Tokyo to Takayama
It was an easy transition with our luggage from our hotel, The Strings by InterContinental, to Shinagawa Station – the few hundred metres was a breeze with no stairs and smooth tiled walk ways. There were helpful Japan Rail staff everywhere who patiently guided our direction and even allowed us to keep our tickets as souvenirs rather than let the ticket machines consume them.
The waiting room with a Starbucks was where people congregated until it was time to head to the platform – no one was giving up airconditioning before it was absolutely necessary. For those (apparently many!) with a nicotine addiction, there was a special smoking room – it was packed. Far more of the male population smoke than women – men just under 30%, women just under 10%. John tried his first black cold coffee from the vending machine, and it passed judgement (this could be a new thing for him).
This was our first experience of an express train in Japan, and the first leg of our journey was to Nagoya, where we were to change trains for the one to Takayama. The seating was a 3-2 configuration, and the helpful man at the JR office had sat us together in a pair. Not much padding on the Shinkansen Hikari 507, a bit like the Tangaras in Sydney, but the seats did recline, and there was far more space than in economy on flights!
Before long, we arrived at Nagoya station with a 30 minute wait between trains, which was a good amount of time for us to shop for a snack. Thrilled that I was able to find bento boxes with vegetables in them! Maybe we just need to live on bento boxes instead of trying to find restaurants while here (see previous post about Tokyo and the lack of vegetables served). The excitement deflated a little when we found one tiny piece of pork in each. Oh well, pretty decent attempt, Japan! AND we had Asahi beer as accompaniment. Now, that’s the way to do a packed lunch for a train trip. The Japanese have perfected safe, hygienic mass produced take away food. Such pretty presentation, fresh, healthy food perfectly designed.
Our journey from Nagoya to Takayama was longer and rougher, but the seats were much nicer in their 2-2 configuration, plush furnishings and big windows. The ‘rougher’ component was due to the train being a Hida 3 (not as high tech as the Shinkansen) and the tracks heading into the mountainous region. It was still speedy travel, though, and we enjoyed the scenery zooming past while snacking on our bento boxes and beer.
Our traditional ryokan accommodation
The perfect hospitality of the Japanese was once again apparent when we arrived before 2:30pm at our ryokan, Oyado Koto no Yume, whose check in time began at 3pm. The authenticity was completely charming. We were in the Cherry Blossom room, a top floor room with ensuite, where the only non-traditional aspects of the suite were the TV, A/C, bar fridge and a proper lounge and chair above floor level (for which old knees and bad backs were very grateful). When out for dinner the staff would transform the room into a bedroom with two king singles on the floor.
A true ryokan experience is provided to guests at Oyado Koto no Yume. From the moment of entering the tiny courtyard with the flapping banners adorned with cherry blossoms, and removing shoes in exchange for slippers, the serenity envelopes you. The welcome ritual includes making a selection of a natural oil to have defused in your room, choosing a traditional yukata (a casual, summer kimono made of cotton) for your wear in the ryokan and out in the street (if you are comfortable with that). If you are unfamiliar with this type of garment, helpful staff will come to your room to show you how to don it (PJ versions were also provided for nightware).
There was both a public and private onsen (bath house) in this ryokan. The private one had to be booked at reception, but the separate male and female public ones could be used at any time. We couldn’t get into the private one on the first night, but after our dinner and walk we decided to give the public ones a go. Both were empty, so we basically got a private onsen for nothing (except, we were not in the same bathhouse!). This experience was remarkable, incredibly healthy and wonderfully liberating. As with most things Japanese, the ritual and unwritten rules are an important component of the experience – disrobing, sluicing, soaping thoroughly for 15 minutes (while seated on little wooden stools), rinsing, slipping into the hot water of the bath, savouring the heat and the steam, emerging, towelling off, and leaving. If you have company, conversation is not unusual. However, tattoos are traditionally forbidden. It was nice having the place to myself for my first time in an onsen. The water was very warm, and the tension seeping from muscles was almost immediate. (For more reading on the tradition of onsens in Japan, go to Gourmet Traveller.)
Our pre-onsen dinner was had at an Indian/Nepalese restaurant only 30m from our ryokan called the Royal Nan House. We shared a vegetable curry, garlic naan and samosas, and added two Kingfisher Strong to the mix (8%, can’t get them in Australia). They offered five different ‘heat’ varieties for customers in their meals. We chose the very hot level of heat (one down from the top) and it was fine. If we went again, we would go with the top level. Very tasty, lovely vegetarian food, and a nice change from noodles.
Traditional Japanese Breakfast
We chose the full traditional Japanese breakfasts for our stay in Takayama – one of the many reasons that travellers choose this accommodation. It was an impressive spread. Spicy soup with tofu and bean shoots, a mushroom panacote type thing (savoury, of course), a miso/shallots/mushroom mix heated over a naked flame on a terracotta stand, which you then mixed with your chopsticks and ate with rice, a thick slice of dried smoked salmon, salad with egg, miso soup, and a variety of little dishes with tastes of things like creamy mountain potato, vinegared greens, and pickled bits and pieces; a vast array of delectable morsels. This way of eating is designed to be an unhurried experience, another detailed, focused, ritual – a lesson in mindfulness.
Straight after breakfast we headed out to the Takayama-jin’ya, the town’s feudal-era government complex. Built in 1615, this was once the seat of power for the Hida area’s governor, and is the only building of its kind in Japan. There were many things of interest in the small-scale palace, but one of the most unexpected was the torture room. It was not some dungeon-like medieval thing of our imaginations, but was rather a room streaming with sunlight with a couple of subtle and well-designed ‘pieces’ – a rigid, board with a zig zag seat area where the victim sat (really kneeling) and gigantic slabs of stone were placed across their laps. Clever and nasty.
We hit the Jinya-mae morning markets nearby, but must have been a little too early as there were only a few stalls set up, and appeared to be geared towards the locals in terms of being mainly produce (but who knows what the unopened stalls were stocking). A stroll along the river followed which led us to the Miyagama Markets selling local crafts, snacks and produce. It was a very relaxed market visit, with no hard sell happening anywhere, just friendly encouragement.
Yoshijima Heritage House
Late morning found us at Yoshijima Heritage House, a very important building in terms of architecture (it’s a ‘National Important Cultural Treasure’). Built in 1907, it looks much older, maybe due to the builder being an expert in traditional home design. Everything is exquisitely simple, yet elegant. The Japanese garden is rightly deserving of its reputation as the origins of ‘zen’. This is a structure “…possessing subtlety and feminine beauty, tending towards sensitivity and delicacy” (www.hida.jp).
A group of older Japanese men and women were touring the heritage house during our visit, and all nodded and smiled whenever they passed. One woman in particular was happy to have a chat in her very broken English. It was lovely to hear the sincere interest in her voice, and excitement that we were in her country. She wanted to make us feel welcome, doing what she could to ensure we had a really good time. The big smiles when the tourist pays a compliment or expresses gratitude for assistance given is evidence that these people are a proud nation who also delight in service, no matter what their profession.
Old Town Takayama
We adored the compactness of Takayama. I had pictured a gorgeous little spot, a combination of old and new, and before our arrival, the logical part of my brain reminded me that so many other towns in guide books sounded like that but ended up being sprawling, unwieldy things with a cute corner of nostalgia. Not so with Takayama. It was everything I imagined it to be. It was pretty much perfect. I had also been concerned that our ryokan, which is in close proximity to the station, was too far away from the old centre, but it was only an easy 10 minute walk.
All of the homes and businesses here in Takayama are just so damned discreet. There is a rod across doorways from ceiling height to about half way down the opening, which serves as a privacy screen when the sliding doors are open, but also as an insect deterent. There are no flashy signs advertising restaurants, just understated ones (unless the shop is particularly westernised). The streets are also so very quiet. The only time you hear conversations are when the voices are coming from western tourists, having their loud chats, oblivious to the culture around them.
Our amble through the old town brought us to Ebisu Soba for lunch. We had our first sample of soba noodles, which are made with buckwheat, so they are not big on the gluten. We chose hot soba noodles with soup, which had a little minced ginger, some token greens and mushrooms. While it was delicious, and I was grateful for the ginger, I was still aware that I was basically just eating a big bowl of carbs, and was left with an unfulfilled craving for green vegetables. The service was once again friendly and highly competent.
Even though it was the middle of the heat of the day, after lunch we took a walk through the east side of town where the temples and shrines are sprinkled about amongst the suburban houses. This did not last as long as anticipated, because even though we were protected from the sun by our trusty umbrellas, the heat soon got to us and we were in dire need of a rest from a full morning of being on our feet.
Final evening in Takayama
The ‘aircon’ from our ryokan was calling, so we made our way ‘home’ via Takayama Museum of History and Art. While we didn’t do an exhaustive tour of the small museum, we managed five of the larger rooms. But it was not helpful that very few displays had information in English, so this hastened our pace.
The already familiar calm of our ryokan, greeted us as we removed our shoes and handed them to our consummate hosts. We began our final evening in Takayama with some much appreciated ‘zen’ time and serious cleansing in the onsen, before heading back to our airconditioned Cherry Blossom room for some crisp white wine and serious relaxation. I would highly recommend a traditional ryokan experience in Japan, and the town of Takayama is the perfect place to surround oneself with the authenticity of the old-world aspects of this unique country.
Our Japanese journey continues with Kanazawa…
Accommodation: Oyado Koto no Yume