Something gets lost living in the big cities of Japan. Surrounded by equal parts comfort and convenience, it’s easy to overlook the mystery this country has to offer. The giant buildings and winding tracks do their best to cover the history, but this is the land of trickster fox spirits, cucumber chomping kappa and some of the scariest ghost stories ever. This is still the Japan that inspired generations of artists, from Hokusai to Miyazaki, to create whimsical and fantastic images; you just have to know where to look. And for those living in and around Nagoya, you need look no further than Iwamura.
A tiny village in Gifu surrounded by a ring of mountains, Iwamura is most famous for its castle ruins. Built in the 12th century, Iwamura-jo was the highest mountain castle in all Japan during the Edo era. Nearly every morning the valley wakes covered in a layer of mist, earning Iwamura-jo the nickname of the foggy castle. Said to have protected the castle and the people from several invasions throughout the centuries, the mist couldn’t stop the rise of Nobunaga who slaughtered the lord and lady of the castle in 1575. And the castle itself was torn down when feudalism was done away with. To this day the Onna Joshu, or lady of the castle, is seen as a sort of patron saint of Iwamura, still keeping her village safe.
A journey to Iwamura begins in Ena city, less than an hour away from Nagoya. From there take the local Akechi Railway and board the Taisho Roman, an old school diesel engine. The laboriously slow pace up the mountain allows you the chance to take in some lovely views of bamboo and evergreen forests. You can also opt to enjoy local-sourced delicacies in the dining car, but you have to book your meals at least 5 days in advance
After about 30 minutes, the mountainous terrain and terrace-style agriculture gives way to the unassuming Iwamura station. After your journey, if you’re feeling a bit peckish, there’s a small café in the station that makes a great cup of coffee. While most sites are within walking distance of the station, the bike rentals are a popular option for anyone who might be struck with wanderlust and wish to veer off the beaten track. Alternatively, some of the locals recommend taking a taxi from the station up to the castle ruins, where you can mosey back down at your own pace.
A lot of Iwamura remains untouched by modern life, and many of the buildings are nearly 300 years old. The walking course takes you up Shinmachi, a Meiji-era street lined with shops and homes. The buildings nearest the station are newer, and the styles age as you head towards the castle; giving the illusion of ascending backwards through time. Stop by any of the sightseeing spots along the way, houses and shops unchanged for hundreds of years, to gain a sense of the rich history.
Unlike bigger cities, each shop here is unique, offering the traveler a distinct taste of local life. People come from all over Japan to taste Kankaraya’s famously soft mochi (as well as some excellent udon); while right across the street you can enjoy gohei mochi at Mihara. Iwamura is known for making Castella the same way as it was first introduced to Japan hundreds of years ago, and the Matsuura-ken Kameya Kashiho makes one of the best cakes in town. And at Sobaya Yui, they make hand-made noodles every morning.
Towards the top of the village, about a kilometer from the station, you come to Honmachi and the Iwamura Brewing Company. Famous for their Onna Joshu sake, they offer tastings and tours every day. And every February they celebrate the completion of the newest batches with an open house.
At the end of Honmachi you come to the base of Shiroyama, Castle Mountain, where, hundreds of years ago, you would have clearly seen the castle looking over the village. What remains today is the tragic story and some truly fascinating ruins. The walk to the summit is steep, but not impossible. Visitors can gain access to the summit climbing stairs through encroaching cedar forests that threaten to overtake the stone walls. The access is unfettered and unmonitored, so keep to the trails and watch the little ones.
The stone foundation is all that remains of the once great castle, but life still exists here. Sakura have been planted to create one of the loveliest hanami spots in the area from which to enjoy a view of majestic snow-capped mountains. And if you arrive in the morning, you can walk amongst the mist that still encompasses the grounds, just keep an eye out for wandering spirits!