards the castle, as there were no English signs around. As I got higher and higher up the hill I got to feel like I was truly exploring some of lesser-known Japan, as well as getting a better view of that valley that the village lies in.
This hill that the castle was situated on started to feel higher and higher as I continued my climb. Luckily the route was very well maintained, using a lot of natural features such as tree routes as steps instead of creating man-made steps. I appreciated that, as this route and steps will now forever be there as long as the tree keeps growing. Almost mid-way up I found a huge bell. I could just picture back in the fifteen hundreds when the castle being attacked by another samurai clan this bell being rung to warn the village and prepare the castle!
When I finally reached the top I found myself questioning why I always end up hiking, no matter what trip I take. But as I looked out at the view I immediately knew why. t. When the trees cleared and the hill didn’t seem as steep, I could see red cherry blossom trees around me; they were not pink at this time of year, as well as some of the best-timed bushes and bonsai trees. These all headed up to the castle’s entrance. When I got to the entrance I realised that I was able to just walk right in, no ticket or anything, I just saw an old Japanese man smoking a pipe who seemed shocked to see me at first but then gave me a friendly wave indicating that I was welcome to go inside.
On entering the castle, I was greeted straight away by Japanese flags, huge wooden timbers, and a lot of old samurai armour. This castle was very different from that of European castles, as it turns out this is where they would do the last fights of a battle. So the castle itself was built for defence, not for living. There were no living rooms and no kitchen areas, at least none that I could see. Each floor had lots of areas to defend from, even the outside is made in a shape to not only look good but also to ensure that no ladders can be placed up against the walls.
While walking around exploring this 500-year-old castle, and ducking under all the timber beams made for people much smaller than me, I enjoyed trying to figure out which katana would have been my choice of weapon. There were many to choose from. Each floor of the 6-floor castle was covered in katanas, spears, and armour. Upon entering the top floor I was greeted with an amazing view of both sides of the valley, I was able to see for miles and miles in three different directions. I had no idea until reaching the top of the valley how well positioned this castle was, and how big this was!
After admiring the views I realized that I was going to have to rush back and try to find where the bus stop was again. Getting down the hill was much easier than hiking up, just a little more creepy as it got dark very very fast and the dark forest started to give me a weird feeling. Luckily ringing that bell at the temple earlier in the day must have given me some protection because I was able to make it back down quickly and only seeing the eyes of deer in the forest.
Walking back through the village I started to push my luck with time, as anyone who knows me knows I get distracted very easily. I swear I took the fastest route there, but I did see a lot of temples on the way back that I would have loved to explore!
I was fortunate enough that the temples were not open anymore so I could only admire them from the outside, and as I carried on towards the bus stop, I found the village to have all just disappeared. There was no one around, not one sound or any shops that were open. It was very weird to be walking around and not even see one person! It was even more weird when Google maps decided to tell me to walk down some dark alleyways with no street lights. But as I finally got to the bus stop I found that I had gotten there 3 minutes past the time the driver told me to be back. I started to panic and think “oh my god I will have nowhere to sleep or stay tonight!” I spent about 15 minutes Googling and looking for anywhere to sleep in the village, but nowhere came up. As I started to walk back off into the weird dark alleys back to the village to just try my luck, I heard a car coming. My eyes couldn’t believe it, the bus was running late! This was the first and only time in my 4 weeks in Japan that any public transport was late! And thank god it was!
Overall I loved visiting the village of Gujo, it was not touristy at all, the locals were so so friendly, even if we did have a language barrier. The village itself is stunning with beautiful hills and mountains surrounding it. And the castle! The castle was everything I had imagined in an authentic Japanese castle! If you have time to spend a day in Gujo on your trip I would highly recommend it