Up in Takayama

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The weather gods continue to smile on us (Ginny says it is because she bought an umbrella in Nagoya) despite predictions to the contrary.  Perfect weather for us travelers. 

Takayama is a small town in the foothills of the great Nagano mountains, preserved from the ravages of more recent wars, but not from the internecine battles in the distant past which destroyed the fortified castles of the area.

We enter town the first day at the same time as crowds of school children, dressed in their military-looking uniforms, the girls in  white middy blouses with red ties and skirts and the boys in brass-buttoned navy-inspired jackets.  They are rowdy and happy as kids should be, lining up for their lunches, although perhaps more polite than their American equivalents.  The old town is entered by a series of bridges over a fast flowing river leading to a number of commercial streets with well-preserved old wooden buildings, now selling local food products, all beautifully packaged, for visitors.  But despite the two blocks of intense tourist crowds, it is obvious that this is still a living marketplace where the locals shop for food and other supplies. 

Up on the hill, we take a bus to the Hida Folk Village, where old houses about to be destroyed were saved and relocated to preserve knowledge of old building styles.  It is the Meiji-Mura of this part of rural Japan, attempting to retain a connection with the past.

We have been enjoying wonderful food here.  The restaurants are well-used and comfortable with wooden tables, cotton textiles hanging a few feet down over doors, and always the bowing hostess.  Vegetarian shabu-shabu (Pat had the famous Hida beef in hers), vegetables cooked in miso over a little fire-heated ceramic serving dish, tempura and stir-fried vegetables.  The white rice and noodles is putting weight on all of us.

Our hotel is a beautiful small traditional Japanese ryokan or inn, kimono-clad assistants bowing to us, shoes off at the entrance, tatami-rooms with futons laid on the floor at night, shoji screens and tea tables.  Every night we ladies head after dinner to the indoor hot water baths, scrubbing and then soaking in clear untreated water. 

Our guide the next day takes us to the morning market, with some fresh vegetables for sale, and then around the town and up into the hills to a museum of the intricate and regal floats paraded in Takayama once a year to celebrate the harvest.  And to a lookout point for the majestic snow-capped mountains that rise in the distance over the town.  One of the floats below.

After a lunch at a Thai restaurant (the guide’s wife and her brother, native Thai, are the owners and cooks), we head in our guide’s van up to the Unesco world heritage site of Shirakawago, a farming village which retains its unique peaked-roof very thick straw thatched roofs which have protected the inhabitants from winter’s heavy snow for many centuries. 

It is a tourist haven and the poor villagers must benefit from the many small shops which have sprung up selling ice cream and souvenirs but still the busloads of us must be changing the character of their daily life.  These homes have inhabited a small valley with a clear glacial river running through it, escaping until recently the distractions of the modern world.  But we are told the young people are leaving and only the elders are remaining with income from farming now supplanted by income from the tourist trade.  And it is hard to blame them as life here must be/have been difficult with very heavy snows in winter and heat in the summer.

Our last stop back in the town of Takayama is a magnificent area of old temples.  There is a path leading from one to another and i can understand why it is called “Little Kyoto” although with far fewer visitors — in fact we are the only ones wandering through these ancient wooden temples and graveyards with the azaleas still blooming. 

The Zen temple was built in 1560.  Another Buddhist temple nearby was relocated from a castle in about 1650.  It is absolutely gorgeous here, sweet smelling trees, carefully pruned for aesthetic display, gravel carefully raked into swirling designs, late spring flowers still sparkling. Absolutely quiet, sheltered by a forest hillside.  As Japanese as you can get.  A serene place and time for us.

Our shabu-shabu dinner as we prepare to leave this peaceful town.