Torrential Takayama

Hida Takayama, Japan

April 2023

After another great breakfast we braved the rain for the short walk (actually a run today) back to the train station.  Our big bags were getting forwarded again to Hiroshima and we were definitely grateful not to be having to carry/drag those through the heavy rain.  After almost a week in Japan, this was our first day of rain – and it rained and rained!

Two trains today, back through the alps, first to Toyama where we had a very short transfer and then to our final destination of Hida Takayama, population approximately 90,000.  It was another beautiful journey through the mountains with the low cloud and waterfalls.  (You will have to take my word for that as the train windows were pretty dirty and so any photos are terrible photos (see above for examples lol).

Hida Takayama (often referred to as Takayama) is in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture and the “Hida” in the official name is used to distinguish this town from other Takayama’s in the country.   This Takayama is known for its good quality timber and skilled carpenters as far back as the feudal times, when the rural town prospered.  The historic area of the town is well preserved and full of beautiful wooden buildings and after dropping our bags in lockers at the station and set off on foot, into the rain, to explore. 

The old town sits on the east side of the Miyagwa River which flows through the town.  At this time of year, the rapid running river is lined with beautiful cherry blossom.  We started at the Kusakabe Mingei-kan or the Kusakabe Heritage House.  A traditional Meiji-era merchants house (the current building was built in 1879) that gives you an insight into a middle class family’s life with both the architecture and the artifacts on display, some of which have been passed down through the generations.  The classic architecture involves high ceilings and air vents that allows cool air in and hot air to escape out the top in the hot and humid summer months.   

We are clearly in the countryside now and the standard of toilets that we have come accustom too is just not the same  🤦🏻‍♀️.  They often appear to be squat toilets with no fancy buttons to push.  I guess there is no need for a heated seat lol.

After a short break for some lunch (traditional ramen – which I have decided that I am not keen on, as more often than not is made from fish stock), our next stop was Sake tasting.  Did you know, the word “sake” apparently just refers to alcohol in Japan, and in fact what you want to say is nihonshu which is the fermented rice drink we normally refer to as sake.

There are seven sake breweries around Takayama but apparently, 300 years ago, there were 56 sake breweries in this town!  During the Edo period, rice was a form of currency and was given as payment, tax or tribute.  Some of the wealthy merchants started using their “tributes” to make sake. When the price of rice was low, they would sell it as sake, making a profit!

I am not sure which Brewery we went to, but it was very busy!  Thankfully we had a small seating area, around a lovely little fire pit and got to sample a sweet “Sakura” themed sake, along with a spicy one.  I must admit I am not sure I am a fan of sake drunk cold, but I don’t mind it hot (as we had a couple of times). 

The rain was still coming down and I was extremely grateful that I had invested in a pair of waterproof trainers and was enjoying having dry feet and socks! Those with soggy feet were happy that our next stop was inside – the Takayama Jinya.  A historic municipal building in which 25 generations of provincial governor lived and carried out their provincial duties from 1692 to 1868.  The building is the only one of its kind left and is now a designated national historical landmark.  It has been beautiful preserved and/or restored, and in fact was still used as a government office up until 1969!

The beautiful building was as stunning inside as it was out and there were a few key features that were pointed out:

  • Waves patterns appear frequently and are an auspicious pattern called seigaiha (sometimes written as sei-gai-ha).  It was very popular in the Edo period and it was thought that as waves spread out indefinitely across the ocean, they contain wishes for peace and prosperity that lasts forever. 
  • Almost all of the traditional buildings have nail head covers or decoration, often in the shape of the seal of the clan.  In the Jinya, they are mamuki rabbits.  Rabbits were considered the protective deity of fire (pretty important when the building is made entirely of wood and paper) and their big ears represents someone who listens well – to govern well, you must listen to the people. On top of that they are pretty cute lol
  • Beautiful Tatami mats cover the floors.  As I have mentioned before they are very expensive and very precious.  In this case, we can not even walk on them, with or without shoes on they are so precious – great for flooring 🤦🏻‍♀️
  • The architecture and space throughout the building, defines status and power i.e. different doors for civilians, shogun, monks etc
  • Tea rooms are traditionally small as they are humble and inside everyone is equal.  The doors are normally low so people have to bow when they enter and the small space inside meant Samurai could not unsheathe their swords without getting caught on roof. 

The Jinya complex also contains large, newly restored Onkura or Rice store.  It was built around 1600 making it one of the oldest of its kind in Japan.  It is also one of the largest in the country.  As I mentioned previously, rice was used as currency.  The more land you had, the more rice you had, the richer you were, and therefore the more tax you paid in rice!  These buildings housed some really interesting displays about the history and the jinya, the town and the region.

Speaking of tax, I was interested to see a large number of small boxy cars around country.  These are called “kei” cars and are made by most major Japanese car brands but are rarely seen overseas.  They have become a culture in themselves and were designed to fit in the smallest car category.  There are also limitations of size, engine capacity and power output – all in an attempt to get taxes and insurance costs down. They also fit better on the narrow streets and small car parks! Apparently more than one in three new passenger cars sold in Japan is a Kei car! 

We had a quick convenience store stop to get lunch for tomorrows journey before having an early dinner at a Hida Beef restaurant.  Hida is the lesser known cousin of the world renown Wagyu or Kobe beef.  It is specific to a black haired Japanese cattle breed that have been raised in the Gifu prefecture for at least 14 months and is known as some of the finest quality beef. 

I was not particularly hungry so chose just to have a small skewer of meat and a piece of beef sushi. It is a signature dish of the region and was basically a thin slice of rare Hida beef, laid over a mound of sushi rice, topped with a sprinkle of salt and served with a small side of pickle vegetables.  It was simplicity at its finest and may have been one of the best things I have ever eaten!!  Yes, you heard that right – ONE OF THE BEST THINGS I HAVE EVER EATEN!!!  It was so good, one was definitely not enough and I had to order two more. 

By this time (not even 6pm) it was still raining, getting dark and almost all the shops and restaurants were closing so we walked back to the train station to pick up our bags and get a bus to our accommodation for the night – tonight it was a ryokan, or traditional Japanese Inn.  We were all cold and wet and definitely ready to get warm in the ryokan’s Sento.  This one was way hotter than the previous one and I think I only last 5 minutes but that was long enough to warm up my cold bones!

I dried off and put the Katana provided (Japanese robe) on.  In almost all the hotels we have stayed in, we have been provided with pajamas or katanas which is a tradition that started in the ryokan.  I didn’t wear them in most of the places as I was worried that the Japanese “One size fits all” would not fit.  Surprisingly they did fit when I tried them on. 

Our beds here consisted of a futon (remember this is just a thin mattress on the floor) as in the temple inn, and a small traditional sobagara pillow which is filled with buckwheat husks.  It was hard, oh so hard, and not conducive to a good night’s sleep for me. 

Finally, the rain stopped and the next morning was beautiful. Of course, I went for a quick morning walk along the roaring river just across the road from the ryokan.  It was lovely to see it without the rain.  I was back in time for another great breakfast served Japanese style, with everyone sitting on the floor at a low table Japanese style and we were soon boarding the bus for our next journey.