By Yoshihiro Nagai / Yomiuri Shimbun ReporterSEKI, Gifu — Relying on the description “Namonaki (nameless) Pond” on the corner of a tourist map, I single-mindedly climbed up a monotonous mountain path by car in Seki, Gifu Prefecture. After about a 50-minute drive from the city area, I could easily find my destination. In the afternoon on a weekday, and in extreme heat, dozens of people surrounded the pond.
About three or four years ago, a fascinating discovery created a buzz on social media, with people posting such descriptions as, “Deep in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, there is a pond that reminds you of Claude Monet’s famous painting, ‘The Water Lily Pond.’”
Since then, tourists have been visiting the area incessantly, and the unnamed reservoir that the local community used for farming has come to be called Monet’s Pond.
Water lilies float on the pond’s clear water. The shadow of a carp swimming in between the flowers cuts through the surface.
When I walked around the bank so I could better survey the surface, the color of the pond changed, due probably to the different strength of sunlight. I couldn’t help thinking I wanted to show this scenery to Monet.
I heard snippets of conversation among tourists nearby, such as, “It gets muddy when it rains,” and “Early morning is more fantastic.” Another said, “A nearby shrine suddenly started getting a lot more offertory coins, which helps cover the management cost of the pond.”
By listening to the people speaking, I could better understand the phenomenon of this pond’s peculiar fame. The pond appeared on social media and word of it spread by mouth. I really thought this is how a tourist spot is created.
Seki, however, is most famous for swordsmiths and usho — literally, cormorant fishing masters.
Swordsmiths appeared in this area in the 13th century, and their creations were favored by busho warlords in the Sengoku warring period (late 15th to late 16th centuries), as they do not break or bend, and cut well.
This “city of cutlery” is still around, with public and private-sector facilities related to cutting tools concentrated in urban areas of Seki.
“We exhibit historical works by master swordsmiths such as Kanemoto and Kanesada. Young girls who are commonly called ‘token joshi’ [sword girls] also visit this place,” said Keita Sakurada, 23, curator of the Seki Traditional Swordsmith Museum.
“Feather [Safety Razor Co.] is a cutlery maker born in Seki. We created a hands-on museum where visitors can experience things related to cutting,” said Shigeichi Kayukawa, 70, a Feather Museum official.
The cormorant fishing season runs from May through the middle of October annually on the Nagaragawa river in the area of Oze in Seki. In the pitch-black of night, a lighted torch held by an usho master fisherman illuminates the water below. Relying only on that light, cormorant tethered to his boat tirelessly chase ayu sweetfish.
The unexpected power of traditional fishing is the highlight of the quiet night in Seki.
Ayu is not the only gift from the Nagaragawa river. Master swordsmiths are said to have eaten eels as their source of strength. There are more than a dozen eel restaurants in the city.
I heard someone commenting about a popular restaurant: “There is a waiting time of about two hours on weekends. When I went there at night, it was closed, because the eel dishes were sold out.”
This made me even more determined to go there to eat an eel dish.
There was a line of about 20 people even before the store opened on a weekday before noon. I endured the wait and the heat while being teased with whiffs of eels on the grill.
I finally entered the restaurant an hour later. I looked at the menu while wondering what to eat, and said, “Let’s see, I’ll have an unadon [eel and rice] bowl with the grade of ...”
The lady of the shop glanced at me and said with perfect timing.
I almost agreed with her suggestion, but I changed my mind and ordered a top-grade unadon. I still can’t forget the eel’s crispy texture and the word she said to me — “standard.”
Various dishes using sweetfish
The Seki Ayu Project started in 2010 with the aim of making ayu sweetfish harvested from the Nagaragawa river a local specialty.
Restaurants in the city are trying to come up with a new dish called Seki ayudon, which is defined as “ayu and rice in the same container” in any style.
Based on the lax definition, a variety of Seki ayudon have been created, including rice bowls with kanroni ayu simmered in a syrup, with stewed ayu, or with raw sashimi ayu soaked in soy sauce.
If you want something interesting to look at, choose ayu sauce katsudon, a bowl of rice with deep-fried ayu with sauce. The restaurant Yamanami puts a heap of cabbage over rice and stands four fillet pieces of fried ayu with its secret sauce over the cabbage, which look like towers that stand on the bowl.
All of them are popular with tourists, but if you ask local people, they think a shioyaki grilled ayu sprinkled with salt is the best. The invention of an exquisite rice bowl that goes beyond shioyaki is much anticipated.
The Gifu Cutlery Hall sells more than 2,500 cutting tools produced in Seki, including kitchen knives, scissors, knives, and nail clippers.
Samurai Sword Scissors of Nikken Cutlery Co., which won the Japanese souvenir grand prix in 2016, is a superb item that has a unique design in addition to its sharpness. There is also a famous swords series of products that are modeled after the noted swords of Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Access: About 1 hour and 40 minutes from JR Tokyo Station to Nagoya Station by the Tokaido Shinkansen line. Transfer to the Tokaido Line, and ride for about 30 minutes to Gifu Station. Transfer to the Takayama Line and get off at Mino-Ota Station in about 30 minutes. Transfer to the Nagaragawa Railway and it is about 20 minutes to Seki Station.Speech