Japan

The Traditional Delights of Mino-Shi

Mino City lies peacefully on the Nagara RiverSmall and traditional, Mino City rests like a gateway to the Japanese Alps. From your first drive across the Nagara River, you are tied to its twists and turns as you journey further up into northern Gifu prefecture. The journey is worth making for the river alone: the bridges offer up elevated views of the impossibly clear water speckled with statuesque fishermen in their traditional straw hats. In Mino on a sunny day the wide, pebbly banks of the river are invisible beneath the camping chairs, barbecues and inflatables resting on its banks. The city bakes in the heat of summer and the cool, transparent river really is the only real refuge. Sometimes even a look at the water brings relief on a sticky summer day in central Japan. 

A slightly cool, misty day is perfect for exploring the centre of Mino. The mountains glower through rings of white mist accentuating the man-made history that is so well preserved in the city centre. The Udatsu style houses are recognisable by their interesting roof tile designs, while intricate shapes stick out from the houses of the paper-making merchants, contributors to Mino's main industry. The product known as Washi paper, famed for its strength and durability and used for a fascinating range of products, is still made and bought here today. 

Reams of raw paper line the shops like bolts of cloth in a wealth of enchanting designs. Even the least creative person will find their imagination working to find possible uses for it all. Traditional woodblock designs have been printed onto the paper and are displayed hanging from the ceilings of the shops. There are warm caves of light selling lamps, lanterns and shades made from Washi, while other shops proffer table mats, wallets and socks fashioned from the paper. There is even a shop displaying paper ball gowns and a wedding dress.

Mino also houses some beautiful individual shops and cafes. Mam's Cafe is a tiny old house with a huge central table filled with baskets of bread, cakes and pastries. The cooling racks of buns or bowls of fresh custard must be hurriedly moved from the tables to make way for customers. Stop for the best bitter sweet hot chocolate or a seriously good cup of coffee. The welcome alone is worth it. Abeline sells a more elegant style of sweet: the creamy gateaux-like cakes common in Japanese patisseries, not to mention an endlessly tempting series of cookies and biscuits. It is a few doors along from a captivatingly stylish leather shop called Random. The multi-coloured wallets and purses near the back are all unique and incredibly well made. They can fetch a fair price, but the knowledge of their singularity makes it hard not to invest in one for the memories it will bring you in the future and the stories it will oblige you to tell those back home.

Across the main road running through Mino hides peaceful Ogura Park with its small carp pond and steep wooded walks. You can walk to the top of a small mountain and climb an observation tower for a good look at this part of Gifu prefecture. Just make sure that you keep away from the row of cages near the children's play park; they house some of the most miserable captive animals I've seen. The park has a small car parking area, which is free and convenient for exploring all parts of Mino. The base of the car park allows you to cross Route 156 into the historical Udatsu area or to turn right and walk through an atmospheric tunnel to the red bridge and the river itself. It's a stunning walk and is signposted in English to the Lighthouse, a small, wooden construction to the side of the Nagara.

For three months in the autumn Mino plays host to four carefully selected paper artists from around the world. They stay with local families and share a studio in one of the old houses on the main street, studying Washi paper and incorporating it into their work. During that time they make paper lanterns which, during a weekend in October, are displayed along with countless others along the two main streets of Mino. At night the streets are crowded with people strolling along looking at the fantastic creations. Street vendors sell hot food, while cafes, restaurants and shops extend their opening hours well into the evening. This festival usually happens in early- to mid- October as the newly minted chill of autumn chases away the memories of a long, humid summer. The artists' stay culminates in an exhibition at the Paper Museum about 8 km outside of the city along the river. The museum also runs short paper making tasters that anybody can drop in on. Thirty minutes and a few hundred yen will allow you to make your own traditional paper, giving you a glimpse of a centuries old tradition in the making.

The pastoral landscape is never merely a passive backdrop in Japanese life, and this is most true in spring when the cherry trees blossom. People gather in groups and hold barbeques underneath the trees, using the viewing of the blossom as an excuse for socialising with friends, family and work colleagues. It is still a meaningful exercise, of course; by sitting and spending time with the blossoms you can experience their transience and fragility. Mino holds a famous festival in April that sees people painstakingly making delicate paper representations of cherry blossoms and parading them through the streets. It is an amazing display of design in pink and people spend months working on their floats for the festival.

A day trip at any time of year will introduce you to the traditional delights of Mino City. Aside from all that there is to see and soak up this quaint city will leave you with an imprint of the warmth and friendliness of Japanese people towards visitors. On separate occasions friends and family of mine were moved by the personal kindnesses of Mino citizens towards them. Caught in a heavy summer rainstorm several people rushed out into the street to offer umbrellas to my parents, while friends who visited the August 1st firework display by the river were offered help negotiating the train home. Finally, I made a wonderful friend in the owner of Mam's Cafe and think of her every time I sip coffee from the cup I bought in her beautiful shop.

About the Author

Joanne Fradley is a full-time English teacher living in Japan. She contributes regularly to the online magazine 'The F-word' and her first novel has been published and is available on Amazon for Kindle. She writes a travel blog of her adventures at http://jo-thai-adventure.blogspot.com/ as well as a creative writing blog at http://jowriting.blogspot.com/

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 Full name: Japan

 Population: 127.4 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Tokyo

 Largest city: Tokyo

 Area: 377,915 sq.km. (145,914 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Japanese

 Major religions: Shintoism, Buddhism,  Christianity, Other

 Monetary unit: Yenl

 GDP per capita: US $34,300

 Internet domain: .jp

 International dialling code: +81

 Source: CIA World Factbook