Kinkotsu is the word in local Kanayama dialect for backstreet alleyway or path and accurately depicts the maze of backstreet alleyways found here because of their resemblance to the complex entanglement of muscles and bones that make up the human body (in Japanese kinkotsu is written using the Chinese characters for “muscles” and “bones” [筋骨]). These labyrinth-like collection of paths, called the Kinkotsu Alleyways, are open to the public and provide a great destination for those who want to “get lost” in Showa-era Japan (1926-1989).
Background of Kanayama
Kanayama is located in the very southern outskirts of Gero along the JR Takayama Line between Gifu Station and Gero Station. During the Edo period (1603-1868), Kanayama flourished as a post station along the old Hida Highway – which started in Ota-juku (Minokamo City) and continued north all the way to Toyama – and is famous today for its natural sightseeing attractions (like megaliths and waterfalls) and the Kinkotsu Alleyways. There is also some interesting lore about Two-Faced Sukuna, a 2-faced, 4-armed legend that I will go into further depth about later in the article.
The Kinkotsu Alleyways area are best enjoyed by just wandering around by one’s self; the Kanayamacho Tourist Association has created a sample course that travels through the most popular areas (click here for the Japanese map, please note that it’s a few years outdated). I will write about some of the highlights in this post. Please note that tour guides are also available; please see the bottom of this post for more info.
Backalley Canal Area
This area is probably the most popular area in the Kinkotsu Alleyways as the canal, bridges, and disorganized buildings on both sides truly make you feel like you are in a labyrinth. Wandering through this area will have you ducking under low-hanging roofs, walking through random gardens, and peering in all sorts of directions for industrial-esque pictures that are only possible here.
Location on Google Maps
Mt. Chinju (Chinjusan in Japanese) is a small mountain that overlooks the whole Kinkotsu area. It’s especially beautiful in the autumn when all the leaves there turn bright red, orange, and yellow. At the very top of the mountain is a small kannon-do (a Buddhist hall dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy) and statue of local legend Two-Faced Sukuna.
Two-Faced Sukuna is a figure in Japanese folklore that supposedly had a two-faced head, four arms, incredible natural strength, and was highly skilled with a bow. Sukuna appears in both the Nihon Shoki (a literary work thought to be the second oldest recording of Japan’s history) and local legends, however, the way Sukuna is depicted in each rendition is completely different.
The Nihon Shoki paints Sukuna as demon-like creature who ravaged nearby villages and at one point stayed at Mt. Chinju before being defeated by a government-dispatched warrior. The Sukuna in local (Mino and Hida region) folklore, on the other hand, is made out to be a hero that built temples, slayed a dragon that was terrorizing local villagers, and prayed for the safety and a bountiful harvest in Kanayama on top of Mt. Chinju for 37 days. The fact that there are two different stories surrounding this two-faced figure makes for an intriguing coincidence.
Visit a local neighborhood bathhouse that was used during the Showa era and is opened up during the day for visitors to explore. With a collection of antiques and everyday items that were used back in the day, you will truly feel like you were transported back in time.
Traditional Japanese Sweets
There are two shops near Mt. Chinju that make delicious Japanese confections, so why not grab some “to go” and enjoy them on your Kinkotsu expedition. Mochiko specializes in kuromame daifuku, a type of sweet-bean mochi dessert that’s filled with tasty black soybeans. The kuromame daifuku here are rather popular so if there a lot of preorders then it may not be possible get some on the day of.
Mitsuya Confections is a traditional wagashiya (a shop specializing in Japanese sweets) and reminds me of the old ice creams parlors back home that are so hard to find these days. When I was there I got some matcha mochi and brown-sugar uiro (a jelly sweet); both were delicious!
Okuhida Sake Brewery
A trip through the Kinkotsu Alleyways isn’t complete until you’ve visited the Okuhida Sake Brewery. In addition to the various sorts of delicious sake, vodka is also one of their house specialties (please note that vodka making is very rare in Japan). The brewery’s building itself is over 180 years old and also acts as a museum of historical documents (like English textbooks from the 1860’s) making it well worth a visit. The staff here can also speak English, so it might be the perfect way to end your trip through the Kinkotsu Alleyways.
Nearby Points of Interest
With a nickname like Momiji Dera (meaning temple of autumn colors in English), you know this temple is a must-see if you are visiting during the autumn. The temple is a 30-min walk (15-20 min bike ride) from JR Hida-Kanayama Station and the autumn leaves are best seen from mid to late November.
Egara Hachiman Shrine
This old shrine is said to have been first built around the year 901 making it an ideal location to get in touch with ancient Japan.
Tour Guide Information
There are a few English speaking tour guides that are reservable through the Kanayama-cho Tourism Association. ***Not recommended for those on a tight schedule as the guides are overflowing with knowledge about the local history.
【Availability】 All year
【Cost】Groups of 6 or less: 2,000 yen altogether, Groups of 7 or more: 300 yen per person
【Required Time】 90～120 min
【Reservation Deadline】 At least one week in advance
【Reservation or Inquiries】 firstname.lastname@example.org
【TEL】080-3637-2201 (Kanayama-cho Tourism Association)
【Website (Jpn)】 http://hidakanayama.com/
＊To JR Hida-Kanayama Station: From JR Nagoya Station take a Limited Exp. Wide View Hida for 1 hr 20 min
＊To the Kinkotsu Alleyways from JR Hida-Kanayama Station: 15-min walk west from station
＊Rental bikes are available for free if reserved in advance (send an inquiry to the above email)