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Wednesday, December 6

Takayama in the Fall, Pt. 1

The Shinkansen (bullet train) pulled out of Tokyo and headed northwest to the city of Takayama nestled in the Japanese Alps early on Saturday morning. My friend Russia had gotten an invite to be a foreign monitor for the city and she brought me along as the American representative. There were twelve of us representing the countries of Russia, Poland, Tasmania, Spain, China, Japan and the U.S. After spending only two days with these people, I wanted to box them up and tie pretty ribbons around them to bring them home with me. They were that wonderful to be around.

Our monitoring job was a pretty sweet deal… to go to this beautiful city for a weekend, eat different foods that the city is famous for, stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese style hotel), walk around and take in all the sites and then complain about what we didn’t like. It’s a pretty tough life I lead. I should also mention that I only had to pay a mere 5,000 yen (roughly $43 dollars) for this trip that would have cost me more like 50,000 yen on my own (not including souvenirs). The best part… there wasn’t a darn thing to complain about. It was perfect!

After winding through the country with visions of rice patties, tea fields, giant bamboo forests and turquoise blue river waters, passing through old, traditional towns, the Shinkansen arrived in Takayama. It was just after noon making us very eager to throw our bags into some corner and head out in search of nourishment. We got our chance and were escorted to THE place to go in Takayama for sobu (noodles that Japan is famous for) topped with tempura (thickly battered veggies or fish). This dish was excellent and not a single taste of the grease that one usually associates with products covered in batter back in the U.S. Green tea was of course served and was the cause for our first serious giggling. On the table was some type of spice in a jar with a metal top and holes punched in it. Sitting with Russia and I was a Japanese girl who spoke English but there were spots of difficulty. She explained that the spice was to put in the tea and subsequently, Russia unscrewed the lid and tried to shake some in. The spice comes tumbling out into her green tea and we think all is fine. Our Japanese companion take the jar and the lid, pours a tiny bit of spice into the lid and shakes it through the holes into her tea, about a quarter of what Russia had in hers. Ok, perhaps we need more direction next time but we just played it off with the blond and foreign cards and hoped no one else noticed despite our hysterics.

Once our legs were firmly cramped from sitting on our shins throughout the meal and our bellies were significantly stuffed with hot noodles, we re-acclimated ourselves to our shoes that waited for us by the door and headed out for explorations.

Up and down the streets we trailed until I was quite certain I would never find my way back. We passed the Old Private Houses which are made of the wood and have darkened almost to a blackened shade with the years. If you have seen the movie Memoirs of a Geisha, you would swear you transferred into the movie when standing in this area. In newer neighborhoods, the streets are lined with souvenir and craft shops but of an unexpected quality. Certainly there is always kitche to be bought but there is less here than one would expect in a tourist destination. That’s kind of the thing with Takayama though. It is a tourist destination but it is more of just a well-preserved town. The store owners certainly want you to make a purchase, but you never feel pressured or hurried or inclined to do so unless you really indeed want something. On these shop filled streets, a little bit of home could be found in the handful of Christmas wreathes and lights that hung on light poles along with Santa colorings cheerfully hung for several blocks. It was the first instance where the Christmas decorations I have seen in Japan were subdued to more of the twinkling white variety and not brightly spattering and blinking out various garish shades of color.

The next stop on our tour was a place called Hida Folk Village in the outer reaches of the city. As we arrived, rain had just began to fall steadily onto trees covered in their impressive fall foliage. The village provided us with bright yellow umbrellas so that we could traipse casually through the village without getting a soaking. The buildings of Hida Folk Village were moved to their home on the hill in an effort to show a traditional mountain farming village and their thatched, sloped roofs which offer protection from the heavy snows that accumulate on them made for some of the best pictures. It was mentioned while walking around that the average Japanese person takes a half an hour to tour the village while the average American takes two and a half hours. I could have stayed for four and a half.

The rain was still steadily coming down as we prepared to leave the village and the ‘villagers’ were kind enough to allow us to take the umbrellas to our next stop… to learn a Takayama craft. My ensemble chose sambe crackers. At a clay oven, you sit with gloved hands and place what looks like a Catholic wafer into the prongs of a metal device. Then flipping over and over, higher and lower, the cracker made of rice will bubble up double size and be ready to eat upon a quick cooling period. Never before have I been so awful at something that involved cooking. I even made a turkey! And yet I couldn’t flip this stupid little cracker correctly. After about seven, I had either undercooked or smoked them into something few dared to eat. These were supposed to be something you could take home as a souvenir and it would have been nice to bring them back to Kimono Hubby who I had left behind. Unfortunately, I like him too much to try to find him the mess I made.

It was time to move on and see what I had been anxiously waiting for… the ryokan. Wandering back through the narrow streets as darkness was settling over the city, we passed through an impossibly narrow passage between two buildings and arrived into an alley sized road in front of our home for a night. It was everything I was expecting on the outside. A building covered in the same dark wood that covered structures throughout the city with typical Japanese windows. Inside, it was a whole other world to behold. We left our shoes at the concrete entryway and stepped up into the building. To the left were several small chairs focused around a kerosene heater, the perfect place to warm up after a chilly day in the mountains. A glass case provided the backdrop for the room and was filled with various sculpture and souvenirs, both old and new. On one side even hung a clipped koala collection that the owner was very proud to show me. Not what I typically collect as I would prefer the antique sculpture but to each his own. The next room was for tea and a small Japanese table and chairs sat waiting for you to kneel on. Then into the hallway and up the stairs to our room. At the top of the narrow and steep staircase were two shoji screened doors laid open to reveal another table for tea. It was indicated for us to go in so we removed our slipped before stepping into three tatami mat floored rooms of which we were to stay for the night. The shoji doors were closed behind us as we giggled our way around the room, wondering where our futon beds were. With the exception of the table and chairs, the three rooms were completely empty! The walls of the rooms, all shoji paper screened doors that would leave nothing to the imagination, felt like there was really nothing that lay between us and the world. A very unsettling feeling. After poking around, I even discovered that a back wall closet was not a closet at all and actually was a staircase. There are no locks on the doors so it would take nothing but a gentle slide of the doors in the middle of the night to do us both in. Again – unsettling.

Moments later, our hostess of the ryokan returned with green tea to be served. We gathered around our table for tea and to share more incredulity with one another. We were definitely in for the whole experience tonight.

Tea time was quick as we had to change and head out for dinner at a famous beef restaurant. Takayama is known for their beef stock as it is of a level almost like Kobe without all of the cow rubbing. The front of the restaurant was an upscale butcher shop and stairs behind it took you to several rooms upstairs, one of which was reserved for out party that night. More show removing before we entered the room and after a day of walking and kneeling, I was incredibly happy to see that the tables while Japanese were the ones where the floor was built down in and you could almost sit normally. The extra special bonus? The floor under the table was heated and my tricky toes were thrilled for the remainder of the night.

Meals are never on a small scale here and this was no exception. To start, Japanese pickles, some fatty beef and pineapple mixture (for being such a pineapple lover, I have to admit that this just turned my stomach) and eggs were on the table. The server brought a plate of thinly sliced Hida beef and a huge platter of vegetables including four types of mushrooms (we all know I won’t eat that fungus… the whole squeaky teeth thing… I shiver even thinking about it now), leeks, cabbage and some other leafy thing. At each of the four tables in the room was one Japanese person from the city and at least one person to interpret what they were saying. Our table host prepared the beef and the vegetables into the heated pan on the middle of the table, added in a soy mix and sizzled away. Each person took an egg, cracked it open into a bowl and beat it with their chopsticks. When the cooked mix was ready, you took the beef and vegetables, dipped it into the raw egg so it cooked the egg ever so slightly onto it. While initially grossed out at the idea of raw egg, this could not have tasted better! Other dishes included some type of salad (nothing like the American lettuce variety), rice (surprise), tofu in three varieties and miso soup (another surprise). I know there were other things but I either just no longer recall or I have tuned them out for my own stomach’s sake.

The meal was excellent. The Asahi was continually poured and I even learned how to be proper about drinks at a Japanese table… when someone serves you, pick up your glass with both hands and hold it slightly tilted for the pourer. Once they are done, take the bottle from them and now fill their glass. Yet another instance where this polite and proper act would be overdoing it back home but it just feels so natural here.

Filled with too much food again, it was time to move to the next spot for the evening and imbibe like adults should. Garnering umbrellas as the rain continued to come down, we arrived at a quiet bar where the only seats offered surrounded the tiny bar. With Russia on one side and an the principal of the organization on the other, I proceeded to do my best with conversing with this new gentleman. My Japanese being so poor and his English not the strongest either, we did our best. What we discovered… you don’t need to speak the same language if you share the same interests. We talked about history both American and Japanese and about music including everything from Benny Goodman to Frank Sinatra. We even sang several songs to one another which led him to wanting to take us to a karaoke bar. Downing our drinks, we went back out into the wet night only to discover that the wait for karaoke would take us past curfew.

Yes, curfew. Ryokans are a family owned business and they lock their house up at 11 sharp for the evening. With no more songs in us, we wandered back to our ryokan and our room. This time we discovered our futons laid out and smothered in thick woolen blanket and a second layer of down fill. Eager for rest after a long and wonderfully filled day, I rushed to the bathroom, changed into my toilet slippers before using the facilities, changed back out of the toilet slippers into my other slippers, rounded the corner to the second room to wash my face and hurried back to my awaiting mat on a floor.

All the lights off and all tucked in, we lay giggling a bit more about the day and the experiences. Only the first day and we couldn’t imagine there would be more! Oh, but there was.

As it was that night, so it is this night… time for bed. The rest of the story will have to wait for another day.

* There are no pictures in this entry but rest assured that I took more than necessary. Please see my Flickr page. It will take me a long time to upload all but you seriously do not want to miss them.


Mike S said...

I really miss Ryokan. The ones in Takayama and on Hokaido are especially pleasant memories. Was never too big on their "traditional" breakfast though. Great account of what seems to have been a wonderful experience.

Heather Meadows said...

I came over from Sushicam. Great entry! I really loved Takayama when I visited in 2001, but it sounds like there are some places I still need to visit someday :)