Stunning alpine views, tiny white butterflies fluttering above colorful wildflowers, crystal-clear streams, I was in the alps all right – the Japanese alps.
Getting There – Takayama Day 1, July 1
I was out the door of my Yokosuka apartment by 4:40 a.m. I had chosen to leave so early partly because I was keen to maximize my time during a four-day weekend and, frankly, because Yokohama’s bustling stations intimidate me.
Since the two backpacks I was carrying made me extra bulky, I wanted to avoid inadvertently bumping my fellow passengers during a rush hour morning commute. Even with a record heat wave, by 6 a.m. the local train cars were approaching capacity. Everywhere I looked, passengers were fanning themselves with portable electric fans.
Takayama is popular both domestically and internationally. Indeed, my fear had been that I would be competing with urban city dwellers looking to beat the triple digit temperatures with a summer escape to the alps.
Once at Shin-Yokohama, I found the Shinkansen ticket counter and purchased tickets for the super express to Nagoya, followed by an express train to Takayama. Traveling by Shinkansen always feels very glamorous, and I admired watching the train’s approach.
At 320 kilometers (192 miles) an hour, the Shinkansen doesn’t just glide; the sound it emits sounds like one continuous whistle. The seats and windows are immaculate, there is a generous amount of legroom, and the officials bow every time they depart a compartment.
At first I thought that my fellow passengers were likewise heading to the alps. I soon revised my hypothesis – these were business professionals. When I switched trains and boarded the Hida limited express, the car I was in had just a few people.
The ride from Nagoya to Takayama was a beautiful one. Large windows revealed luscious views of mountains.
If I say the word ’alps’ I’m willing to venture the first countries that come to mind are Switzerland, Austria, France, Italy, and Slovenia. I myself did not know Japan had alps until a few years ago. In addition to being in the heart of the alpine region, Takayama is located smack dab in a rich timber area that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868). During this time wealthy merchants and artisans had joined forces to produce stunning carpentry, carving, lacquer, and weavings.
Upon arrival at Takayama station I stopped at the information office to pick up a walking map of the town. It was clear from the fact that the brochures were available in English, German, French, and Italian that this was a popular destination for Europeans.
The AirBnB room I had rented was less than a five minute walk from the station. However, I had arrived a few hours before the official check-in time, and sent my hosts a note requesting permission to let me access the room early to store my bag. While waiting for a response I realized it was lunchtime.
Spying a nearby traditional Japanese restaurant, I entered and immediately realized I had made a mistake. My backpack, shorts and running shoes were wildly out of place in the elegant, understated foyer.
It was too late. A man arrived and to my surprise, the word that followed ”Konnichiwa” was ”hittori” — one person?
I was shocked.
“Konnichiwa. Hittori, onegashimasu.” Good day. Yes, one person please.
I removed my shoes and followed him to a private back room, which featured a sliding door, low wood table, and two cushions on the tatami mat floors. There was no English menu, so the gentleman described the ingredients of different set courses aloud in English. I opted for the Hida beef set and splurged for local Takayama sake.
What followed was an hour of sheer joy.
A woman in yukata robe brought out set after set of tiny dishes, each time gently alerting me that she was coming before sliding back the door and revealing the food. Pale green and silky edamame tofu, salad, three different types of sashimi, rice, miso soup, the crispiest tempura, pickled vegetables…it just kept coming. Each dish was exquisite.
Hida Beef and a Stroll Through Town
And then she brought out the star ingredient, raw slices of Hida beef. The beef was accompanied by perfect vegetables and an onion that had somehow been cut in the shape of a lollipop. I felt a moment of panic when I saw her place a tiny grilling surface atop the table: I would be the one cooking the precious beef.
Unfortunately, I am a terrible cook.
She must have picked up on the anxiety on my face because she kindly offered a helpful hint:
“When color changes, it is good to eat.”
The Hida beef was meltingly tender, accompanied by only with wasabi and tiny pinches of salt. WOW – what a combination.
There had been more than twenty different tiny plates used during the course of the phenomenal meal, to include a tiny salt bowl with the smallest spoon I have ever seen. The woman who had brought out and served the dishes could not have been sweeter or more hospitable. I had walked into this fabulous place literally fresh off the train, disheveled after a six hour commute with four transfers, and without a reservation. They had still welcomed me with great kindness.
I could not believe how fortunate I was.
Although customary in the U.S., tipping in Japan is considered a terrible insult. Thus, the grand total for this amazing experience came to 4500 yen ($34).
In another round of good news, I had received a response from my AirBnB hosts, clearing me to enter the room early and drop off the bag.
There were four white futons in the room; three atop an elevated long wooden block, one perched above a set of stairs. Each of the futons had a set of towels stacked neatly on it. There was a stove, mini fridge, microwave, tea maker, TV, and a deep tub — the apartment had made brilliant use of what was a compact space. The total for the three night stay came to less than $160.
I set my bag down and left for a tour of the town. The more I walked, the more I liked the town and the tiny details that make up its historic charm. For example, the lamp lights on my street were shaped like lilies. And as I rounded the corner onto one of the main streets I saw Hida beef signs everywhere.
The first Wagyu Beef Olympics was hosted in 1966. Since then, challengers from every region gathered together every five years to determine whose Wagyu beef was best. Its clear that this region takes the quality of their beef very seriously.
In addition to the omnipresent restaurants and butcher shops serving up Hida beef, I passed a generous number of coffee shops and a surprising number of Italian restaurants.
I walked to Hida Kokubungi Temple, with its ornate three level pagoda and bell tower. Nearby, there was an enormous 1200-year-old Great Ginkgo tree marked as a national natural treasure.
The further I went from the train station, the more slow and traditional the pace, the older and more historic the buildings. I truly enjoyed seeing Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine, which was erected before a prince embarked on a mission to kill a beast possessing two heads, four arms, and four legs. Over the centuries, the shrine was associated with protecting the city.
During a normal year, Sakurayama Hachimangu receives over 1.5 million guests annually.
On that swelteringly hot summer afternoon, I saw less than ten.
I took my time and savored a stroll through the auxiliary shrines. The offerings that were left varied based on who the deity was. One of the shrines had a box with old ink brushes. At another shrine, there was a sign so delightful I took a photo.
Kotohira is worshipped as the god of security, health, and developing one’s physical strength. According to a tradition, if you threw the paper you chew food well to the ceiling of drawing a long-nosed goblin, you would be recovered from illness.
I’m at a total loss as to what the proper offering at such a shrine would be.
A long street leading up to the shrine is lined with shops featuring the region’s famous handmade crafts. However, most of the shops were devoid of customers – something I attributed to the heat.
At a wood shop, I selected a carved wood figure and then realized the store only accepted cash. What an amateur move!
Since I lived in Japan I should have known better. I really loved the carving, and so spent forty minutes in search of an ATM. In the process, I discovered several of the areas where the famous Takayama Matsuri floats were stored.
When I returned to the shop the carving was back in the display case. The woman quickly retrieved it, expertly wrapped the container box, and held out a calculator showing me the total. Then she cleared the function and showed me a new number. That she had given me a generous discount came as a surprise. I wonder whether she had expected me to find the ATM, or whether she trusted that in such heat I would return.
Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall
My next destination was the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. Takayama is said to have one of the three best festivals in Japan. (The other two contenders are the Chichibu Matsuri in Saitama Prefecture, and the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto.) The event had begun as a village festival some 350 years ago, and is held every April and October.
During the Takayama Matsuri, its intricate, gorgeously carved and decorated floats are paraded throughout town. Since I doubted I would be able to see the floats during the festival, I paid ¥1000 to see them at the Exhibition Hall. From this hall, visitors have the opportunity to view a rotating display of four festival floats.
A staff member scanned my temperature and handed me an English device for narration.
I was impressed by the sheer size and grandeur of the multi-story floats. An extraordinary amount of detail had been lavished on each, showcasing absolute mastery of craftsmanship. Atop some of the floats were the dolls and puppeteers known as karakuri.
According to a Smithsonian report, the mechanical wizardry used to make the karakuri move were a pre-cursor to a technology for which the Japanese are leaders: robots.
In an era in which so many things are automated, I cannot help but admire that some traditions continue. At the same time, it is difficult to fathom what effort that takes to move the floats; one of the ”mobile” displays weighed 2.5 tons and required a team of 80 volunteers, all of whom had to be the same height. Because of the physical exertion involved, the two teams of forty were required to swap in and out every ten minutes.
The wheeled floats came in three and four-wheel varieties, with the three-wheelers being much more easy to navigate around corners. To get the four wheelers to turn a corner required phenomenal coordination: the team would add a temporary wheel to the float and jack the two front wheels off the ground.
I had nearly made the decision to pass on visiting the adjacent Nikkokan museum, which was included in the ticket cost. The museum showcased miniature models of temples that had taken a team of thirty-three artisans fifteen years to build.
As with the Exhibition Hall, I was was the only person at the Nikkokan.
A thermometer revealed a clue as to why guest attendance was low: it was now a sultry 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit) outside. Having logged a good six miles of walking in summer heat, it was time to call it a day.
Day 2 – July 2, Shirakawago
The morning began with a jaunt to the Miyagawa morning market, a tradition that began during the Edo period. At 6:20 a.m., the temperature was refreshing but deceptive. Every online website called for a high of 96.
Local farmers had already set up much of their wares under white cloth stands. On my first pass I simply watched as vendors brought out the freshest of vegetables and flowers. The hand-made crafts were noticeably less expensive than those found at the stores.
I doubled back for some shopping. One of the fruit and vegetable vendors was especially friendly, pointing at the small containers of samples. I purchased a small bag of dried apple chunks and sampled minced shiitake mushrooms by larger clear bags. I complimented him on how oishii the mushrooms were.
He pointed to a handwritten sign above the mushrooms.
“That is my recipe. Sumimasen, it is only in Japanese.”
I purchased a bag of mushrooms and took a photo of the recipe, resolving to ask a friend for help with the translation.
All the vendors were kind and very sociable. I have a hunch based on the way the vendors wove in and out of each others’ stalls that they actually liked each other.
At the market, I purchased fresh-picked cherries, a handmade sarubobo (monkey baby) doll said to give the recipient of the gift good luck, and another wooden figure carved out of Takayama’s Yew wood. I knew just enough words to understand that the Yew wood would change color as it aged, and that its current honey-colored hue would gradually transform to a nut brown.
My final purchase that morning was an ad hoc breakfast. I adore takoyaki, but it was too early in the day for me to eat hot octopus balls. Instead, I bought three red-bean paste fish-shaped pastries from the neighboring stall.
After dropping the purchases at the apartment, I left for the bus station, conveniently located by the train station, and bought a ticket for the 8:50 a.m. express bus to Shirakawa. The driver walked through to verify we were all wearing seatbelts. Once he was satisfied, we left for the fifty minute journey.
As the bus approached Shirakawa I was giddy with excitement over a beauty that felt surreal.
Shirakawa is known as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage destination. It is famous for the stunning beauty of its distinctive gassho-style houses. The houses were built in triangular shapes to withstand heavy snow, and resembled the shape of hands clasped in prayer. From inside these houses, villagers had raised silkworms.
Signs posted inside and out reminded visitors that the houses were highly flammable, and that smoking was expressly forbidden. Numerous fire extinguishers were positioned at multiple locations throughout the village.
After skimming a map I decided it would be smart to head to the observatory before it grew any warmer, and then drop back down for a closer look at the village. A bus offered shuttles to the top for a reasonable ¥200; however, I was determined to hike. Halfway up, I was surprised by a group of shirtless young men rinsing off their bodies with cool stream water.
The paved road was steep, but getting to the observatory took much less time than I had anticipated. Once there, we were greeted by postcard worthy views from every angle. I decided to celebrate and bought a green tea soft cream sourced with milk from a local dairy farm. I don’t have the words to describe just how stellar Japanese dairy is.
It was sweet, it was floral, it was refreshingly cool. Looking out over the village, I felt deliriously serene and happy.
In many ways, one might think they were in Europe. It surely is no accident that tourist brochures are offered in Italian, French, and German. Neither is it a coincidence that one of the items featured right by the soft cream was for a Frankfurter sausage. In any case, I think the tourism industry is smart to play up the Japanese Alps – European Alps tie.
And yet, the reason the fields below were so green was not due to grass…farmers were growing rice.
I decided to take a different way down to the village and read a posted sign warning that the route was much steeper, and that if I had small children, disabilities, or limitations of any kind I should go down the way I had came. Indeed, the steep dirt trail showed serious signs of erosion. Had it been raining or muddy, this would have been a foolish way to go. As the ground was dry, things worked out and I was on the road again in no time.
The ticket for the outdoor open air gassho museum was perhaps the best ¥600 I have spent. Guests were allowed to enter select houses on condition that they remove their shoes. Because it is customary in Japan for guests to leave their shoes at the entrance, I knew upon entering a house that had belonged to Nakano Yoshimori that there should be two people inside, and that (if I was judging off shoe styles and sizes correctly) I should expect to see a young man and woman.
I went through tatami mat rooms and over old wooden floor that creaked, then climbed to the second floor. There, I nearly missed seeing a ladder that led to a third floor/attic. My jaw parted as I saw two large sections that were missing beams. Although unnerved by the gaps, I was intrigued by a sign inviting visitors to try the two “nostalgia” hammocks.
I gingerly made my way to the closest hammock and settled in.
From the reclined and gently swaying hammock I could properly admire the design of the deeply sloped thatched roof, and how skillful the builders had to be to construct such a home. I thought how much nicer and cooler it was on the third floor. And I think that was the last thought I had because I dozed off.
That was one magical hammock.
In sharp contrast to the outdoor exhibit, the commercial restaurants and stores on the bridge across the river were buzzing with activity. Vendors sold shaved ice, cold soba noodles, and cans of beverages being naturally and spectacularly cooled in cold stream baths.
I spent another hour walking, taking note of village life as it existed today: a farmer as he entered a rice field, the way clothing hung neatly out to dry, and soil so rich that the flowers were taller than I.
It was a beautiful day.
If You Go
Takayama is such a scenic area. It’s a place to relax and recharge.
From Takayama, the trip to Shirakawa-go is much easier than one might expect. The bus station is conveniently right by the train station, and the bus company staff are more than happy to make sure you get on the correct bus.
If you are based in Nagoya and short on time, on option if you want to see Gassho-style houses is to visit the lovely town of Gero Onsen. It is one of the three top-ranked onsen towns in Japan. In addition, it has a Gassho village featuring nine houses that were relocated from Shirakawa-go.