While sitting in your air-conditioned room, sheltering from the humidity outside, perhaps the last thing that you would be thinking of doing is sinking into a nice hot bath. It seems somewhat counterproductive, doesn’t it? However, here in Japan, there is a train of thought that says that it the heat of an onsen bath is the perfect remedy for clearing our those sweaty pores and the grime from the daily grind. Which is why, as part of our Day Trips From Nagoya series, we recommend heading out to Gifu Prefecture’s beautiful spa town of Gero, and in particular it’s Festival of Fire.
Taking place from the 1st to 3rd of August every year, the Gero Ryujin Fire Festival is the largest of the city’s fireworks calendar.
According to the Gero legend of “Wankasebuchi,” on the first day of the festival five dragons make their way through the city. The highlight of the event is when these dragons perform original dances, whirling about amongst sparks of fire on the Shirasagi Bridge.
On the second day, mikoshi (portable shrines) are paraded with samba dancing team follow them through the streets of Gero in bright colorful costumes.
The last day of the Gero Onsen Matsuri (Gero Onsen Festival) sees brilliant fireworks shot into the sky in time with musical accompaniment as dancers once more take to the streets.
If you can’t make it to the festival, the city has plenty to offer all year round.
Gero is located about 90 minutes or so from Nagoya, about an hour south of Takayama. It is one of the most famous spa towns in Japan and was referred to as one of the country’s three best onsens by the Confucian poet Hayashi Razan.
If you want to take advantage of the healing qualities of the waters, there are three public bathhouses available in town, and at the south end of the Gero Bridge is a large ‘rotenburo’ (open-air bath) in which you can bath for free (though bear in mind that it has no facilities and is exposed to the bridge above).
There are also many Japanese hotels, or ‘ryokan’, that offer bathing facilities, some of which have private baths, meaning that you can share with friends or family members of mixed sexes (the regular communal onsen baths in Gero, like most of Japan, require the separation of men and women). Most of these ryokan offer lunch and bathing packages in which you can dine in a private room before going for a soak in the steamy waters.
If you don’t fancy getting your kit off, but still want to sample the therapeutic waters, all around the city you can find ‘ashiburo’, or foot baths, in which you can soak your feet for no charge. This is particularly advantageous if you visit the old city during the winter and you are foolish enough to wear canvas sneakers and find your feet turning to blocks of ice. Yes, that would be me…
Out of the baths and up a long stone staircase, is Onsenji Temple, dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing, whose image is credited with restoring the flow of hot spring water to the town after it was blocked by a large earthquake. From the temple gate, you can command a beautiful view of the city as well as the Hida River below.
Just above the town is Gero Onsen Gassho Mura, an open-air village museum of gasshozukuri farmhouses, traditional steep, thatched-roofed houses from the Shirakawago region. Here you can view the houses, see performances, or participate in traditional folk art. If you are lucky, one such participation may include being served a traditional, sweet ‘raw’ form of sake that is local to the area.
An interesting point of note is that the word ‘gero’ is the same as the sound that Japanese consider frogs to make (‘gero gero’ as opposed to ‘ribbit ribbit’). As such you will see adorable portrayals of the amphibious creature all over the city – adorning park benches, manhole covers and walls – and, of course, within the many tourist shops.
If you are unsure about onsen etiquette, check out our onsen do’s and donts list here.
If you want to check out other fireworks festivals in the area, we, of course, have a list here.