Discover the Satoyama

Gifu Province, Hida Furukawa

By Gregory Patrisse   Jun 6, 2014 - 6 min read

Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto... these are the destinations that tourists prefer when they visit Japan. However, Japan is full of gorgeous places to visit, other than these major cities. The Japanese countryside also offers lots of surprises if you want to venture in the heart of the country. The best way to discover what we called the "Satoyama" is to come to Hida Furukawa, in Gifu Prefecture, where lots of surprises are waiting you.

Located in the heart of the Japanese Alps, Hida region offers sublime views to anyone wishing to venture in the wilds of Japan. The use of the term Japanese Alps in this region is due to the fact that it consists largely of mountains and some of them may peak at over 3000 meters altitude. It includes Mount Norikura, which rises to 3026m, which is part of the most famous mountains in Japan. Although the region is 90% mountains, towns and villages are still present. Above all, you will find many different fields (rice, onions, tomatoes, barley ...); rice fields are the most represented one...

From this, it is easier to understand what the word “Satoyama” means. Thanks to the etymological point of view, this word is the combination of two words: Sato 「里」which means an inhabited place, and Yama 「山」 which means mountain. Therefore satoyama means an area that lies between the mountains and farmland but it may also mean more generally, the Japanese countryside. Here, people attach particular importance to the preservation of Satoyama because they want to preserve the scenery as it is, such as renovating the old farms and traditional folk houses, called "Kominka" (古民家 in Japanese). In addition, what they want is that the balance between man and nature is maintained at a consistent level. In other words, man must not take precedence over nature at risk to see the satoyama disappeared.

In Hida area, Takayama and Shirakawa-go are the two most popular touristic cities. In the villages of Shirakawa-go (created around the 8th century, with a population of just over 600 inhabitants) and Gokayama (also created around the 8th century, with a population of about 80 people), you will have the opportunity to discover the houses called "gassho-zukuri" (literally "prayer-hands construction" in connection with the shape of the roof which is made ​​of thatch) that are classified as a World Heritage Site. The population lives exclusively with agriculture and tourism. The silk industry was present there but disappeared in the 1970s. It is also possible to find other beautiful villages within this countryside. One of them, Hida Furukawa (created in 1589 with a population of 26,086 inhabitants), offers good opportunities to explore the area as well as many local events. This village is not so far from Takayama (about 15 minutes by train, 40 minutes by bus) and if you have the Japan Rail Pass, you can easily come to this village.

One of the big events they have is Furukawa Matsuri, an important festival that takes place every year from 19th to 20th April and which is designated as an important cultural property of Japan. For visitors who come to the Hida region, this festival is a cultural phenomenon not to be missed. The year 2014 was special because a French was able to attend this legendary event for the first time in its history. The festival is divided into two parts, the first one, being called "Yatai", is a parade of floats through the streets of Furukawa; and the other one, calling it "Okoshi Daiko", is a fairly energetic parade of drums in which hundreds of people (about 600) are involved.

It is in this small village that it will be possible for you to discover all the elements that are part of the satoyama. Many activities offer you the opportunity to be emerged into the local culture. The opportunity to know all this culture (in order to make you aware of the importance of preserving this heritage) is unique.

First, you have the possibility to rent a traditional house. Indeed, Hida has a beautiful nature each season and a special local culture which needs to be protected. Nowadays, it becomes more difficult to see houses that have traditional Japanese style, like Kominka. It is possible to see some of them in Hida and, of course, to stay in one of them. You need to pay between 85,000 and 130,000 yen to rent a house.

Then it will be possible for you to be introduced to the history of sake in Takayama. Today, sake begins to take a lot of importance and to be exported more. Therefore, this activity is centered on the use of sake by the population in the region. During the activity, you can practice calligraphy, packaging bottles of sake with furoshiki or how to learn to drink sake in a traditional way in order to let you know how important the sake is for the local population.

If you ever feel to discover more about local products such as miso or rice, feel free to walk quietly around the village (better to be with a guide to understand histories). Walking tours in the villages of Furukawa and Tanekura are also available in order to make you enjoying and learning up better this region. But walking there would take too much time to see everything. That's why some people thought that it could be better to discover all the satoyama with an efficient mean of transport: the bike. Indeed, the geography does not really allow you to go anywhere by car.

It is really easy once you are there to be immersed in the “Real” Japanese countryside thanks to the bike. The purpose of this is to enable you to discover different aspects of satoyama during your tour by bike. Many tours are available for you: You can rent a bike and discover places on your own, or, you can choose among the different tours and you will be guided along it. Each tour has its own difficulty level ranging from the easiest to the most difficult one. The fact is that each circuit has its own treasure. Many things await you like discovering the beautiful scenery of the Japanese countryside, seeing a glimpse of Hida Life or hiking amongst the waterfalls. Now, the choice is yours to decide what you want to see.

If you are interested by coming here, in Hida, don't hesitate to visit my homepage in order to find more information.

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Gregory Patrisse

Gregory Patrisse @Gregory Patrisse

Actually finishing my last year of my Master Degree measuring in Business with Asia in Le Havre (France), I had to do two internships in order to be graduated... Since my childhood, I was very attracted by manga and anime. That is, maybe, the main reason why I started to learn Japanese 5 years ago. And in order to achieve my dream which was to work in the Japanese countryside, I decided to go to a small village called HIDA FURUKAWA in order to make my internships. Actually working for SATOYAMA EXPERIENCE for now 4 months, I really enjoy my life in this beautiful place and hope to be someone important for my country and Gifu Prefecture.  Satoyama Experience, which is produced by the company Chura-boshi, wants to present an overview of life in the Japanese countryside and provide to foreign and Japanese travelers the opportunity to explore and discover the depth of Japanese culture through various activities such as cycling tours, an introduction to the history of sake in the region and even the opportunity to stay in an old traditional Japanese house in order to know better the local culture. If you need informations about the project, here is the website: http://www.satoyama-experience.com/ Feel free to contact me if you want to join one of the tour they are offering. I'm waiting for you!!

Join the discussion

Gregory Patrisse Author 4 years ago
@Nicole Bauer: Thank you for your reply. Don't hesitate to come again to Furukuwa one day to see the festival. This is really something. By participating to it, I can tell you that it's a wonderful experience to live !! Be prepared before seeing it, 'especially for the second part called 'Okoshi Daiko', because it really looks like a fierce battle between the participants. But lots of fun await you during the festival =)
Nicole Bauer 4 years ago
@Gregory I couldn't stay until the festival unfortunately. However, we went to the museum and were able to see some of the floats and some great documentation about the festival. The live experience will have to wait til next time :-))
Gregory Patrisse Author 4 years ago
@Nicole Bauer : Thank you very much for you nice comment. I'm very glad to see that you went to Furukawa last April !! Did you have the opportunity to see the Festival held on 19th and 20th?? It is a wonderful moment to live with local people...
Nicole Bauer 4 years ago
This is a great overview of the area. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and putting it all into perspective! I went to Furukawa in April this year and it was truly wonderful - a very nice surprise!