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A 2-day rural getaway in Ena City, Gifu Prefecture

A rural gem on the historic Nakasendo highway

Japan is known for its plethora of must-see destinations - many of them in large cities. But whether you're looking for that off-the-beaten-track experience or just want a break from the concrete, some time in the Japanese countryside is always a worthy addition to any travel itinerary.

Located in the southeastern part of Gifu Prefecture within easy reach of the famous Kiso Valley hiking trail from Magome to Tsumago, the city of Ena is an underseen rural gem in attractive natural surroundings, with a peaceful atmosphere and plenty to see and do.

For this combined video and article, I was lucky enough to spend two days exploring the area and checking out some of its unique highlights - from a historic castle town to the spectacular Ena Gorge.

Day 1 - Iwamura

Starting out from Tokyo, I first took a shinkansen to Nagoya and changed there to the JR Chuo Line for Ena, taking about three hours overall. Arriving at Ena Station, I immediately changed to the Akechi Line for a scenic ride through the surrounding countryside to my first stop - the historic castle town of Iwamura.

Extending just 25 kilometers and eleven stops, the private Akechi Railway connects Ena and Iwamura via a pleasant 30-minute journey through rice fields, peaceful rural villages and cedar forest. The train itself consists of just a single carriage, adding to the contrast with trains and subways in the big city.

Getting off at Iwamura's tiny station, I was immediately struck by the quietness of the town, the neatness of its little timber houses and shop fronts, and the closeness of surrounding fields and hills. Glimpsing a torii gate from the platform, I made my way down a little side street to investigate and was rewarded with a few moments in the charming Takenami Shrine - a simple wooden structure made resplendent by flashes of late autumn color.

Leaving the shrine behind, I set off for a walk along the main street, cutting a meandering path from the station through the center of the town. Lined on both sides with beautifully neat little wooden houses, it was very reminiscent of other, better-known post towns, albeit with a subtly different appeal.

Where towns like Tsumagoi and Magome have maintained a careful uniformity in the style of their buildings, creating that sense of stepping into the past, here the ambience varies from Edo Period austerity to early 20th century nostalgia, somehow making it feel more authentic and lived-in.

My first stop in the town was at Amakara, a little shop just a few steps from the station selling traditional snacks. An especially popular treat in this part of the country is gohei mochi - a sticky rice cake coated in a sweet and savory mix of miso, soy sauce and walnet sauce.

Continuing along the road, I found myself drawn to an attractive little shop with an eye-catching noren, or hanging door curtain. This turned out to be Gallery Yakusokunoki - a colorful art space dedicated to the work of local artist Ito Kazuki, ranging from painted scrolls to ceramics.

Combining the look of traditional calligraphy with colorful painted motifs, Ito's work is charming, energetic and feels right at home in this rural setting.

A ten minute stroll further uphill along the main street brought me to the Kimura Residence - once the home and business premises of a wealthy family of local wholesalers, active from the mid-to-late Edo Period. Originally a samurai family, they became townspeople after moving to the area and made a fortune by supplying the castle, then expanded their business by building luxury houses in the area and contributing to the roads and agriculture.

The family was rewarded for their efforts with frequent visits by the lord of the domain himself and the right to wear swords - both rare privileges in the Edo Period, when the trappings of social class were strictly regulated.

Fortunately, the house has been beautifully preserved, and visitors can explore a series of tatami rooms, a selection of ornamental and everyday items, and an attractive open courtyard of the sort typical in Edo Period merchant townhouses.

Next came one of the highlights of my visit to Ena, with a tour and tasting session at Iwamura Jozo - a sake brewery founded in 1787 and still operated today by the same family in its original premises, lending it a tangible sense of heritage and local pride.

In keeping with tradition, the brewery uses mainly Hidahomare rice produced locally in Gifu Prefecture, with the more famous Yamada Nishiki variety filling in for bottlings in the highly select daiginjo style. For water - the quality and makeup of which is always critical - the brewery draws from the Kiso River system via a local well dug some 400 years ago. As with much of Japan, that water is relatively soft and low in calcium, making for a slow fermentation process and smoother-tasting final product.

After a hugely interesting tour, it was time to taste four of the brewery's most popular offerings, all chosen from their flagship Onna Joshu, or glady castelanh selection of junmai and junmai ginjo sakes. These turned out to be a real delight - ranging in flavor from bright and fruity junmai ginjo expressions to a smooth and luxuriant daiginjo.

After the delicious tasting, I made my way to Matsuuraken Honten, a traditional confectionery shop located directly opposite in another beautiful Edo Period structure, to clear my head with a cup of green tea and a slice of their trademark castella cake.

Castella refers to a light and fluffy sponge cake, introduced in the 16th century by Portuguese traders and today mainly associated with the port city of Nagasaki. Matsuuraken Honten's are said to be especially flavorful due to the technique of baking them in small copper pots, and mine was certainly delicious.

Feeling refreshed, I continued on up the hill, ultimately leaving the town behind and continuing up a forest road to the Iwamura Castle Ruins. At a lofty 717 meters above sea level, it was one of the highest Japanese castles ever built and often hidden by thick mist, earning it the nickname Kirigajo, or mist castle. Today, it's best known for the story of Otsuya no Kata - a noblewoman of the warring states period (and the inspiration for Iwamura Jozo's Onna Joshu label), who took charge of and defended the castle during a dark chapter in its history.

As a daughter of the powerful Oda clan, Otsuya was married off to the lord of the Iwamura Castle to cement his status as a crucial if distant vassal. The marriage was not to last however, as her husband soon passed away from a sudden illness, just as an enemy warlord was preparing to besiege the castle. After months of dogged resistance, she negotiated the castle's surrender, saving the lives of her men in return for agreeing to marry the general of the attacking army.

Otsuya may have had no choice, but in switching sides from her own family to their rival, she earned a powerful new enemy: her own nephew and the head of the Oda clan, Oda Nobunaga. Once again outnumbered and under siege, Otsuya attempted to negotiate but was deceived and summarily executed along with her new husband and what remained of the castle garrison - a grisly end that would guarantee her place in local legend for centuries to come.

While the castle itself may have been demolished long ago, visitors to the site can still get a sense of its former layout and impressive scale from the remaining stone foundations, while the mist-covered surrounding hills, quiet forest and views down into the valley below all add to the rich sense of atmosphere.

After taking in the scenery at the castle ruins, I retraced my steps through the town and took the Akechi Line back the way I came to Ena Station. From here, it was a short walk to my accommodation for the night.

In the centuries before trains and today's mass transit system, the majority of travel was done on foot, via a handful of paved roads. Of these, one of the most important was the Nakasendo, connecting the old capital of Kyoto with Edo - today Tokyo. Established some 400 years ago in what was then one of 69 post towns breaking up that long and often arduous journey, the Ichikawa Ryokan is an extraordinary piece of living history.

After settling into my room for the night - a cozy, tatami matted space with windows looking out onto a traditional garden - it was soon time to make my way to the upper floor dining room for a dazzling series of kaiseki dishes, each one carefully selected to highlight a local and seasonally appropriate ingredient.

After a hugely enjoyable meal, I took a long and wonderfully relaxing dip in the inn's baths and was soon fast asleep.

Day 2 - Central Ena

I kicked off my second day in Ena with a visit to another beautifully restored historic building just a few steps from the ryokan, called the Oi-juku Emperor Meiji Anzaisho.

Once one of the largest inns in the town, this unique building is today best known as the overnight lodging for one very special visitor - the Meiji Emperor himself. In the course of a reign that would usher in sweeping economic, political and social change, the Emperor embarked on a series of progresses throughout the land. With industrialisation still ongoing, his retinue had no option but to take the same traditional overland routes, like the Nakasendo, that had been used for hundreds of years. In June of 1880, one such expedition brought the Emperor to what is now Ena, and with him a procession said to extend for over a kilometer.

As the usual accommodation for visiting dignitaries was then being used as a government office, the inn's wealthy owners took over and remodeled part of another neighboring inn, adding a small suite of tatami rooms especially for the emperor with many beautifully crafted furnishings.

After admiring the contents of the Emperor's former suite, I took a few minutes to peruse the other items on display, from a temporary exhibition of antique pottery to maps and visual reconstructions of the old townscape. Even without English explanations, these added a lot of depth to my impression of what the town had been and would come back to me later as I made my way along its old streets.

A final highlight of my visit to the old inn appeared in the form of the Nagaya-mon - a magnificent wooden gate in the parking lot to the rear of the property. Built about 400 years ago, it is said to have once belonged to Iwamura Castle, but was later brought into the town and attached to the honjin - a special inn used by nobles, feudal lords and officials of the shogunate.

For my second to last stop, I took another short walk to the Hiroshige Museum of Art, Ena, home to an impressive collection of around 1,500 works by one of Japan's most beloved woodblock print artists. Today best known for his graceful, gently stylised snapshots of popular travel destinations, Hiroshige was a regular traveler on Japan's highways. Along the way, he recorded his impressions of the landmarks, views and post towns he passed, ultimately establishing himself as one of the greatest and most iconic woodblock artists of his time.

Making my way around, it was hugely satisfying to pick out recognisable spots from my own travels, or to catch momentary glimpses of a Japan now long passed. In all of his depictions of people, Hiroshige captures something irresistibly human that somehow also brings the entire image to life.

Set in an attractive modern building, the museum features two exhibition rooms - because ukiyo-e are sensitive to light, they are changed approximately once a month, and various exhibitions are held throughout the year.

Rounding off my visit to the museum, I had the chance to try my own hand at recreating one of Hiroshige's famous prints through a simple, streamlined process - applying paint to blocks and pressing a single sheet of paper onto each in sequence, building the picture one layer of color at a time. In reality of course, a single print would have required a team of highly skilled craftsmen from the artist himself to the woodcarver tasked with creating three dimensional copies of the original image.

By now it was almost time to say goodbye to Ena, so setting off from the museum I jumped on a local bus for the 15 minute ride to my final stop - the Ena Gorge.

Close to the midpoint of the Kiso River that flows through Ena and its neighboring city of Nakatsugawa, the Ena Gorge is a large and very scenic body of water, known for its cherry blossom in spring, lush green forest in summer and fall leaves in autumn.

Making my way down to the pier, I embarked on a 30 minute cruise of the gorge, taking in the late autumn foliage and curious rock formations lining the shores on each side and bringing my time in Ena to a leisurely close.

In a time when social media feeds are packed with eye-catching posts about the latest goff the beaten trackh destinations, genuine surprises can feel increasingly hard to find. For me though, Ena was exactly that - an area rich in history, packed with things to see and do, yet largely unknown even to many Japanese travelers. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and if you're looking for your next rural escape - or simply find yourself with time to spend during a trip to the Kiso Valley area - I heartily recommend it

This article was funded in part by the Council of Local Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR).

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