Takayama – Japan
We boarded the bullet train in Tokyo at 8:00 a.m. during the morning rush hour – an intimidating experience for novices. Armies of men and women clad in grey, charcoal, and camel colored suits, walked briskly and purposefully to the web of platforms where trains depart punctually on the second.
We shot soundlessly through the countryside and arrived ninety minutes later at our transfer station where we boarded a mountain train that rocked and rolled around the bends and cranked into low gear as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. The river flowed beside us, the mountains were upholstered in green pines and red and gold maple leaves; and gentle sunshine enhanced all the colors like a photo-shopped photo.
At the Takayama station, the ever efficient, always reliable, tourist information clerk, directed us to Rayokan OYADO KOTO NO YUME, a five-minute walk from the station. When we stopped to ask an elderly gentleman to help up identify the building, he dismounted his bicycle, turned around and walked us to the front door. We were to encounter the same kindness throughout our trip across Japan, from bustling Tokyo to the smallest villages.
At the door of the Ryokan, we were met by a regal man in his thirties and a smiling young woman, both dressed in kimonos. It was like stepping into the cocoon of another world where tranquility reigns supreme.
Our luggage and shoes were whisked away; we were given slippers and escorted to the living room where a gentleman was engaged in arranging pebbles around the hearth of glowing coals that heated an iron teapot suspended from the ceiling.
We had anticipated dropping off our luggage and heading straight out to have a late lunch and discover the town, but this was not to be. As our regal, softly spoken, rather haughty host explained: “In a ryokan, we do not expect our guests to go to their rooms unaccompanied and carry their bags. First, you will relax and have some tea.”
He left us with our tea in the cozy living room and returned to ask for our passports and hotel voucher, then produced the photo breakfast menu which he reviewed in detail and asked us to make our selection between a Western or Japanese breakfast.
Next, maps were produced, bus time tables and every detail of our sightseeing itinerary discussed. Once all those details were settled, I was ushered by a woman who reminded me of a Japanese doll to an area where two drawers were opened to reveal beautiful, patterned kimonos. I was to choose a kimono, a sash, and a bow to finish off the outfit. Stan was led to the men’s section to select his kimono and sash. Everything was immaculately folded and placed in a basket and only then were we escorted to our suite, where we removed our slippers, changed into another pair of slippers, and padded across the tatami floors. We changed slippers so many times a day depending which part of the ryokan we were in, that I lost count, and yet despite our noble efforts we were still caught wearing inappropriate slippers in some rooms of the house. It provided endless challenges and laugher before we got it right.
In the center of our room sat a table a few inches off the ground surrounded by floor cushions. In the evenings, while we were out exploring, the ‘kimono fairies’ would slip silently into our room to set out futon beds on the tatami floors, switch on the heating and lights, place a pitcher of water and a plate of cookies on the table, and leave a lovely poem on our pillows.
Takayama is a 16th Century town in the Hokuriku region surrounded by the Japanese Alps. It dates back to the Edo period when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. Its remote location allowed Takayama to develop a unique culture as well as a reputation throughout Japan as a center for fine carpentry, which has endured to this day. Craftsmen turn out superb, quality, wood work in the form of bowls, boxes, sculptures, and chopsticks that are works of art.
In the late afternoon, we rented bicycles and rode past the beautifully preserved Old Edo Private Houses many of which are still very much in use. We stopped to wander through the Kusakabe, and Yoshijima Heritage houses with their fascinating exhibits and idyllic gardens where the quintessential moss covered Shinto prayer lanterns, add a spiritual aura to the gardens.
Takayama has several mapped out walking routes that take one beyond the center into the picturesque surroundings past temples and through parks, namely the Higashiyama Walking Course ( approximately a 2 hour walk) and the Kitayama Walking Course ( approximately a 1 hour walk). In autumn and spring the town hosts two exceptional festivals, which draw people from all over Japan as well as international visitors: The Autumn Hachiman Festival which takes place in early October and The Spring Sanno Festival in mid- April. It is advisable to book accommodation a year in advance.
Takayama has earned a worldwide reputation for its Hida beef. Though it’s pricey and the portions are small as compared to what westerners are accustomed to, it’s melt in the mouth delicious. Note: On Tuesdays stores and restaurants close early.
After breakfast one morning we joined the locals at the Miyagawa morning market which takes place beside the gently flowing Miyagawa River.
As with all things in Japan, the produce is perfect and almost too beautiful to consume. I’ve never seen radishes, onions, apples, and eggplant so perfectly formed bursting with color and flavor. The baked goods are an acquired taste. Desserts tend to be overly sweet but they are packaged and displayed like fine pieces of jewelry.
By midmorning we were at the bus terminal boarding a bus for Shirakawa-go, an hour’s drive from Takayama, a miniature farming village that takes one back in time to another world.
Footnote: The Shogunate was a feudal military government, and the head of the government was known as the shogun.
A Ryokan, is a traditional Japanese inn or small hotel where the floors are covered with tatami.
I recommend staying in at least one ryokan during a visit to Japan. It’s an unforgettable experience.