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  • Shelley Dark

7. Takayama

Remember the forecast for today? Rain which occasionally stops? It didn't. Stop. At all. The temperature (6-11C) was fairly chilly but it certainly wasn't unpleasant.

I forgot to mention in last night's post that we were very fortunate on the train from Nagoya to Takayama to have seats in the front carriage with full visibility of the track. It was fun to watch the action.

video of driver in action: CLICK ON THE PHOTO above to watch

Quite often, the white-masked driver would point his white-gloved hand at something on the side of the track, bring his hand back to his nose, point again, then touch a check list on the screen beside him. It was really quite graceful. I assume it's an official check to make sure he is paying attention and not falling asleep. Reassuring when the gauge is as narrow as this. To see how he does it, click the photo above and it will take you to a video I took.

At 6am with it pelting down outside, I went down to the first floor onsen (public baths) in a yukata from the drawer in our room. I made sure to cross the left side over right so I didn't look like a dead person. Although no dead person would give such a smarmy smile.

There are some rather gorgeous ones, for sale I presume, at the end of our hallway.

On the way , I stopped to take a photo of the courtyard garden. It's probably the hotel's best feature.

I wasn't sure I was going to actually dunk myself in the onsen, because I far prefer showers to baths, and jacuzzis just make me hot and bothered. But in the interests of giving us all an authentic Japanese experience, I decided to go ahead with it. No photos allowed, so you're going to have to use your imagination.

I took all my clothes off and put them in a locker (thinking this would be so much more fun if some of you were here with me), walked around a corner to another room and sat on a low stool in front of some taps and a shower nozzle. I soaped and sudsed for all I was worth, washed off thoroughly, and then sauntered over to the long rectangular steaming pool trying to look as if I did it every day. Several women were already in, backs to the edge of the pool, white washers draped on their heads. I wished I had a washer.

Huge glass walls overlooked a private garden. Stepping down into the pool was incredibly soothing. It was only fairly shallow so I sat down to rest my back against the edge, let my legs float a little, and closed my eyes. The water was hot but not too hot - 39 degrees. Bliss.

After a while I opened my eyes to see a couple of younger women walking out through a glass door to a steaming pool in the garden. The outside temperature was 6 degrees, and I could imagine how much fun it would be to be lying out there in hot water, with cold air on my face. So out I went. It was great!

I arrived upstairs feeling totally refreshed.

You would have been proud of me at breakfast. Whitebait and soya beans simmered with seaweed.

We decided not to let the rain interfere with our day, so after breakfast we caught the hotel bus to the sodden Jinya Mae markets near the centre of town. I think most of the stall holders had sensibly stayed at home in bed.

Because Takayama is in the mountains, it's way behind Tokyo in blossom. They have a famous cherry blossom festival this weekend, and sadly none of the sakura is out. There's really very little to be seen in the way of flowers yet except a few daffodils. There's a museum in town which displays all the floats.

I had in my mind that these floats were garish modern things, but there are illustrations everywhere of carriages such as these, which I assume are the traditional floats. But we just couldn't fit that into the day. I enjoyed seeing models in shops.

See the rain? The markets are outside this complex which is Takayama Jinya, an extensive collection of buildings which were the local branch office of the Edo government from 1692 to 1868. A must-see. The warrior government had absolute power for the fifteen generations of the Tokugawa Shogunate for 265 years. This building was the centre of finance, police and courts and crippling tax collection from the farmer peasants, who sometimes revolted.

I loved the wallpaper in the entry which was supposed to represent the Tokugawa Shogunate's aspiration for peace, supposedly as never-ending as the waves of the ocean. Their aspiration that is.

The tatami mats in the entry were edged with this beautiful binding. Isn't the workmanship in the mat itself, made from rice straw, simply stunning?

Houses in Japan have always been measured by tatami mats. A room might be 3 tatami mats by 2 tatami mats. The long side is twice the length of the shorter side, and the size of a mat varies according to the area. The precision of the builder is seen when the tatami mats are laid down: they should fit snugly with no gaps.

All the buildings are open, from offices, to living quarters to conference rooms and granary, jail and courtroom. Bare rooms open on to verandahs which overlook the garden.

I fell in love with this water barrel in the kitchen.

There are paintings of important officials. I don't know the significance of the hat on the fellow at the top but I understand the sword at the bottom!

This is a detail of a leather fire-fighter's coat. I'd hate to have worn it as it looked so heavy!

As we left, this girl was fighting with her disposable raincoat. When she finally found her way into it, she was happy!

This tassel was hanging from the base of a rice paper lantern or chōchin. Isn't it simply lovely with its faded colour and exquisite craftsmanship?

And the rain kept falling!

I ducked into an art museum even though it meant taking off my shoes again. My feet were still freezing from Takayama Jinya where there was ice still on the ground from the last of the snow's melt. But bare socks were better than the slippery flip flops offered. This bowl!

There was china, fabric, pottery, furniture, clothing and dolls from the small and rustic to these very large exquisite ones. Look at the work in the costumes!

Very old fabric.... this old iron lantern.

We visited another two merchant's houses, taking off our shoes each time, fascinated to see how simply these wealthy people lived.

We were offered delicious matcha green tea at both, but by this time we were hungry. We'd made a booking at a casual restaurant called Suzuya which serves the famous Hida (pronounced cheeda) beef, similar in its heavy marbling to wagyu.

We ordered one dish of amiyaki-teisyoku (Hida beef rump or fillet I think as the waiter pointed at the top of his leg), brought raw to the table for us to cook our own slices over red-hot charcoal on a wire grill. Simply superb! We also ordered another dish of hoba-yaki, sliced beef and vegetables with miso paste and konnyaku (from potato starch) cooked on a hoba (magnolia) leaf at the table.

Washed down with cold Ashai beer. Our waiter was Teppei, whose English was good, and whose showmanship skills made his explanations quite amusing. We counted ourselves very lucky to have booked there.

Teppei wasn't a bad photographer!

I've been dying to try matcha ice-cream which I've read so much about. Here it is. I don't know what I expected, but it tasted just like a cup of tea in an ice-cream!

On our three kilometre walk to Hida Village on the outskirts of town, we met these children going home from school, jumping in puddles as predictably as any child anywhere on earth. I was tempted myself!

Set on the side of a hill on the outskirts of town, Hida Village is 30 traditional thatched and shingle-roofed houses moved to form a picturesque village above a lake. In peak seasons, artisans demonstrate their craft (weaving, shingle making, paper making, silk production, sledge making). We tramped around in the rain and rang a huge bronze bell, but I was very glad when the taxi arrived to take us back to the hotel.

I'm now sitting in a warm dry room, a glass of wine beside me (I know it should be sake but there's a limit to my authenticity!) and the prospect of an early night.

Sleep well travelling friends, because tomorrow we go down the mountain again on our train to Nagoya, and then on to fabulous Kyoto.

Takayama has been a very enjoyable small-city experience to start our Japanese holiday. Tomorrow we meet the tourist hordes in Kyoto! And hopefully, if we're lucky, more sakura. Keep your fingers crossed!

Until then, I wait you.....

shelley dark, writer 

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