Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Japan: Takayama

We left Yokohama for Takayama on Wednesday morning, stayed two nights, and are now in Ôsaka waiting for our flight out tomorrow (Saturday). This was written piecemeal from Wednesday to Friday.

Weirdly, we got tickets on the *really* fast Shinkansen, the Nozomi, which we didn't think we could get on our JR passes. No-one objected when we showed them on the train, though, and it is _fascinating_ to be going that fast at ground level. I'd meant to read or write, but the rain had stopped and so I was just transfixed by watching things go by. On the way to Nagoya, I saw a cathedral that looked like a balsa wood model, being a very pale gold; a torii in the middle of a bay; and more ferris wheels than seemed likely (which has continued since).

Oh, and I had my first bento lunch, since the JR agent gave us 8 minutes to make our connection in Nagoya. It was tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded pork cutlet with a thick soy-sauce based sauce) and rice and perfectly acceptable--much better than McDonald's, that's for sure.

We made our 8-minute connection in Nagoya with no trouble, to a limited express train to Takayama. We were briefly surprised when we pulled out of the station facing backwards, as all the other trains seem to make a point of having people face forwards; but after the first stop, we started going forward. I think we must've switched tracks, rather than backtracked. We were in the first car and could see out of the wide front windshield by leaning into the aisle.

The train ride was very scenic, but unfortunately a little rocky (perhaps just compared to the ridiculous smoothness of the Shinkansen) and I got a bit motion-sick. (Probably writing up Nikkô wasn't a great idea, but I was sleepy and wanted to stay awake, since Chad had fallen asleep instantly.) Nevertheless, we got to see more sharp green mountains and rivers with lots of fishers.

Fortunately Takayama is among mountains but is itself flat. There is a river literally right outside our ryokan, however, with surprisingly large koi.

Another surprise was the cab ride to our ryokyan, Sumiyoshi, which ended on a street that lacked both river and ryokan. Turns out we had to go through a very dark narrow alley to reach the ryokan; I think the driver dropped us there so that we wouldn't have to cross the street.

Our room is very nice, with a big window view of the river (and the sole private bath and shower in the place) and an elegant decorative alcove. Unfortunately the main room is lit by a horrible flourescent light which is deeply unsuited to the ambience. (The little sitting area has an incandescent bulb, which is slightly friendlier.) It is the picture below "garden" on the webpage; the Japanese woman in the picture of "guest" is the one we dealt with.

After our welcoming tea and cookie, we showered and then tried the hot bath, which though not spring-fed is still OMG HOT. I only dared it for a few minutes, because in the past long exposure to hot water has given me a rotten headache (opens up all the blood vessels). I believe the bath is claimed to be a four-person tub, but I suspect that's only if all of them don't stretch out their legs.

We had a traditional dinner in our room, which was enormous--granted it came in lots of small dishes, but it still covered the entire table (we have a picture to prove it) and was more than filling, even with the bits I didn't like.

The proprieter is friendly and, err, *involved* in a way that I think would wear thin for me over a long stay, but for two nights I can smile and nod. I think the most extreme example was re-doing our yukuta (robes) before dinner, including reaching *all* the way around Chad to re-tie the belt. However, she was good-natured about it, not scolding, at least as far as I could tell, so that's something. (I was nervous about how I'd cope with this, having heard stories & read comments.)

After dinner we strolled around the town, which appears to shut down early, picking out likely shops and restaurants and admiring the statues along the streets. (Some of the streets had pop music playing over speakers. The Japanese pop was at least mildly apropos, unlike the Green Day song.) We also saw our first odd vending machine, for fishing supplies. The next night we saw one for batteries, which cheered us--we'd been disappointed at seeing only drinks and cigarettes until then.

When we got back, we found that (1) the bed had been made up with double futons and an extra quilt for Chad, without our having to ask and (2) even *with* the double futon, it was like sleeping on rock. I'm afraid I muttered over-much about how I'd previously sworn never to sleep on a futon again and what was I thinking to have agreed to this, but it was astonishingly uncomfortable.

We headed back for the hot bath in the morning before breakfast, which helped Chad's back and may have helped mine, I'm not sure. Walking around did loosen up my shoulders eventually. Then we headed out into the day.

Takayama is apparently known for or has local specialities in Edo-era houses, beef, wood crafts (carvings, lacquer), rice dumplings on sticks, and soba noodles. We saw or experienced everything but the noodles on Thursday.

We started with the morning market on the other side of the river from the ryokan. This was mostly produce, with the occasional handcrafts and food on sticks. We didn't have any, having had an enormous breakfast--oh, about my Western-style breakfast which included toast? I got bread and a _toaster_. This made me ridiculously happy--toast to my preferred color! Really hot!

Then we took the bus to the Hida Folk Village, a collection of Edo-era houses. This was interestingly different and problematic in only two respects. First, all of the houses had smoky fires lit inside, as would have been the case when they were occupied. There were signs explaining the benefits of this--keeping away insects and providing moisture to the house are the two I remember--but it made me fear for my contacts and made Chad's stomach a little queasy. Second, the English signs and brochure were occasionally slightly lacking. For instance, I missed an interesting display on the process of making silk because it was up on the third and fourth floors of a house and, not knowing it was there, I declined to climb those stairs. (The brochure said something about those floors *having been used* as silkworm nurseries.)

We also stopped in the traditional crafts section, where we saw people carving wood, spinning thread by hand, and applying lacquer to wood. (There were also craftspeople in the houses, making rope sandals and embrodering, and a modern craft show in one of the big houses.)

After that, we headed to Takayama Jinya, which was a government office under the shogunate. Unfortunately most of the building is a reconstruction and deadly dull: look, another empty room where secretaries prepared papers! Possibly it is more interesting with an English-language guide, but none was available that day.

If you go, I recommend admiring the ornamental nail covers, which are of a particularly floppy-eared bunny (reportedly representing the long ears of the shogunate), and then walking quickly until you get to the interrogation room (what the brochure calls, in an interesting choice of words, a "law court"), complete with instruments of torture, and to the rice storehouse, which has some tantalizing bits of history and a few nice paintings.

After that, my spirits were restored by an excellent lunch of the local beef, which we cooked at our table. Japanese pork tends to be much fattier than in the U.S., which I don't care for because the fat comes in chunks, but fat marbled all through thin soft slices of beef? Yum.

(There are signs *everywhere* in Takayama advertising Hida beef. We also saw advertised beef sushi which then had a _blowtorch_ applied to the top to cook it slightly, which Chad really wanted. Unfortunately that place was closed, so he had to settle for non-blowtorch beef sushi from a restaurant window down the street, later in the afternoon.)

Then we walked through one of the old neighborhoods and came to Kusakabe Mingei-kan, which is one of two houses that have been converted into museums (they are very close together, if not actually next door, and I don't know that there's much difference between them). This one includes a collection of folk art objects, which being completely without English labels were appreciated by us on entirely subjective aesthetic grounds. There were some lovely lacquerware pieces--not the red plastic-looking stuff, a clear amber over fine-grained wood--an elegant robe with cranes, and some nice netsuke.

It had started raining while we were exploring, so we sat for a while in their resting area eating our free rice crackers and tea. Eventually we resigned ourselves to walking in the rain and headed towards the festival floats, a distinguishing thing about Takayama that I forgot in my first list. =>

There are two big festivals in Takayama, spring and autumn, where huge elaborate floats, dating from the 17th c., are pulled through the streets. Some of these contain puppets, and the types of puppetry are on display at a theater, which I believe is the Shishi-Kaikan, at least judging by a brochure we picked up.

The puppets are displayed in a theater to narration by a woman who stands on the stage. They seemed to fall into two categories, on strings and by clockwork. This was fascinating--not quite as smooth as the parade must be, but some impressive work. The first display was of a puppet on strings walking up a set of separated poles; I didn't see any strings from the ceiling and so I am not sure how it was managed. Another puppet did a gymnastics routine, flipping to and over separated horizontal bars, which was also fascination. My favorite was a clockwork puppet that came out to serve tea--the weight of the cup on its tray started it moving--and then curved around just before the edge of the stage. It wasn't as impressive, but I liked it because after the show, one of the puppeters was kind enough to show us how the curve was managed: a lever pressed against the outside of a turning disk, and when it got to the part of the disk that was a smaller diameter, the lever turned the wheel at the front of the puppet, and then straightened out again when the wider diameter was reached.

The theater also had a museum of lion masks and of what were likely modern paintings, including a really excellent tiger (by someone who'd actually seen one, which is why I say modern) and of fires at night.

Then we went to the Takayama Yatai Kaikan (Festival Float Exhibition Hall), which is cooler than it sounds. Yes, there are only four of the eleven autumn floats on display, plus one with no wheels which is too heavy to parade now (to paraphrase the label, after the war it was too hard to find 80 volunteers of the same height, so a small replica is used, presumably in the spring), but they're huge and elaborate and you can get a surprisingly good look considering that you have to walk around the edges of a big room.

If pictures of them are online (a quick look didn't turn them up, but I'm too tired to do a really detailed search on a strange computer), we saw: Mikoshi, the one that is too big to parade anymore and is very highly gilded; Kagura Tai; Gyojin Tai, which includes a puppet; Ho-o Tai; and Kinpo Tai, which has figures of an Emperor and Empress. One of these has fabulous famous lion carvings, including one lion licking itself and another about to pounce on the one next to it; I think it was Ho-o Tai, but I'm not quite sure.

After that, we wandered around, ducking into lots of shops to avoid the rain (Chad did not have an umbrella and the handy clear ones that get left outside of places against being caught in the rain were all taken). We finished our souvenir shopping and retired to our ryokan for showers and, in Chad's case, another dip in the big hot bath.

Dinner was again excellent, though we do not have a picture of the table filled with dishes because things got taken away piecemeal that night. We're of two minds about the included dinner. On one hand, it's very convenient to have dinner right in your room and not have to go wandering around a strange town hoping for something you can at least partially understand; on the other hand, there's no possibility for cool discoveries.

We had a choice of a 9-ish or a 1-ish train to Ôsaka today, and decided in the morning to leave early. There were a few museums and things left in Takayama that sounded kind of interesting, but we weren't hugely fired up for them, having seen all our priorities yesterday; and the idea of sitting down for a while to recharge sounded good. (While I woke somewhat less stiff than yesterday, Chad slept really poorly.) And thus, we headed off to Ôsaka, having experienced the nice change of pace we were hoping for in Takayama. (Do you know: I didn't go into a single shrine or temple?)

ETA: pictures at http://pics.livejournal.com/kate_nepveu/gallery/00033csx

Tags: japan 2007, trips

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