Thursday, November 5, 2015

Takayama, Japan

The train ride from Onomichi to Takayama was gorgeous--probably one of the most scenic drives I've ever taken. The views were especially good once we transferred to a train in Nagoya that would transport us from the coastal lowlands upward to the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Along the way, we passed through many small mountain villages and were treated with dramatic views of the Kiso River's deep canyon. This river is often referred to as Japan's Rhine because of its similar setting to the Rhine River flowing through Germany.

Takayama is a small, rural city that has retained much of its traditional charm. With an industry originally based on timber sales and carpentry, the city has managed to preserve elements of these trades with many centuries-old merchant shops still featuring local, hand-carved wood pieces.

Originally, we had hoped to use this stop as a home base to explore the mountains of the Japanese Alps. However, we arrived too late in the season and many of the buses that take visitors to the mountains had stopped running for the year due to ice and snow at high elevations. At first I was sad that we wouldn't get to be up close and personal with the Alps, but we still had a really fun time in and around the city. 

One of Takayama's many canals.

Koi living in one of the canal pools.

Craig get a dumpling from one of the many street vendors.

Takayama's supreme water quality and cold temperatures have historically made it an ideal location for brewing sake. Once boasting over 50 sake breweries, only seven remain today. A brown sugidama (ball made of cedar branches) outside a shop is a sure-sign that the sake is pouring!

At one of the sake tasting rooms we entered, we paid 125yen (~$1 USD), received a take-home sake glass, and were pointed to a sake fridge to pour our own sake shots from 12 bottles!

Craig walks through one of the streets in Takayama's downtown area. Many of the buildings and homes in this city were built and owned by wealthy merchants from 1600-1868.

 
Sake!

 
Japan is well-known for having some of the most efficient products in the world. However, there were a few instances that just didn't make any sense to me. For example, here we are drinking sake out of thick-walled boxes.  

Sorry to the vegetarians! In addition to sake, Takayama is well-known for its Hida Beef dishes. Hida Beef is a term given for the black-haired cattle that have been raised in the Gifu Prefecture (where Takayama lies) for 14 months, and have been certified based on texture and firmness. As the price suggests, it is a very high quality beef that is often served seared or thinly sliced and raw. Not a beef-lover, I was very skeptical of eating it at all (let alone raw), but I couldn't believe how good it was! Above is a photo of some lunchtime Hida Beef sushi we had.

Following Hida Beef sushi, we entered a cafe and indulged in a green tea latte. Sooo good!

Another view of the canals running through the city center.

Takayama is a great walking city with several lovely temple walks that parade visitors through the most scenic local areas. Although we may have been a week early for the peak of the autumn leaves at Takayama, the colors were still pretty amazing. We spent many of the mornings and afternoons just walking through the city and eating dumplings, soy rice balls, and other goodies from the many street vendors along the way.

Ginkos--one of my favorite trees!

I think Craig rang every temple bell we saw in Japan.

While in Takayama, we went to Hida Villiage, an open-air museum (and World Heritage Site) just outside of the downtown area. It featured traditional homes, logging huts, and farm houses of the mountain villages as they looked in the 1600 through 1800s.

Japanese maple

Many of the homes we saw were massive with steep thatched roofs that are meant to resemble two hands in prayer.

While touring the heritage site, we found a trail in the backside of the park that pointed to a castle. No one was on the trail and it was very overgrown so, of course, we went exploring! The trail was pretty much all uphill, snaking through overhead brush. When it finally climaxed at a clearing where the castle used to stand, we were delighted to find that we were surrounded by white peaks of the nearby Japanese Alps.

We lounged at the castle site for a while, imaging what it must have been like to have lived in a castle with these vistas!

The city of Takayama down below with the Japanese Alps in the background.

Reluctant to return through the thicket we just walked through to get to the castle site, we decided to follow with high hopes that they would lead us back to Takayama.

Along the way, we pass a long row of flags. Although we had no idea what they signified, it made for an interesting sight along the path.

A pretty scene along our unexpected day hike on the way back to Takayama.

After hiking for several hours, the trail finally brings us down to an area just outside of the city. Above is a shot of Craig in a field of soft autumn colors that greeted us once we got out of the woods.

By this point, it was late afternoon and we were starving. With still a couple more miles to go until we got back to town, we were eager to eat at the first restaurant we saw. Maybe it was the delirium of not having any lunch or maybe it was another huge lost in translation moment, but when  saw this building with a sign saying, 'PUB' with a crossed fork and spoon beneath it, we logically assumed this was a pubilc house-style bar/restaurant. We marched up to the door and walked inside only to find that it was someone's house! The owner, who was out back working on a bench that transforms into a picnic table, saw us walk into his home and came over insisting in broken English that we go inside. Still unsure if he was trying to seat us at his 'pub' or just wanted company, we obliged. Unfortunately for our stomachs, it was the latter and he wanted to show off his log home that he had built by hand. He showed us photos of the building process and then pointed out mountain peaks through his telescopes stationed on the front porch. Surprisingly, he is also an avid paraglider and runs a paragliding business from his home. Remember that pretty soft autumn scene shown in the previous photo? That's the landing strip for his paragliding trips! Despite the awkward circumstances, it ended up being a very pleasant interaction and he obviously enjoyed the company.

Speaking of food, one of my favorite meals in Japan was this Hida Beef ramen.

As I said in a post about Kyoto, many of our accommodations in Japan were tiny. Takayama's lodging was no different. Our queen-sized bed took up the majority of the room, causing us to take turns standing at the foot of the bed to get ready in the morning. Ha!

The last night in Takayama, we moved from our cheap hostel accommodations and splurged for a traditional ryokan experience. Rated as a must-do in Japan, a ryokan is basically a Japanese-style bed and breakfast from the 1600-1800s that historically would have serviced travelers along ancient Japanese highways. 

Upon arrival, they handed us kimonos, traditional Japanese garments to be be worn at dinner with sandals. Having no idea how to put on the kimono, I had to call the front desk for assistance. Watching all the steps needed to complete the outfit, I'm amazed that it was assumed one would just know how to properly put the garment together.

Craig and me all ready for dinner.

 Passing the time before dinner. There weren't chairs, a bed, or anywhere to sit in the room aside from on the floor at a low table.

Dinner was a six-course meal, all presented very artfully.

I love this photo of Craig after he realizes that he's just taken a bite of pumpkin and pickled radishes.

Sauteing one of the courses--veggies and Hida Beef.

We returned from dinner to find that our traditional Japanese futon beds had been rolled out for us.

After dinner, we spent an hour in the spa area. When we entered the room, there was a stereo with smooth jazz options such as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. To further set the mood, there was also a box of kids bath toys to throw in the water.

Although the ryokan was an interesting experience, I don't know that I would have classified it as a must-do when visiting Japan. It was very expensive and seemed a little cheesy to me at times. That said, I did have a great time, but mostly because I spent the whole night laughing about the awkwardness of the whole situation!

After spending three days and four nights in Takayama, we boarded the train and were off to our last destination of Japan -- Tokyo!

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