Hida Satoyama Cycling, Furukawa Town, Hida Province, Gifu Prefecture 飛騨古川
Hida Satoyama Cycling invited me to join them on a bicycle tour of the small town of Furukawa in northern Gifu. The company has received a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for the last three years running, and are currently ranked the number-one attraction in the area, indicating how highly their guests regard them.
To appreciate what they have to offer, you first need to understand the rationale behind the company name. Satoyama is one of those complex yet evocative terms that populate the Japanese language and culture, like wabisabi and tatemae.
A combination of 里 sato (roughly, 'home village') and 山 yama 'mountain', it is much more than the sum of its parts. Tatsufumi Shiraishi, spokesman for the Chura-boshi Company, which runs Hida Satoyama Cycling and the companion Satoyama Experience, laughs knowingly: "The topic of satoyama is as expansive as you want to make it."
Geographically, satoyama can refer to the charming pockets of untouched woodland, often on valley ridges, that skirt rural populations on the river flats. Ethnographically, it represents an entire lifestyle: a rural agricultural existence in harmony with the wilder environment at its edges, one in which paddy fields, vegetable crops and domesticated creatures exchange water and nutrients with the ancient wooded slopes.
For the friendly, savvy staff of Hida Satoyama Cycling, satoyama is all about getting people in touch with the gentle cycles of the land and the unique local traditions informed by them. What better way to do this than to take visitors out on a laidback cycling tour of part of the Hida province.
Our guide for the afternoon, Kazuhisa Matsuo - or Hisa, as he likes to be known - comes to the job with a wealth of knowledge not only of inaka (rural Japan) but of eco-adventure tours in general. He lived six years in New Zealand, during which time he led hikes on the South Island's spectacular and challenging Milford Track an amazing 111 times. Now back in his home country, he is enthusiastic about showing off Gifu's hidden treasures to both foreigners and compatriots.
Cycling Tours in Hida
Today he is also guiding a couple from Norway and another from California, each charmed by the quaint sake-brewing town of Furukawa, which makes the nearby Takayama city (population 92,000) seem like a bustling metropolis.
After brief encounters with paperwork and sunscreen, followed by introductions to each other and to our top-notch aluminium-frame mountain bikes, pre-adjusted to our heights, we head out south along the river. Bringing up the rear is French intern Grėgory Patrisse, who has only been in the area a few months but is loving the relaxed lifestyle and immersion in the local dialect and culture.
It's a sultry day in mid-July, with temperatures rising through the 30s (centigrade). After Hisa enthuses over a beautiful thatched-roof house at the side of the road, we make a welcome stop at the local spring to stock up on the delicious water, which flows at a constant temperature of 12 degrees throughout the year, even amid the heavy snows that blanket the region in winter.
Having refilled our water bottles, we cruise through a rice-growing area. The intense green of the paddy fields will be our constant companion throughout the afternoon. Hisa whips out his clear file full of photos of the rice-cultivation process, and even shows samples of the local koshihikari rice in its different stages. "The big temperature difference from season to season makes everything taste sweeter," he explains. "And of course delicious water makes delicious rice." His relaxed English has a slight Kiwi twang to these New Zealand ears, making me feel even more at home.
Our tour, as the term satoyama suggests, traverses a variety of terrain, from gentle, tree-lined slopes whispering in the wind to short stretches of highway where it's necessary to pay attention to the traffic behind you. Hisa leads the group with effortless affability, always making sure we know what's coming up next, but also encouraging us to stop and take photos whenever the landscape calls. And it is jaw-droppingly gorgeous at times: the glint of water beneath the expanse of green; the thatched and tiled houses, many over a hundred years old, stretching out across the valley; the little shrines and temples that appear out of nowhere on a side street.
After the relentless onslaught of such beauty, we're ready for rest stops, too. One comes under the welcome cover of a local produce shop, where we're quick to purchase the soft-serve ice cream made with Hida peaches. (An especially tailored Peach Tour, when you can sample the fruit direct from the branch, is coming up in August.) Before we reluctantly turn around to make our way back to our starting point, we sit at the crest of a small hill, a colourful jizō bodhisattva shrine beside us, looking out across the entire vista of Furukawa. Hisa hands us a locally made snack and a cup of chilled mugicha (barley tea), and we have a chance to reflect on how lucky we are to have experienced a cross-section of satoyama on such a spectacular day. Our return journey takes a different, lower-key route, trundling along under the cherry trees that line the river.
The Standard Tour I participated in costs 7,300 yen for adults (about US$70 as of July 2013) and lasts about three-and-a-half hours (1:30-5:00 pm). Hida Satoyama Cycling offers a range of tours to suit rider abilities, interests and group sizes. Custom tours are also available, as are discounts for group bookings.
They cater for both foreign and Japanese guests on separate tours: Mr Shiraishi notes that roughly half the tour participants are actually Japanese, a clear sign of the authenticity of the inaka experience the tours offer. They also offer tours with seasonal experiences, such as an overnight stay at a traditional minka farmhouse. View their website (http://satoyama-experience.com/) for more information.
Their companion website Satoyama Experience provides general information about the Hida province.
Access - getting to Hida-Furukawa
Chubu International Airport is the nearest large international airport to Furukawa. There are direct connecting trains on the Meitetsu Centrair service to Nagoya and Gifu.
From Nagoya Station, Hida-Furukawa is 2 hours, 24 minutes by JR Takayama Line on the Hida Express. From Toyama there are also trains taking about 75 minutes. There are also direct trains to Osaka from Takayama (4 hours, 11 minutes), though it is quicker, though more expensive, to take the Shinkansen to Nagoya and change. Hida-Furukawa train station is also the main bus station.
There are long distance bus services from outside Takayama Station to Tokyo (Shinjuku; 5 hours, 30 minutes), Kyoto, Osaka (5 hours), Nagoya (2 hours, 45 minutes), Kanazawa (3 hours), Hida-Furukawa, (30 minutes), Gero Onsen, (90 minutes), Matsumoto (2 hours), Kamikochi, and Gujo Hachiman (1 hour, 15 minutes).
There are Meitetsu Buses from Meitetsu bus center at Nagoya Station to Takayama via Gujo Hachiman beginning at 7.30am with further buses at 8.30am, 9.30am, 10.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm, 4pm, 5pm and 8pm. The return fare is 5,000 yen.
Getting Around Furukawa
Furukawa is easily explored on foot, cycle tour or rental bicycle.