A journey along the Samurai Line is about letting your imagination open your eyes….
Visit historic samurai castle-towns on a local rail journey through the heart of Japan.
Travel that sparks the imagination is often as much about the intangible as it is about the place. Exploring some of the smaller samurai castle-towns in Japan offers travellers experiences and insights not possible when visiting some of the larger cities, but smaller towns can be difficult to reach. Just 30 kilometres north of Nagoya, the Nagara River Railway (nicknamed the “Samurai Line”) offers travellers easy access to three such towns—two samurai castle-towns and one town renowned for producing the world’s best samurai swords. The Samurai Line starts at Mino Ota station, which connects to the JR Takayama Main Line, and winds its way leisurely northward along the famous and beautiful Nagara River through the heart of Japan’s central Gifu Prefecture. Although it may seem like the polar opposite of the futuristic bullet trains flying along the JR Tokaido Line between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka, a ride on the Samurai Line is just as unforgettable and will bring you up close and personal with a Japan that will steal your heart forever.
Gujo Hachiman is a samurai castle-town with a mountain castle renowned for being the most beautiful in all Japan. However, Gujo Hachiman is better known for hosting Gujo Odori, a summer Bon dance festival designated a Significant Intangible Cultural Folk Asset by the Japanese government. When Gujo Odori was founded several centuries ago, the original goal of the festival was to encourage the town’s citizens, regardless of social status, to come together and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere. This spirit persists today at a summer dance festival that now runs from mid-July until early September. Everyone is welcome, and every year over 300,000 people take up the open invitation to participate in what has become one of the three most important and accessible Bon dance festivals in Japan. The experience is not to be missed, especially on the four magical nights in August when thousands perform the ten traditional Gujo Odori dances from dusk until dawn.
Mino is another must-visit samurai castle-town on the Samurai Line. It recently achieved UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage status for its 1,300-year-old tradition of producing washi, traditional Japanese paper made by hand. While Mino’s castle may no longer exist physically, its historic town centre is an exquisitely preserved example of Edo period castle-town architecture. Time your visit to coincide with the two-day Mino Washi “Akari” Festival in mid-October, and the sight of the streets in the old town centre lit with gorgeous handcrafted washi lanterns will astound you.
Seki is a shokunin machi, or craftsman town, with a 780-year history of producing some of the best steel and most sought-after samurai swords. It’s home to the Seki Kaji Denshokan, a samurai sword museum that’s a short walk from the town’s Samurai Line train station. Visit on January 2 and you can witness Uchizome-shiki, a ceremony celebrating the first forging of the year, when craftsmen wearing traditional white attire pound red-hot raw steel and begin making the first sword of the year. It’s a powerful and unforgettable experience complete with flames and sparks. Seki is now best known for producing high-quality knives prized by some of the most famous chefs around the world. Ordering a custom-made knife with your name engraved on it, or choosing from a huge selection of premium handmade knives and scissors, is a memorable experience unique to a visit to this town.
Marvellous sights, memorable experiences and more await travellers who venture into the heart of Japan and explore the historic castle-towns along the Samurai Line. Experience the ephemeral in surprising and unforgettable ways!
Doggy station master
Station Master Yukinojo’s top priority is Samurai Line passenger safety!
Let historic castle-towns spark your imagination
In Gujo Hachiman, stay in a traditional ryokan and enjoy a room overlooking a former samurai garden dating back to the Edo period.
People dancing in Gujo Odori often wear a traditional yukata and wooden geta, but jeans, T-shirts and running shoes are fine, too!
Not quite ready for the 139.4-km Mino stage of the Tour of Japan? You’ll find many safe cycling roads along the Samurai Line.
Samurai Line eats and treats
Cold, clean water from the Nagara River imparts a fresh, sparking taste, making crispy grilled unagi (eel) a year-round favourite in Seki, Mino and Gujo Hachiman. It’s deliciously different from the steamed Tokyo version. Each restaurant typically has its own recipe for the sauce used to finish the dish and make the crisp, clean flavour “pop”!
Kei-chan: home-cooked goodness
More home cooking than fine dining, kei-chan is a unique Gifu Prefecture favourite—ask anyone from elementary school kids to the elderly! A type of chicken stir-fry often cooked on an iron teppan, the ingredients can vary but always include locally raised free-range chicken, cabbage and assorted vegetables. The secret’s in the sauce made from locally brewed soy sauce and Gujo miso paste. Each restaurant and household has its own preferred combination of ingredients and, of course, any number of devoted fans. Loyalty to a favourite kei-chan chef should never be questioned or challenged!
Finding and buying the perfect souvenir is a time-honoured rite considered a duty by some and an art form by others. However you feel about it, you will be spoiled with countless choices wherever you shop along the Samurai Line. The perfect souvenir ideally has a pedigree, connotes a sense of place and imparts a feeling that quietly reminds you—even years later—of your travels. We’ve selected two that we feel meet these essen- tial criteria. Pick up one of these souvenirs to take home a piece of the Samurai Line.
It’s traditional, lightweight and easy to pack, making it the perfect souvenir of your trip along the Samurai Line. You can also find it made into objects like paper fans, umbrellas and lanterns.
It will definitely need to be carefully packed in your checked luggage, but a handmade kitchen knife from Seki will last a lifetime, quietly reminding you of your trip with each meal you prepare.
Photo courtesy of Mino City Tourism Association, Gujo Hachiman Tourism Association, Seki City Tourism Association, Nagara River Railway, Seki City Tourism Association, Yoshidaya Ryokan, Gujo Hachiman Travel Association, Mino City Tourism Association, Minokin Restaurant.