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Friday, December 8

Takayama in the Winter, Pt. 2

The room on Sunday morning was very dark which surprised me considering the ivory colored paper walls. We heard the shoji doors slide open and an audible but polite “Ohayo gozaimasu” could be heard from our hostess. Groaning the same good morning greeting back, we arose from the warmth of our futons. It was 6:50 am and we had ten minutes to round ourselves into clothes, through on some makeup and make our way downstairs to the breakfast table.

Considering the short time, there wasn’t an opportunity for a shower which I can honestly say I didn’t care anyway. The shower at the ryokan is the same type that we have at home with your shower and bathtub in one convenient room. However, there was one huge deviation in this one… it was meant to be used by multiple people at the same time. Not since high school days of skinny dipping have I felt free enough to bare it all to the world and I wasn’t about to restart now. For the first time in my life, it really only took me ten minutes to get ready.

When I slid open the shoji doors to head downstairs for breakfast, to my instant delight I saw that it had started snowing sometime in the night. The fall in Takayama just one day before had ushered in the winter of today and the wooden balcony lay dusted with the first light layer of snow for the season. As if the day before didn’t already have its share of magic to present to us, this was the moment that the trip became surreal. Like I really had transported to another peaceful time and place.

With the largest grin on my face, I bounded down the stairs in my slippers to the room where breakfast was being served. At first I couldn’t figure out my way in because the doors look more like walls. I could hear the voices of my companions through the papered screens but had no idea that I would have to deal with a secret entrance. Around the corner and into another hallway, I found the door and slid through into the room full of smells of warmed foods that waited there for me. Ah, the breakfast of champions. It was a typical Japanese breakfast and not a single thing that one would expect on the breakfast table. Several dishes were already placed for consumption which included two types of Japanese pickles and a dish of some other indefinite Japanese vegetable. I’m ravenous and while I like the food I have experienced thus far, this was not going to cut it for a cold morning when I needed hardcore nourishment. The next few dishes were served… rice, miso soup and the specialty in Takayama, Hida Miso which is a fermented soy bean paste served on a magnolia leaf which you place over your own personal little hibachi like grill until the miso sizzles on top of the leaf. Then you mix the miso into your rice and chow down. So very good. Still not breakfast what I call breakfast but it would have to suffice. Poached eggs were served individually to each of us and it the closet you get to breakfast foods. Of course, you also pour soy sauce on it so I don’t know how breakfasty that still makes it. And green tea, of course! Those blessed hostesses of ours realized the amount of gaijin in the room and served tiny cups of coffee as well. It wasn’t my usual morning Diet Coke but it would do the deed for that day.

All filled up on the delicious weirdness, we donned our warm coats and boots and headed back out on the street. The first stop was one of the two morning markets that are held daily in the city. Vendors lined the street next to the river and sold various vegetables and snacks which they were more than happy to have you take a taste of but never forced you to buy afterwards. There are also goods such as the famous, elaborate wood carvings done from a single piece of wood called Ichii Ittobori, in most cases made from cedar or yew, and other bits of local souvenirs such as the sarubobo doll which mean “baby monkey” in literal translation. The dolls are given to babies and small children to protect them from evil and the city had presented us with our own little dolls the night before at dinner.

Throughout our time in the market, I was looking for that perfect gift to bring home to Kimono Hubby. When one of us goes away, there is always a little something brought back to us… usually something that symbolizes where we were. My object in this case was to find the perfect wood carving for him and I perused many stands and gift shops until I stumbled across the place I would find my purchase.

To walk in to this store, one found themselves in the midst of hundreds of wood carvings of various sizes and subjects lining the walls. I fell in love with just about everything but just bringing home a little, carved woodland creature wasn’t going to cut it. Then I passed a carving of a smiling old man with an amazingly elongated head. It amused me greatly but not knowing what it represented, I kept looking. Coming back to it a second time though, one of my companions who speaks excellent Japanese asked the man behind the counter. He explained that it was an old Japanese deity by the name of Fuku Rokuju who represented wisdom and education. Of course, I was sold. It took us a few moments, but we began to come to the realization that the man behind the counter may be more than just a shop keeper and indeed could be the artist himself. We asked and he obliged us with a confirmation and even agreed to carve his name, Suzuki Ichiei, into the back of the carving for me and my husband’s name onto the bottom. My gift complete, he wrapped it in full Japanese style with paper covered in the faces of warriors, including the meaning of the carvings, his business card and the name of the deity so we could do more research at a later time. Talk about customer service… there could be a lot learned from the shop owners in Takayama.

Next on our agenda for the day was the famous temple, Hida Kokubun-ji. Beautiful in its architecture, and unfortunately the gray skies of the day did not lend to the best pictures to show you. At this stop, a friend explained the proper way to pray at a temple and to acquire your fortune. Of course it was in Japanese, but my friend read what he could and essentially told me I was in for good fortune. I said a silent prayer as we walked away that it had something to do with our condo back in DC but so far no such luck.

To the next shrine, because you can never get enough shrines and temples in Japan… or at least I can’t, we climbed the steps up to the Hida Takayama Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine… a sincere mouthful. The view the top of the stairs at this beautiful wooden shrine was breathtaking and encompassed the city and glimpsed of the mountains only capped with snow for the first time a few hours ago. Along with the shrine, there is a museum that has a miniature replica of the city Nikko. While I haven’t been to this city yet, the replica has me fascinated and we subsequently are planning a trip in the near future.

Takayama is famous for two of the most beautiful festivals a year, one in the fall and one in the spring. During these festivals, massive, gilded wood yatai (floats) that date back to the 17th century are pushed or carried through the streets of the city. Several of the yatai are on display at the Takayama Yatai Kaikan (Festival Float Exhibition Hall). You would not believe the size and elaboration on these floats and I find it entirely difficult to express. In reading the plates describing the floats, this tidbit should give you an idea… to replace one of these yatai today would cost approximately $2.5 billion. This was no small flower-covered, prom float they are wheeling and dealing here.

Thus we find ourselves at the end of our Takayama tour. The next stop is the Green Hotel with yet another very Japanese meal (I’m dying for my own home cooking at this point) and a discussion about how we found the city. As I stated in the first part, there were no cons. This place is perfect and unspoiled and exactly where I want to take family if friends who have the time on their visit. And that’s exactly what we all told the city… absolutely nothing to complain about!

The return trip home was by bus instead of shinkansen which we later found out was for budget reasons even though we were told it was so we could experience both ways. Honestly, the bus ride was better for me than the train… less confusing, no transferring at stations I am not used to and the view was even better than the train. As the bus climbed into the mountains, the newly fallen snow clung to trees and mountain sides and it felt like it had been months since I passed through that same way instead of just the morning before. There were only a few moments as I looked out in front of the bus and realized that the streets were entirely coated in a thick, icy snow that I felt rather unsafe. This particularly hit me as we wound down a snake like path and over a bridge that towered high above a precipice at a speed I honestly felt was way to fast for the conditions. Everyone assured me that the bus was plenty heavy for it not to slid and topple over the edge of the bridge but it did little for the knots that had found residence in my stomach. The worst part of the trip home was heading through numerous dark tunnels in the many mountains where an oncoming car would slow almost to a stop to make room for both vehicles to pass through at once. Moments like those took my breath away.

Arriving at the train stop in my hometown felt glorious after the whirlwind two day adventure. Even nicer was having Kimono Hubby waiting in the car right outside the station entrance to pick me up so I didn’t have to walk home at the late hour, even though the walk is only ten minutes long. It was a great trip, but I was so very glad to be home. Because that is exactly what my home in Japan is finally becoming to me.

*The pictures were finally all uploaded today. Please see the Flickr link when you get a chance!

1 comment:

Mike S said...

Jeff had a post about your trip and referenced your blog. I actually thought your account was better.