Takayama – an old world

Sunday 20th to Tuesday 22nd October

Takayama was the city of our second Ryokan stay.  A Ryokan is a Japanese Inn and the experience of staying in one is very different from a Western hotel.

Takayama is in Japan’s Western Alps region, which enjoys cooler summers but extremely harsh and snowed in winters.

We arrived on a wet afternoon, and couldn’t get past the front entrance without removing our shoes so we could walk on the tatami mats.  (Reminder for next visit to Japan – lace up shoes are a pain, as you are constantly removing shoes for temples, houses and Ryokan Inns – try those awful velcro ties instead.)

We were made very welcome by the landlady, a wizened and wise old lady who spoke carefully constructed English.  We were then shown to our room by Yuko, a friendly lady who knew Melbourne well, having studied English at Monash Uni and assisted with Japanese classes in Wheelers Hill.  She told us she missed the cask wine – it must have been a while ago!

The room was nearly sparse, just a low table and two cushions with compromised seats that supported our tired Western backs.

We escaped to explore the delightful ancient streets of Takayama, shielding our cameras with our umbrellas, as we tried to capture the evening misty rain and the dark Japanese wooden architecture.

When we returned we changed into our kimonos for dinner.  Dinner was served in the room.  Unfortunately for us more mature westerners, three days of sitting on the floor is all our legs and backs can manage, but the experience was a heap of fun.

After dinner, housekeepers came in, cleared the food, moved the table to the side of the room and set up our futon beds.  And in the morning, before breakfast, the housekeepers returned and packed away the beds.  No place for an afternoon nap!

Like the Ryokan in Beppu, food was amazing.  Dinner was about 16 to 20 morsels while breakfast was limited to a mere dozen.  Our Japanese hostesses, dressed in kimonos, knelt while they laid out our meal and tried to explain how we should approach it.  Each meal had at least one hot dish on a tiny brazier, as well as vegetables, pickles, assorted seafood and meat.  Much to our hostesses amusement, we ordered wine with our meals, in our opinion a necessary accompaniment.

The following morning we explored the Miyagawa Morning Market along the river.  It was a place of typical Japanese crafts, especially wood and lacquer work from this area, local produce and the Japanese sign writer.

Next was the museum of Yatai or Festival Floats.  The enormous floats are a legacy of the wealth created in Takayama, initially by local timber and then the myriad of crafts people who followed, such as sake brewers, cloth merchants and woodworkers.  In the 350 years since the festivals started the floats have become more ornate as various artesian groups attempt to outdo each other.  As you walk around the streets you pass Yatai-gura or stone store houses where the floats are stored.  Some are brought out for the autumn festival, and a few of these are displayed in the exhibition hall, and others for the spring festival.

The exhibition hall is part of the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine which looks down over the city of Takayama.

Our travel operator suggested we visit the village of Shirakawago, about a 45 minute bus ride.  This is a show village of the Ogi-Machi Grasshô or prayer houses, named for their steep grassy roofs which are designed to allow the snow to easily fall off, in this intensely cold  and snowy part of Japan.

The village is a popular tourist stop off and the bus park, across the river, was full to overflowing.  A concrete suspension bridge leads to the village, where houses that would normally be many kilometres apart have been collected as a show piece ratified by UNESCO.  Unfortunately the village looked a little tired and the vista was interrupted by less than pretty out buildings.  We subsequently read that UNESCO may remove their support as the village attempts to commercialise the area and loose its intended character.

The following day was far more successful as we visited Hida No Sato or the Hida Folk Village.  Once again, houses had been brought in from many parts of the Hida district, however the village, set around the Goami Pond, was well organised and notice boards were informative.  The houses, of many styles, were not occupied as this village is a museum, but furniture or artifacts were in place.  Each house had a slow burning fire – we learned that these fires of local oak always burnt, to cook on, keep vermin out, keep inhabitants warm, keep the grass roofs dry and to create an atmosphere in the house.

There were some water mills on display around the pond, where ducks, fish and a lonely swan vied for your attention and the 30Yen (approx $AUD0.33) bread stick you might purchase to feed them.

Water has fascinated us in Japan – there is so much of it.  We seem to be constantly crossing rivers, creeks and water channels.  Toilets flush with copious amounts of water.  The procedure to wash before entering a hot spring is to scrub down with soap and a continuous stream of running water.  As Australians, with our chronic water shortages, the use of water here appears to be a luxury or a massive extravagance.