Takayama (18-20 April)

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Monday, April 21, 2008

From Nara we had another epic train journey which, in all took about 5 hours (I dread to think how long a similar journey would take in the UK!).  The first leg was a short trip of 15 mins. on the local service from Nara to Oji and then on the Shinkansen to Nagoya where we switched over to the JR Hida Line to Takayama.  This last leg of the trip was described by some of the guide books as "one of the most scenic in Japan" and we had to agree.  The as the train, described as a "wide view", because of the very large windows, leaves the plains and winds its way ever upwards into the mountains, the views are truly spectacular as we cross over bridges, go through ravines & through forests.  This journey really has it all.
Finally we arrive at Takayama station and a 45 minute walk later (it should have taken 15, but it turns out that Clive really can't read a map after all!), we arrive at the Sumiyoshi Ryokan, a traditional guest house which is absolutely stuffed to the rafters with antiques, including a full suit of Samurai armour.  The Ryokan is right next to the river and comes complete with an Onsen (hot springs bath) with a view of the river. Our room is fantastic and we seem to have lucked out here in that it is at least double the size of any of the other rooms here and is easily the largest room we have had so far on our trip - a full 20 Tatami mats!   -not counting the surrounding corridors which are for our use only. (if you have been paying attention a Tatami mat is about 1.5m sq and all Japanese rooms are based on a multiple of these mats. We have separate areas for eating and sleeping and futons once again, magically appear when it is time for bed! The walls in the Ryokan are mainly sliding screens of paper or beautifully painted lacquer ware (very "Kill Bill").   

Our room opens out onto the garden and through that, a view of the river which runs through the town, the banks of which are lined with Cherry Trees in blossom.  This is easily the best place we have stayed so far.  The Ryokan is run by a couple of Japanese ladies who speak only  a few words of English but we manage to communicate well enough using a combination of our few words of Japanese, their few words of English and an awful lot of mime and sign language!  These ladies are hilarious and don't miss an opportunity to laugh at anything at all.  They mimic us with "wow!" which we cannot help saying several times as the various dishes arrive at meal times.

Our first day is spent wandering aimlessly around the town looking through the stalls in the morning markets and around the many, many shops in the town.  The town itself being set in the mountains of the southern Japan Alps is really quaint and is a mixture of both old style and modern Japan. One morning we set out on an impromptu culinary tour as there are so many places eager for you to taste their wares. First we try out a few pickle shops.  Japanese pickles are tremendous and just about everything that it is possible to pickle, is pickled! We then move on to the Miso producers.  The Hida region is famed for its brown Miso paste, upon which, much of its cuisine is based.  There are many different varieties and all are absolutely delicious.  This stuff is so famous throughout Japan and the rest of Asia that this particular store had around half its floor area set aside for its own FedEx office purely to send out its goods mail order!  After a few more tastings of the different variations of Miso pastes, soy sauces etc., at mid-morning we end up in one o the many small Sake breweries where we test out more than a few samples - the variety is amazing, many different types,all of which are quite different.  We are told that it really does not matter whether Sake is drunk hot or cold, but that the Japanese tend to drink it hot in winter and cold in summer which seems sensible enough, although, as was pointed out to us by a Japanese guy at the next table, it is not usually drunk in the middle of the morning!

Sarubobo dolls are a speciality of Takayama and are for sale here in many colours and sizes,  They have no facial features. The reason for this is that the absence of a face allows the owner to imagine it - when the owner is happy Sarubobo is happy and likewise when they are sad sarubobo is sad too.  Translated is Saru means Monkey and Bobo, means baby.  They are unique to the mountainous area of Takayama and were traditionally made by the grandma to bring the children good luck and good fortune throughout life. Red is the traditional colour to ward off bad luck.

After wandering around the town for the day it is great to get back to the Ryokan to bathe in the Japaneses style bath - Onsen?.  This is incredibly relaxing and, as we have now taken to taking one long bath in the morning and another at night, we have never been so clean (or chilled out!). The Onsen is just for soaking in and as you usually have to share it, is important to shower or wash thoroughly  before getting in as, as is the case with so much of Japan, there is a strict etiquette for taking a bath - there is even a strict order as to which bits you should wash first! 

Our bath relaxes us nicely for the most amazing Kaseki style dinner served to us at a low table in our room. No less than eighteen small but exquisite courses, ranging from vegetable and pickles to sashimi and tempura and, usually including 'Hida beef', which in Japan, is more highly regarded than the more famous "Kobe'' beef.  We start to take photographs of the course as they arrive, but they just seem to keep on coming!

The next day breakfast has somewhat fewer courses (14) but is equally impressive.  We decide to head on out into the mountains surrounding the town as it is a very clear day, sunny with blue skies. As we walk up through the forests to the top of the surrounding hills we find parks around every corner with people picnicking and all with the most spectacular views.

Takayama is one of those places we will never forget. The Ryokan we stayed in, the food we ate and the amazing scenery.  As we head back to Tokyo on yet another train journey we realise that we have but scratched the surface of this amazing country.  We shall definitely have to return.
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