Japan 2014 — Day 7: Gujo

Gujo is one of the most mem­or­able places I’ve been to in Japan. Going there, how­ever, for someone who likes to have her itin­er­ary organ­ised well ahead of time (I’m at once flab­ber­gas­ted and envi­ous of people who can rock up to a city without hav­ing booked accom­mod­a­tion before­hand), involved tak­ing cer­tain leaps of faith.

We stop by a bakery at Nagoya Station to grab some break­fast for the bus ride. There’s the failsafe curry pan (top, right), and then there’s D’s ‘tri­angle of good­ness’, which is an abso­lutely deli­cious pastry filled with chick­en and mush­room innards. It was so deli­cious we’d go to oth­er baker­ies after­wards dur­ing our trip only to be dis­ap­poin­ted. And of course, there’s my choice of a fresh milk bun. Honestly, I was seduced by the cute pack­aging! But it tasted all right, like a cus­tard bun.

We’re tak­ing the same bus we took the day before to Takayama, only get­ting off earli­er. And the scenery we pass by is breath­tak­ing. There’s some­thing about the moun­tains and rivers in cent­ral Japan that makes for amaz­ing scenery.

When I men­tion going to Gujo involved tak­ing leaps of faith, here’s the first — the bus drops you off on the side of the high­way at the very edge of town, that is, over 3 km away from the town centre. I’d read numer­ous reports of people need­ing to catch a taxi. But we didn’t have a phone plan to call for a taxi (which are very expens­ive in Japan) and the wax food rep­lica work­shop we wanted to vis­it was some­what near (1.7km from the bus stop). So we Google map’d the hell out of that walk — it looked doable (it’s all along flat ground), so we were trust­ing Google.

I’m glad we decided to walk rather than catch a taxi, though. We saw these beau­ti­ful houses attached to farm­land, after cross­ing the high­way via an underpass.

And the land­scape sur­round­ing Gujo! Gujo (or Gujo Hachiman, which is where we were vis­it­ing) is situ­ated in a val­ley where three rivers meet. I’ve seen my fair share of rur­al Australia and New Zealand, but they can­not com­pare to the autum­nal col­ours of rur­al Japan. The water in Gujo is sup­posedly so clean you can drink from it at cer­tain parts.

After walk­ing around and find­ing abso­lutely no oth­er source for food (the edge of town seemed to be filled with car repair shops), we decide to kill some time at Komeda’s Coffee until our 11:30 wax food rep­lica work­shop. I ordered the mel­on soda float (middle, left), while D ordered a chocol­ate sundae (middle, right) and some fried chick­en pieces. It turns out, though, that we’d man­aged to order at 10:59, one minute before their break­fast menu ended, so my drink came with com­pli­ment­ary toast and egg! Ah, Japan!

I ini­tially ordered the mel­on soda in the cutest boot-shaped cup ’cause I’m a kid at heart, but it seems like there’s a legit­im­ate reas­on for the shape — the shape of the cup means the ice cubes can be stacked bey­ond the level of the soda, so the soft serve can sit upon it without mix­ing pre­ma­turely with the soda and caus­ing it to foam every­where, while keep­ing the toe of the cup free of ice cubes so you actu­ally get soda as opposed to, you know, a cup­ful of ice.

And here’s the second leap of faith. We’d booked the high­way bus to Gujo (which was a feat in itself as the English page does not let you book buses to Gujo, just Takayama) without hav­ing made the book­ing at Sample Village Iwasaki to par­ti­cip­ate in a wax food rep­lica work­shop. So we were just trust­ing that there’d be open­ings — a bunch of things happened and we ended up only con­firm­ing out spot in a class two days before we inten­ded to vis­it. Honestly, the work­shop was the entire reas­on why wanted to go to Gujo. We didn’t get the time slot we wanted, but we did get a spot on the same day. The les­son: you just have to trust that things will turn out okay.

Anyway. The wax food rep­lica work­shop was amaz­ing and totally worth trav­el­ing to rur­al Japan. We learned how to make wax tem­pura using pre-made prawns, lotus root, and shii­take mush­rooms, by drizz­ling hot yel­low wax into warm water and then gently wrap­ping it around the food before set­ting the shape in cold water.

Then we made cab­bage by spoon­ing white wax and then green wax into a sheet in warm water, and then bunch­ing the white end of wax sheet, before fold­ing the ball towards each oppos­ing edge until the sheet was all used up, and using a hot and wet knife to cut it the cab­bage in half before set­ting the shape in cold water.

And we also made a fruit and pud­ding par­fait. We assembled the premade bits (the fruit and pud­ding) and dec­or­ated the par­fait using whipped cream (or white wax) and sprinkles. Using the dis­penser filled with wax, is a lot harder to con­trol than actu­al whipped cream! Wax is far more stick­ing and heavy than whipped cream, but still so much fun!

There’s an exhib­i­tion area for mod­els made by the staff. Amongst oth­er things, there’s the spa­ghetti love heart con­duct­or (top left), a scarf knit­ted out of noodles (yakisoba?) (top right), and a plat­ter of man­dar­ins (how real do they look!) (bot­tom left), while there’s also a sec­tion show­ing the stages each item goes through before look­ing like the real edible (wax) food.

And there’s a retail sec­tion where you can buy full-sized rep­licas of foods like par­faits, eggs, fruit, veget­ables, etc, and also phone charms like the half-peel man­dar­in and unadon that I bought.

After hav­ing spent well over 2 hours in the work­shop we head into the town centre for some food.

It’s still a nation­al hol­i­day so many shops are closed. We do spot this shop selling cro­quette, though. This potato cro­quette is cold and not the best, alas.

Instead we head into a super­mar­ket and get some chips to tide us over. I’m slightly adven­tur­ous when it comes to snack foods in Japan and get the weird­est pack I can find (doesn’t hurt that the pack­aging is so pretty) which is taro with honey and but­ter. It tastes exactly like what it’s meant to! It’s an acquired taste though. I believe D chose his pep­per chips also based on the packaging.

We find this alley tucked between two unas­sum­ing stores. This is one of the loc­a­tions where drink­ing dir­ectly from the river is sup­posed to be safe. We didn’t try (bet­ter to be safe than sorry), but we did see oth­er people try. The pebbled ground here is speckled with white round ones that have a face carved into them. And along the oppos­ite edge of the alley are some of the most uncom­fort­able seats ever — why do you need a round bit stick­ing up the middle of the seat?

We keep walk­ing towards the town centre and make it to the tour­ist centre. There’s a lot more people around this end of town than where we were this morn­ing! In the tour­ist centre, there’s a bunch of souven­irs on sale, but what catches our eyes is this carved wooden rep­lica of a sushi set. In a city known for wax food rep­licas, a wooden rep­lica is rather amus­ing. It looks so sexy.

Along the way, we see a win­dow dis­play made with mov­ing paper cups, and get yakitori from a stand — the sauce drizzled on the chick­en is super tasty.

After find­ing a map at the tour­ist centre we finally make out way to Sample Kobo, which is the oth­er name known for mak­ing wax food rep­licas in Gujo. They seem very much geared towards selling souven­irs (as opposed to host­ing classes), which are less detailed and var­ied than the ones on sale at Sample Village Iwasaki. I do end up pur­chas­ing a takoy­aki, a sen­bei, and a pan­cake. They look good enough to eat!

And we’re greeted by an amaz­ing view down the river.

Further on, we stumble upon a snack store. We thought the pic­ture was selling almond soft serve, only to real­ize that the pic­ture of the almond was a cocoa bean. Not to worry, though, we love chocolate!

And a view down anoth­er river. The back of the houses front dir­ectly onto the riverbank.

Now, the main reas­on we were mak­ing our way to the town centre was Gujo Hachiman Castle. The inten­tion was to walk up the moun­tain. But then we reached the base of the moun­tain and saw the wind­ing path all the way to the top, con­tem­plated the long trek back to the bus stop, and decided we’d rather save our strength for that. We did get a view of the castle from below, though (and it looked tiny, so it must be quite far away!).

We head back to a souven­ir shop and find some guava jelly. I love guava and have nev­er seen it in jelly form before! It tasted like guava, but I’d have appre­ci­ate more gelat­in — it was a bit sloshy.

Having decided not to hike up the moun­tain, we head up this steep flight of stairs. We’d seen a string of people make their way up, so we figured there must be some­thing worth see­ing up top. It turns out there’s a shrine up the top, and we get a photo of the view from the top just for the sake of it.

We vis­it the super­mar­ket again, where D picks up chocol­ate ice cream and I indulge my love for mak­izushi (no one I know under­stands why I like these, the most basic of sushi rolls, but like them I do). I’m used to them hav­ing either fish only or cucum­ber only, but both? That makes it even better!

And we’re back where we star­ted for some after­noon tea (and to kill time before our bus): Komeda Coffee. We order a green tea and azuki bean sponge roll, lem­on iced tea (for me) and an iced chocol­ate (for D). The sponge is delight­fully fluffy and the cream is also pleas­ant. Normally, cream in sponge rolls is much like your whipped cream from a can — overly airy and gross — but this was smooth and actu­ally creamy. My lem­on iced tea is pretty stand­ard, but D tells me his iced chocol­ate tasted a bit liked powered chocolate.

We budgeted over an hour to get to the bus stop. That’s a long time for 1.7 km walk, you say, but here’s a con­fes­sion: we had little idea how to get to the bus stop. The bus stop was on about 300m south of the morn­ing bus stop on the oppos­ite side of the high­way. If meas­ured using a straight-line dis­tance, we were very close to the bus stop — we could see it. It’s just the issue of cross­ing the river. There was a bridge under­neath the bus stop, but it wasn’t for ped­es­tri­ans (we couldn’t even get on it if we tried). I reasoned that there must be a bridge to cross over near­er this side of the city, so we wouldn’t have to walk all the way back to the morn­ing bus stop, and past it on the oth­er side of the river, to get to this evening’s bus stop. So we walk around for some 30 minutes, before I give in to the fear of miss­ing our bus and listen to D and walk back the way we came. The les­son? When you’re short on time, stick to the meth­od known to work!

And if there was ever any doubt that the city centre was dir­ectly oppos­ite the bus stop, here we go! And the bus stop — boy were we glad to be there.

Back at Sakae, we tick off one last item off our food list: kishi­men. Kishimen is a broad and flat noodle often seen in the Nagoya area that’s often served in a sweet soy sauce. At Miya Kishimen Takesaburo, D orders the hot ver­sion with katsu, while I order the cold ver­sion with tem­pura. I love my udon chewy, and the cold kishi­men was some of the chew­i­est, most deli­cious udon I’ve had. In case I thought it was only cold kishi­men that was chewy, D’s hot kishi­men was also delight­fully chewy (just slightly less so). Yum!