A drive through the mountains, a stroll around an old village in a snow-covered expanse, and being witness to a brilliant display, of modern technology adding the awe factor to a sleeping village in a snow-clad valley (read all about that here); had taken up most of the day before. The schedule, or what of it was made (or not made), had skiing written across it for the day’s activity. But, what little of this mountain town, I had seen the previous day, in bits and pieces, when we drove across and ran through it, got me to re-think on the schedule. Takayama (高山市) demanded more than a run through.
I had had glimpses of this small mountain town, when we were hunting for restaurants for our lunch, and dinner, the day before. (Both these hunts were extremely successful and the restaurants we came across were simply the best; I would actually go the next step, and state that these were among the best Japanese Food I have had in the last 2+ years of my Japanese Adventure. For the same reason, I think, I’ll write a post dedicated to the food Takayama offered). More of the people and places was revealed to me at the Ryokan (旅館) that we stayed in. By morning, my mind was pretty much made on not going skiing, and spend the whole day strolling around in the streets; a decision, I found, exceptionally rewarding.
A little about the Ryokan first. Tensho-ji Youth Hostel, is attached to the Tensho-ji temple. This was my first stay inside a Buddhist temple. The place was a mixture of Japanese traditional elements and modern facilities (the automatic wending machines and the computers tucked in the corner of the common room, was more of an eye sore; I would not complain about the heating systems and the warm toilet seat though!!). The big Japanese style room that we got, was roomy enough for all 5 of us to sleep. The room also had a kotatsu table; a great invention; keeping you all cozy. The temple ambiance and the monk hostel keeper all added a mystic charm to the place.
Equipped with a map, and a crude idea on where to go, and what to do, we headed on to the snow-covered streets of Takayama. A brief stop at the nearby shrine, and some photos later, we walked to the morning markets on the banks of the river. The morning market is a place where the whole of Takayama (definitely a big part of Takayama) assembled. Vegetable, fruits, pickles of all kinds, meat (the famous Hida beef), handicrafts, you name it, it was there in the market. A good number of tourists, and an equally good number of local people were there, doing the selling-buying routine. The stall keepers, all had this beautiful welcoming smile, which made you walk up to them and talk. Unlike, many stalls I have visited, these people were happy, just talking to you. It did not matter, if you bought their produce or not, it was the small talk that mattered more to them. One lady, who had a huge pile of red chillies to sell (the first time I am seeing red chillies being sold in this country) actually went in to describing all the uses of the red chillies. She even gave me special recipes where the chillies are used. Another interesting stall sold pickles; pickles made from all imaginable (and non-imaginable things). Again, the lady at the stall made me try most of her pickles, and even gave me notes on how some of them were made. The wood handicrafts stall and the sweetmeat shops were not different either, in how they talked with you.
The next stop was the morning market in front of Takayama Jinya (高山陣屋) (former government outpost). It was almost the closing time for the market, and the old ladies at the apple shops (don’t know why, there were a bunch of apple shops there), were giving off free apples to everyone around.
The Jinya is a mammoth of a wooden structure. The huge rooms, that once housed the offices of the shogunate, the private quarters of the different officers and tax collectors; and the private tea ceremony rooms, complete with a garden; the exhibits in the Jinya are worth a visit. It would have been a great help, if there were more information in English!
The soul of Takayama lies within Sanmachi (さんまち). Conceived, designed and built, by the same artisans, whose expertise contributed to the building of the great temples of Kyoto; the old town district of Takayama, preserved in its original form, is truly an amazing place to spend a day. The old paved roads running between the old houses and shops, with their beautiful wooden latticed windows; the sake breweries, with their huge pine ball hangings, advertising a fresh brew; the handicrafts shops, with their beautifully carved furniture; and food stalls ranging from rice cracker shops and hot croquette shops to big restaurants, we could have spent an eternity in there.
All these walks (read as, walk and eat from the different stalls), made us more hungry, and we decided to head to a restaurant for serious food. Again, the food Takayama presented was great (more on that in another post). Post-lunch, we had to make a decision; ‘Museums or Temples’? We decided on the temples, and outlined the Higashiyma Temple walk on the map. But before that, we made another tour of the Sanmachi area, and visited a sake brewery. The tour of the brewery was on, and we were shown all the different processes that goes into the making of good sake. The tour ended with a free glass of fresh sake.
The Higashiyama temple walk, an attempt by a 16th century lord to recreate the Higashiyama area of Kyoto, is an array of temples and shrines spread across a small hilly area in the eastern side of the town. We spent the whole afternoon going to different temples and shrines and walking on the snow-covered trails. By evening, we had done most of the temples, and decided to go up the Shiroyama Koen (Park), up the hill, where the ruins of the old Takayama castle still exists. The hike to the castle ruins was more like trying hard to keep ourselves on the snow-covered track and not slipping off. Once up the hill, it was photo time again.
Later, in the evening, we met the group who went skiing, at the ryokan, and headed back home; but, not before, hunting and finding another great food place.
Anytime, before this trip, my answer to the question on what my favorite place in Japan, came fluently with no taint of doubt; “Nara”. It’s not the same anymore. With its old streets, temples, shrines, great food, and above all the unfailing Japanese politeness, helpfulness,and the beaming smile that greeted you, Takayama does offer a tough competition to Nara.