Hidden away in the mountains, two and half hours (by train) away from Nagoya, sits a little town that is an underrated weekend escape for Japanese family and couples. The wonderfully adorable thing about Gero is that, the name of the city in Japanese, sounds very much like the cartoon croak of a frog, which is why they’ve decorated the town with with all sorts of frog related adornments, statues, and illustrations.
01. Onsen, of course!
Gero’s hot spring source is amongst the top three in Japan! The spring water here is slightly more alkaline heavy which leaves a soft smooth texture on your skin after taking a bath. And though you might smell a little of sulphur afterwards, don’t be in a hurry to take a bath. Give it a few minutes and the scent will evolve to a light and sweet fragrance. Hello natural perfume.
02. Rotenboro (open air Bath) and Ashi-yu (footbaths)
There are many free rotenboro and ashi-yu spots in Gero, but the most intriguing one is the Rotenboro built by the city on the side of the Hida River. Decorated with stones on its edge, you’ll find many young couples sitting beside each other and soaking their feet in the water to keep warm. Don’t be surprised to see Ojisan (middle aged men), hanging out inside the pool with nothing but a towel over their thighs.
TIP: Do remember to wash your feet with water first before entering the pool, and if you’re adventurous, the outdoor Onsen allows for you to wear a swimsuit inside as well!
03. Gero Bridge
As you stroll over the bridge to take in the full view of the town, don’t forget to look at the pavement you’re walking on. When the bridge was completed, the city invited its residents to take part and print their hands on ceramic blocks that decorated the bridge. Check out the family hand portraits as you cross the bridge and take in all the history and culture that came before you.
Be sure to check out the white heron decorations on top of manholes and by the bridge. As the story goes, after a large earthquake, Gero’s onsen source was closed off to the entire village. As agriculture was declining, the city was suffering economically. After many days of continuous prayer, the villages spotted a singular heron standing on top of a rock for seven day straight. This led them to discover a new source of gushing spring water, stronger and better than ever before. As the water flowed out, the white heron flew up and settled in a pine tree, where the village members found an image of Buddha at the bottom. Ever since then, the people of Gero have celebrated the white heron, an omen they believe was sent to resurrect their city.
04. Gassho Village
Just a fifteen minutes walk from the center of Gero is a historically preserved village, decorated with beautiful A-frame long houses that has now been declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These houses were actually moved from the mountains of Gero to the edge of town in order to protect and preserve its history.
Tip: If you go to the main Historic Odo-House, you’ll be able to see the craft that the villagers practiced in order to maintain their lifestyle. One of those craft includes mulberry silk farming as well as fabric weaving. After visiting the village, you can also head to the top of the hill to go down a 175m children’s slide!
Gero and its region is known for the Unagi Rice (Japanese Grilled Eel rice). Hands down, Unasho is the best place to try out Unagi for those with an adventure palette or simply Grilled Hida beef!
TIP: Definitely try out the Unagi Tea set, it comes with a pot of local tea leaves that were soaked in Spring water, and you pour it over your rice to infuse the flavours. For those of you who are interested in the Grilled Hida Beef set, they only have 10 servings a day so do come early.
06. (Raw) Beef Sushi
There are many neighbourhood butcher shops and delis along the streets of Gero, many of which will also grill up some beef for you to eat outside on their benches. The shop itself is usually not very fancy, but the beef is definitely spectacular.
TIP: Order beef sushi, which comes in a pair and sits on a little cracker. It’s seriously delicious.
As the locals say, the best sake comes from places with a famous source of water. Find a mom & pop store in the town, or head to your hotel’s Omiyage shop and pick up a local bottle of Sake. Just remember to wait for a bit to sober up before heading into the Onsen.
08. Hot Pudding
You can find traditional custard pudding all over Japan in convenience stores, and more often than not they are found cold. But in the little town of Gero, these puddings are made and stored in Spring Water and are served hot in the winter.
TIP: There’s a shop a little past the Gero Hot Spring Shine on the main road of Gero Town where you can find this hot pudding. You’re only allowed to have it in store as it is not suitable for take out. So get yourself an original or chocolate flavored pudding, take off your shoes, and soak your feet in the Ashi-yu foot bath while you enjoy your pudding.
09. Modern Ryokan
If you’re traveling in a big group or want to play it safe, stay at the larger Ryokans in the area such as Suimeikan or Ogawaya. Most of the staff will speak basic English, you’ll get buffet breakfast and the hotels will also have gender separated Onsen and Rotenboro for you to sample.
TIP: In Japan, Onsen are meant to be appreciated naked. Everyone is expected to bathe in a generally public space before entering the pool. If you’re a little shy, opt for a private onsen room, which allows you to enjoy the Hot Spring Bath all the same in your own little space.
10. Traditional Ryokan
Traditional Ryokan are usually very small and have around a dozen rooms, many of them have only one Onsen pool or one Rotenboro. In these places, the shower facilities are separated but the pools are co-ed, and you are still expected to enter the pool naked. These traditional houses are definitely an experience of its own and often includes breakfast and dinner served together it a main living room.
11. A Small Japanese Language Guide book
Though Gero is a tourist place, it is mainly filled with Japanese tourists. Meaning, foreigners don’t come by often, so be prepared to try out simple Japanese phrases in order to ask for directions, order food, and make purchases.
Scroll down and take a look at other guides on our journal from #TheMATTERWay series.