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A mountain town

Japan day ten


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Something in the air

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Rickshaw passengers in Takayama

There was something special about Takayama. I could feel it in the air as soon as I stepped off the train – crisp, fresh mountain air, so refreshing after the heat of Kyoto. This mountain town captivated me with its lively morning market, friendly locals, and beautifully preserved old houses. I knew very little about Takayama before visiting, so what a lovely surprise it was to discover this charming town which was to prove one of my favourite stops on our tour of Japan.

During our short stay here we visited a couple of the old merchant houses that have been restored and opened to the public, as well as a number of interesting museums including one dedicated to the twice-yearly festival, which unfortunately we had just missed, and another to the traditional karakuri ningyo or mechanical puppets.

We also enjoyed some of the nicest meals on the tour here, eating the fabulous Hida beef cooked the traditional way (grilled on a hot plate) and in possibly the best beef burger I have ever had! Not to mention the sake breweries ...

But there was no time to visit more than one of the many shrines, nor to take the short trip out of town to the renowned Hida Folk Village. So, like Kyoto before it, Takayama left me wanting to see more, and could well lure me back.

By train to Takayama

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On the slow train to Takayama

We had been staying in Kyoto prior to visiting Takayama and travelled here by train. Firstly we took the bullet train to Nagoya, which took about 40 minutes and was as comfortable as always.

We had some time at the station in Nagoya to shop for bento boxes for our lunch, and then boarded the JR Hida Limited Express, a diesel train. This was considerably slower than the bullet train and much shorter in length, but it had comfortable seats with lots of leg room, and in some ways it was nice to be travelling more slowly and be able to appreciate the countryside we were passing through, especially as the route runs through a mountainous area with scenic gorges, forested hillsides and some lovely views. There were tourist-focused announcements from time to time, in English as well as Japanese, pointing out places of interest, features of the landscape and so on.

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Washington Hotel Plaza

The journey from Nagoya to Takayama took two hours 20 minutes, and from Kyoto to Takayama was about three and a half hours altogether.

When we arrived in Takayama we paused briefly at the tourist information booth immediately outside the station to pick up some maps and then headed for our hotel, which was just across the road. But we stopped only to check in and leave our bags, and hurried out again to explore.

The old town

We decided to go along with the group on a stroll through the old town. Takayama is a very walkable city, with all but one of its main sights located in and around the old town (the exception is the Hida Folk Museum, which we didn’t manage to find the time to visit, unfortunately). From the station, and therefore from our hotel, it is about a 10-15 minute walk to the most interesting older part, although we saw plenty to distract us as we walked, including some attractive shops which several of us resolved to visit before our stay here was done!

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There are several of these wooden sculptures dotted around the town near the river

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Small shrine by the river

It’s quite easy to orientate yourself here. The Miyagawa River flows through the city from north to south, with the historic town on its east side. To the west of the river lies the new town and the station, and the old town lies to the east. A series of bridges crossing the river links the two. There are plenty of signs to help you find your way to the various tourist sights, but unusually these are set into the pavement so you need to look down to spot them. And talking of looking down, watch out too for the decorative manhole covers which are among the prettiest designs of those we saw on our travels. They feature rhododendron flowers, the symbol of the city of Takayama.

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Manhole cover, Takayama

Preserved private houses

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Typical street in the old town of Takayama

The oldest part of Takayama consists of three main streets that run north to south parallel to the river Miyagawa. From west to east these are Sannomachi, Ninomachi and Ichinomachi. The northern section of each has the prefix ‘Shimo’ and the southern, ‘Kami’. All are lined with a variety of old homes, with perhaps the greatest concentration on Kami-Sannomachi. These have been preserved (not restored or rebuilt as replicas) and are regarded as one of the best-preserved Edo-era neighbourhoods in Japan.

Most of these houses are over 200 years old. They have dark wood lattice fronts which give the rows that line each street a sense of uniformity, even where they are now put to use as shops or restaurants, or (quite common here) sake breweries. Unsurprisingly the district has been designated an area of important traditional buildings by the Japanese Government. It is a very popular area to explore, so you need to be prepared for crowds, especially at weekends, but they don’t really diminish from the sense of the past that lingers here. And if you come back at night you will quite likely have the streets almost to yourself, as we were to find the next evening.

Sake tasting

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Sake barrels, Takayama

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Sugidama outside a sake brewery

Andrew had offered to take us to a couple of the sake breweries in the old town which he recommended for tastings. People have been brewing sake here for centuries. You can recognise the breweries by the large white barrels outside and the distinctive spheres hanging above the entrance. These are known as sugidama and are the traditional sign of a sake brewery. Originally they were hung up whenever a new lot of sake was brewed. Made with green, freshly picked needles of a type of cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, the ball would hang there until the needles turned brown, indicating that the sake had aged enough and was ready for drinking. Today these sugidama are no longer used to indicate the age of the sake but simply as a sign of a traditional sake brewery or a sake shop.

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Signs in the sake shop

The two we visited were both towards the southern end of Kami-Sannomachi, the main street through the old town. In the first we were able to taste a good range of different sakes. We paid 100¥ and were given a small pottery cup which we could afterwards keep as a souvenir. On one side of the room was a display of sake bottles on three shelves, and we were free to sample as much as we liked from any of them. The only stipulation was that each person who wanted to taste had to pay for their own little cup. Or as the signs above the shelves said,

‘Wish from a store.
The carrying out from this corner of sample alcohol should withhold.
I refuse that a cup uses about. Please purchase one person one cup.’

‘Charged sample corner
Please sample after purchasing one-piece [the cup with the sansya logo] of 100 yen.
Grass can be brought home’

The second of these signs shows clearly the confusion the Japanese have between our L and R!

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Sue, Phil and Chris tasting the sake

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Traditionally served sake

After we had sampled a number of the sakes here (and debated about the rival qualities of each) we moved on to a nearby establishment that operates rather differently. Here you pay for your sake by the glass, and it is served in the traditional Takayama style, with the glass inside a small wooden box. Actually, the really traditional way is to serve it directly in the box, but this is probably more practical! They also sell a lemon-flavoured drink a little like the Italian limoncello which was very popular with our group but which I found a little sweet for my taste.

This particular sake brewery has a lovely courtyard at the rear where you can relax over your drinks, and there’s also a restaurant attached. One couple in our group came back here to eat the following evening and reported it very good.

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In the courtyard

Once we had drunk as much sake as seemed sensible for the middle of the afternoon (OK a little more than that!), the group dispersed, and Chris and I decided to investigate an interesting art gallery which we had spotted on the other side of the road selling original art, good quality prints and greetings cards. I was thinking of buying some of the latter but we were seduced by a fairly large limited edition woodblock print. We managed to resist buying this however … for now!

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On the streets of the old town, Takayama

We spent the remainder of the afternoon simply wandering the streets and taking loads of photos, as well as popping into a couple more of the shops. One sold nothing but rabbits – soft toys, scarves with bunny prints, rabbit chopsticks, pottery with rabbit pictures on it and more. Another favourite Takayama souvenir is a traditional parasol but these are more unwieldy for travellers from abroad to carry home and I wasn’t tempted. I did however buy some pretty bangles made of kimono silk encased in perspex, from a shop on Kokubunji Dori.

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Traditional paper parasols

Sarubobo

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Sarubobo

I found these red-headed faceless figures a little spooky, but they are very popular and you will see them all over Takayama, used as symbols in promoting shops etc. and available to buy as a souvenir in all sorts of forms, from little charms and key rings to large stuffed toys. Traditionally, these sarubobos were made by mothers and grandmothers to be given to their daughters as an amulet to ensure a good marriage, good children and happiness. The name means ‘baby monkey’ and it is believed that as monkeys have quick childbirths, so will the possessor of this charm. Nowadays they are regarded as more general good luck amulets that anyone can carry.

The face is red like that of the Japanese monkeys but it is less clear why it is traditionally without features. One theory is that they were originally made from leftover cloth and by relatives, so they were kept simple. Another is that the absence of a face allows the owner to imagine it – thus when the owner is sad, they can imagine their sarubobo to be sad too, when they are happy it is happy, and so on.

Today you may see sarubobos with different coloured faces as their very traditional use has widened. Each colour has its own meaning:
The red sarubobo is for luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth.
The blue sarubobo is for luck in work
The pink sarubobo is for luck in love
The green sarubobo is for luck in health
The yellow sarubobo is for luck in money
The black sarubobo is to remove bad luck

The best-dressed dogs

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One of many cute dogs in Takayama

As we continued to walk Takayama’s streets we noticed lots of cute dogs, and I began to speculate that this town might just have the best-dressed dogs in the country! Not only were most of the dogs we saw very smartly dressed in little coats, but some were carried in bags and one even in a pushchair. The dogs of Takayama are obviously rather spoiled!

The proud owners of these dogs were all very happy for us to take their photos, and several of them to pose for me with their pet.

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The dogs of Takayama

But for the ultimate in pampered pooches, have a look at this little one below. He had his own chair in the window where he could sit and watch all the activity out on the street without having to get his paws dirty by going out. I did though find it slightly reminiscent of other windows I have seen in certain parts of Amsterdam!

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Window dog

We thoroughly enjoyed our wanderings and I was already falling in love with this appealing town, but soon it was time to head back to the hotel and freshen up for dinner. We retrieved our bags from their storage and settled into our room which was clean and comfortable but, as so often in Japan, very small. If you want to unpack your suitcase you will find nowhere much to store the contents, yet living out of it is difficult when there's nowhere to lay it flat on the floor.

We had arranged to meet up again with most of the group and go along to a nearby restaurant recommended by Andrew, Karakuri.

Great Hida beef

While Kobe beef is the best in the world, Hida beef is considered to run it a close second, and you can buy it everywhere in Takayama for a fraction of what you probably pay for much less good meat back home. As with Kobe, the secret is in the marbling and although it looks odd if you're unused to it to see fat running through the meat, it is this that gives it its tenderness and flavour.

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Exterior of Karakuri

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Traditional and western-style seating inside

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Hida beef

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Lighting the burner

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Accompaniments

Karakuri is a small family-run restaurant near the station, well-known in Takayama for their beef dishes. We had one of the set meals which, in addition to the beef (you can choose between diced or sliced – we both chose the latter), included some small bits of cold and pickled vegetables served as starter.

With the meat we had a bowl of rice, miso soup, salad (with a wonderful dressing) and an excellent dipping sauce. The slices of beef are served to you raw, and a burner is lit in front of you, where you cook each slice as needed to your own preference. You then take the slice of beef, dip it in the sauce and maybe take some rice too. And enjoy the melt in your mouth texture and superb flavour.

This style of ‘do it yourself’ cooking on a sizzling cast iron pan is called sukiyaki. Most of us really loved this meal but there were a couple in the group who were put off by the veins of fat and wished for a leaner cut of meat. I felt that was missing the point however, and I’ve rarely if ever had beef so succulent.

Almost all seating here is traditional, on cushions on the floor. I found it made my back ache after a while but adding a second cushion and leaning back (I’d chosen a spot in front of a screen) helped. There were a few stools up at the counter for those who didn't feel able to cope on the floor for a whole meal. Pride stopped me opting for one of those but these days I reckon comfort would come before pride!

This meal was a lovely ending to one of the best days of the trip so far - and tomorrow would be even better!

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Inside the restaurant

Posted by ToonSarah 04:00 Archived in Japan Tagged trains food architecture restaurant japan culture history drink dogs customs takayama Comments (5)

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