Thursday 20th and Friday 21st April 2017 – Takayama
Up bright and early for the transfer to Takayama this morning, with a taxi to Kyoto station and then a train to Takayama. We were met at the station by Mr Murayama, who took us up the hill to his Ryokan, a traditional Japanese guest house. We were shown to our rooms, which are in the traditional Japanese style, with tatami mats on the floor, and futon mattresses. As Takayama is in the hills the temperature is a good 5 degrees below Kyoto so we were really pleased to see a huge fluffy duvet on each bed.
Bathing is communal in a ryokan though split by gender (apparently this was something the Americans introduced after WW2 as previously it had been mixed), and they use the hot spring waters (or these days a boiler!) to maintain a bath that constantly refills.
The area is called Hida, and is similar to Switzerland with lots of hills, streams and traditional houses with steep sloping roofs that stop the snow piling up. Just up the hill from our Ryokan is the Hida Folk Village which is a collection of traditional Hida houses collected from around the region in the 70’s and rebuilt here to show what a traditional village would have looked like.
The houses are a mixture of farm houses, storage sheds, and grander houses that had belonged to the heads of villages. They all had the extreme sloping roofs, covered in either thatch or shingle made of wooden tiles. Most of the living areas were on the ground floor around a central fire, with the upper floors for storage or for farming silk worms.
That evening we all got dressed up in the yukata robes provided in our rooms and went to the dining room for a traditional Ryokan feast. Mr Muroyama creates these from seasonal products he gets from the local markets and this evenings meal used every bowl in the kitchen to serve sashimi, tiny firefly squid, a candle powered hot plate that cooked up a beef stew with noodles and various other treats. Wayne loved the firefly squid which everyone else was a bit squeamish about so ate really well.
Day 2 and I started the morning by visiting the Onsen. You start with a shower and wash, then you are allowed into the hot bath – and when I say hot.. it’s really hot, I’m not a lover of a very hot bath so I lasted about 30 seconds before I felt like a lobster with a low life expectancy and went back to the showers to wash my hair. This one was indoors, and was a long room lined with showers with the bath in the floor at the end of the room so did have the air of a sports centre changing room. I’m told the next one on Sunday is outdoors and more natural.
After breakfast we headed into Takayama for a look at the morning market and a wander through the old town. The town has several blocks of beautifully preserved traditional buildings which are made of black stained wood – super stylish and full of lovely shops and restaurants.
We spent a couple of hours wandering before heading over to Centre4Burgers to queue up for their 11am opening. Hida is famous for its beef which is prized across Japan and really expensive, the couple at this restaurant serve the Hida beef as a beef burger but only have a limited number each day which usually sell out in the first sitting – so we needed to be front of the queue.
The restaurant is tiny and quirky, filled with bottles of whiskey and knock-knacks, but the burgers are sublime! We managed to eat our way through the day’s quota, so apologies to anyone else in Takayama who wanted one.
After lunch Wayne and I decided to try and walk off some of the burger and followed the Kitayama walking trail, before taking a coffee in the ridiculously cute Bean Hunter cafe at the bottom of the Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine. It’s run by a seriously adorable older couple who create coffee art with the latte.
Fired up on coffee we walked the Higashiyama Walking course which takes you through something like 15 shines and temples to the north of the town. The weather was stunning, the cherry blossom framed each view just so and the mountain streams which are carefully choreographed into little channels and streams, gurgled away. It was a gorgeous way to try to burn off some calories and we finished with a climb up the hill at Shiroyama park and a breather at the Takayama castle ruins.
Walking back down into town, we stopped at a Sake store, identifiable by the giant ball of cedar that hangs over the front door. This place lets you taste 12 different Sake, if you purchase a tiny little Sake cup for 200 Y – about £1.50. A little bleary we then staggered back up the hill to our Ryokan for another amazing dinner.
So that was our first experience of traditional Japan – futons on the floor are quite comfortable, the pillows which seem to be filled with beans take a bit of getting used to, the food is exquisite and use a lot of dishes, the landscape is stunning and the communal bathing is done at a really high temperature!