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Sweetfish in a Spellbinding Setting

Escape to crystal-clear mountain scenery and the finest river fish in Japan

Maze, Gero City, Gifu Prefecture - Tokai



Japan has so much more to offer than just cities. When you’re ready to take a break from the crowds, trains, and bright lights, it’s time to discover the peace, calm, and spectacular natural scenery of Maze (pronounced mah-ze). Hidden in the uplands of Gifu Prefecture, in Central Japan, Maze is considered one of the most beautiful villages in the country. It is also famous for the fish caught in the local streams—especially wild ayu (sweetfish), which can only be found in rivers with pristine water. Salt-grilled whole just after being caught, these delicate river fish are one of the true delicacies of summertime in Japan.


Pristine Waters and Salt-grilled Sweetfish


Ayu (sweetfish) are one of the prime delicacies of summer in Japan


The residents of Maze like to say that their village has nothing at all to offer. And in some sense, that’s true: they have no major monuments, no supermarkets, and not a single traffic light. But they do have what many of us crave: a picture-perfect setting surrounded by forested mountainsides, an enviable pace of life, and a strong connection to rural traditions.


More than anything, they have the shallow, fast-running Maze River, which passes through the heart of their small community. Its water, which filters down from the forested slopes of the Hida Mountains, is crystal clear, making it the ideal habitat for fish such as ayu, which are particularly sensitive to man-made impacts on their environment.

This quiet city near Niigata, on the Japan Sea coast, is just two hours from Tokyo by train. Once there, you’ll feel that you’re in another world, far from the bustling capital. This is especially true in mid-winter, when a thick blanket of snow covers the landscape.


The crystal-clear waters of the Maze River flow through an area of protected forest.


Fire, Flies, and Decoys: Fishing for Ayu in Maze


Anglers come from around the country to fish for ayu.


As soon as the summer fishing season opens, anglers converge from far and near to test their skills against the fish. Some use the traditional Japanese version of fly fishing, known as tenkara. Others use a sophisticated live-bait technique called tomozuri, which capitalizes on the fish’s instinctual territorial behavior. The angler uses a line with two hooks, and a live ayu is attached to one and dangled in the water. When the target fish tries to drive off this rival that has invaded its territory, it gets caught on the second hook.


In late summer, the villagers practice the traditional hiburo method of fishing with fire to catch the ayu fish.


The most dramatic form of ayu fishing—at least for onlookers—is a traditional method called hiburo, which involves the local villagers working together. When darkness falls at the end of a long summer day, bonfires are lit alongside the riverbank and nets stretched through the water. The fishermen wade into the river—chanting and swinging torches lit on the end of their bamboo poles—to drive the panicked fish into the waiting nets.


In Maze, this is done in late August and early September, as the season begins to change and the temperature drops after sunset. The best place to watch is from the Mizube no Yakata (the Maze River information center). If you book your place ahead of time, you will be served snacks and local sake as you wait for the hiburo to start. Afterwards, you can observe—and even help—as the fish are removed from the nets. While they are still fresh from the water, the ayu give off a sweet aroma reminiscent of watermelon—one reason why they came to be known as sweetfish in English.


Ayu on the Plate


Salt-grilled ayu fish make for a perfect bite.


The classic way of preparing ayu is by grilling them whole over charcoal. The fish are simply skewered, coated with a generous layer of salt, and placed upright next to the glowing coals. By the time the skin has turned light brown and crisp, the delicate white flesh inside is perfectly cooked and a waft of fragrant steam dances across your face as you take your first bite.


When the ayu are still small, it is impossible to separate the fine bones from the flesh. For that reason, it’s customary to eat the entire fish from head to tail (in that order). As a bonus, you may sometimes find the plump females rich with roe, especially later in the season. The green dip served with grilled ayu is called tadezu and made from the leaves of the aromatic tade herb that grows along the riverbanks.


Ayu served as part of a formal Japanese meal at a local ryokaninn.


If you stay at one of the local traditional inns in Maze, such as the Maruhachi Ryokan, you can look forward to being served a full-course set meal featuring seasonal river fish. This is likely to start with a small serving of sashimi, another opportunity to savor the distinctive sweet flavor of the freshly landed ayu.


Sometimes the fish are simmered whole in a sweetened broth. Their bones may be served separately, deep-fried as crunchy and as a rice cracker. Needless to say, all these pair beautifully with local sake.


You can also experience a river fish banquet at lunchtime, if you reserve in advance.


Exploring the Great Outdoors



In 2014, the Nishimura district of Maze was designated as a base for green tourism. Under the umbrella name Maze Satoyama Museum, programs are held here both for the local community and tourists. It offers visitors a chance to interact with the villagers, learn about the customs and traditions, and gain hands-on experience of rural life.


Those looking for more active pursuits should check out Mountain Life Hida, a center specializing in outdoor sports and cultural activities. Open from May to October, it offers programs in canyoning and even a Ninja Forest rope course. Overnight homestay accommodation can also be arranged.



Contact Information


Southern Hida Maze River Tourist Association

1508-1 Nishimura, Maze, Gero City, Gifu



How to Get There


By train from Nagoya, it takes two hours to Hida-Hagiwara on the JR Hida limited express. Then it’s a further 15 minutes by bus or taxi to Maze. Nagoya can be easily accessed by Shinkansen from Tokyo (100 minutes), Kyoto (35 minutes), and Osaka (55 minutes).


Recommended Itineraries


Maze is a center for green tourism, offering hiking, hot springs, and campsites. Spa Miki, a hot spring facility attached to Hotel Miki, boasts one of the largest baths in the Hida region, with a choice of 15 bathing options, including an open-air bath, steam baths, and a mist sauna. There are also numerous hot spring baths in the center of Gero City.


Related Links


Maze Tourism Association (English)

Maruhachi Ryokan (Japanese)

Mountain Life Hida (English)

Gifu (English)





Featured Cuisine


Ayu (sweetfish) are a summer delicacy in Japan. The very finest live in the wild, in pristine mountain waters, such as those of the Maze River, and are eaten freshly caught. They can be cooked in many ways, but the classic method is to coat them in salt and grill them whole over charcoal. They are the perfect bite with some good local sake.


All information is correct as of the time of writing.
Please check for the latest information before you travel.


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