Takayama is AWESOME.
Takayama ended up on our itinerary after I read a post on some random travel blog describing the small town as an “off the beaten track gem.” It was a lucky find, as it was definitely an awesome part our trip; we actually changed our hotel reservation to stay longer.
Where to begin?? Takayama is an alpine mountain town, surrounded by high snowy mountains and great hiking, filled with historical Japanese architecture, sake breweries, misty morning markets filled with food stuffs we’d never experienced, over a hundred bars, restaurants and cafes, a lively craft tradition, and super-friendly people. There was a gorgeous striver (more than a stream, less than a river) running right through the middle of town, and the clear water was populated by gimungous (sp?) koi fish. It was so cold when we arrived, the first thing we had to do was buy hats and gloves. We stayed in a traditional Japanese inn on a hill overlooking the town, and there was a blooming cherry tree right outside our second story window. The nighttime temperatures dipped as low as the upper teens, but get this; there were hot springs piped right into our Inn. I would have happily stayed there another week, no questions asked.
What we did there:
We spent the greater part of a day hiking the Shiroyama trail which led us over the river and through the woods, up and down misty evergreen paths and the mulchy smell of pine forest, past numerous Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and through the edges of town, right by townsfolks’ doorsteps. On those cool April mornings, profusions of flowerpots were filled with blooms of red, white, pink and yellow that smelled springtime delicious, and add in the smell of fresh river, spring dirt and the perpetual sound of birds singing. ..Takayama was incredible.
More than anywhere else in Japan, we drank sake in Takayama. We had hot sake, cold sake, clear sake, unfiltered sake and sake that smelled like jasmine but burned a little going down. We had sake tastings at sake breweries that had been in families for multiple generations, where each bottle had a family crest. Like wine or craft beers, we had no idea that sake came in so many varieties. Given the freezing temperatures, the hot sake was best and there is nothing like hot sake and Japanese noodle soup in a traditionally built, wooden hole-in-the-wall restaurant after a sunny but blustery hike outside.
We rested up in Takayama after frantic days touring in Tokyo. We put together two puzzles, and I read “Ender’s Game.” We both experienced the Japanese baths, which were separated by gender and for naked people only. After the first weird five minutes, it was all very relaxing.
It was in Takayama that we had our only truly traditional Japanese, multi-course dinner. It was delivered to us by six people, (!) directly to our room, where we ate on our little Japanese table in our snazzy Japanese robes. It was a food highlight, if only for the fact that we had never experienced anything like these foods. Miso soup and steamed rice accompany nearly every meal, but there was tofu prepared in ways that made me appreciate its tastiness and versatility, a hot egg custard dish with seafood, served in a little pot with a little spoon, and previously unknown vegetables served tempura-style, grilled river trout, roast Hida beef, sashimi, and other, previously unknown tasties. Each of us received several separate little plates, bowls and pots of artistically rendered food items, and every single thing was delicious.
In addition to hiking the trail, the other “touristy” thing we did was visit the Hida Folk Village; an authentic group of traditionally built living structures organized as an actual village, complete with fire pits and mini irrigation apparatus around the local springs. While the village itself was interesting, a high point of the day was seeing rather largish snakes getting warm on the rocks beside the lake; it was still cold, but since spring was coming and the sun was heating things up, the snakes were starting to come out to get some sun. There were also some large koi and turtles hanging out nearby. We also enjoyed a profusion of free samples at an adjacent Japanese bakery. Who knew you could do so many awesome things with red beans (?)
Our most notable Takayama human interaction; We met a little old Japanese lady in the laundromat. She was probably about 90, spoke no Engrish, and yet we managed to have a discourse with her when we were trying to figure out the rather complex wash/dry combo machine. She helped us out as best as she could, and watched us with bemused interest; most of our clothes were dirty from hiking, and we probably looked a bit grubby and hippie at that point. When we came back two hours later to get our clothes out of the machine, she was still there, and sat and smiled at us while we folded our clothes. She was such a smiling sweetie that I had to give her a hug when we were walking out; she hugged me hard and grabbed Duke’s hand too, holding tight for full minute.. As beautiful as places are, sometimes the best memories of a place have to do with the people you meet there.