Often while traveling we discover that we are a day too early or too late for a special event in a given city. By luck, our visit to Takayama coincided with the two-day Spring Festival, which is considered one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan.
Day 01 – Monday, April 13, 2015
From Tokyo it took 5 hours by train to reach Takayama (高山市). The first 2 hours and 360 kilometers were on our first shinkansen, or bullet train. Although our tourist rail passes allow us to walk onto the unreserved cars, we had elected to reserve seats the day before by stopping by a rail station’s ticket office. The bullet train chairs weren’t different from those of an airplane, however they were much more spacious and we had a power outlet. The two hour ride went quickly and smoothly. It is incredible how fast these trains move through the cities and countryside. Soon we were at Nagoya where we had to transfer to a local JR line.
The local JR line had less distance to travel than the bullet train, but would take an hour longer. The local line was more scenic as we got further from Nagoya and into the mountain regions. We went past many blue rivers and towns with skylines of terracotta tile roofs.
It was dark when we reached Takayama, but our hotel was only steps away from the train station. We checked in and then went out in search of dinner. While looking for dinner we walked by many restaurants offering Wagyi Hida Beef, apparently a local specialty. After our first restaurant pick was sold out, we ended up at a small but formal bar where we each ordered a beef dish. Jon’s miso dish came with beef and vegetables balanced on a large leaf over a burner. A card with instructions said to stir the meal when the vegetables were sizzling. My dish came with very thin slices of beef, a sliced onion, and cucumber with a side of dipping sauce. The beef was very good, but we would have preferred larger meals. On the way to the hotel we stopped for snacks at a convenience store.
Day 02 – Tuesday April 14, 2015
Takayama is a small mountain city known for its traditional Japanese culture. A large area of the downtown has been designed as a preservation area because of its Edo period architecture. Takayama is also known for its spring and autumn festivals. We had discovered a few days before, while trying to find a hotel in Takayama, that we would be there during the two-day spring festival. This seemed like a very good thing, although it made finding a hotel room more difficult.
We weren’t able to find a room for two consecutive nights, so on Tuesday morning we had to pack up and switch hotels. The check out time was an hour earlier than we expected and we rushed out into the cold and rainy weather. Our next hotel greeted us and led us to our room even though we were hours earlier than check-in time. This was a traditional Japanese style guest house and our room was sparely furnished with just a low table and pillows to sit on. This also meant that the building was designed for shorter people, causing Jon to slam his head into doorways multiple times (luckily no concussions). The hostess who showed us the room also brought us tea. After dropping off our bags we walked out to the street for breakfast, which we had at a small cafe which served hard boiled eggs, toast, and miso soup.
On our way into town we passed the Jinya mae morning market. The market was shown on our map as a permanent fixture in the town, however I’m guessing it was more crowded than usual due to the festival. Still, the stalls were not catering to tourists and most sold pickled vegetables.
Finally it was time to check out the spring festival. The Takayama spring festival, held on April 14-15, is considered one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan. At its center are 12 decorated parade floats, 3 of which have performing mechanical dolls (puppets). Unfortunately, the floats are antique and must be protected from the rain, which meant that they were not out in the street as they should be. Instead the floats were housed in 12 storehouses around the city. The doors to the storehouses were left open so we could see the front of the floats. The rain also meant that the parades, dances, and night festival were cancelled.
At one shrine a float worker was clearly enjoying himself posing for photographs. I wanted to take a photo with him in front of the float and he let me join him. He handed me a teacup I assumed was for the photograph, but he insisted I drink from. Cold sake hit my lips. I now understood the festival much better. Later in the day we passed another float whose workers were inviting up tourists, dressing them in a traditional robe, and doing sake shots with them.
We spent most of the day wandering around the historic section of Takayama trying to see the floats that we could. Occasionally we would walk into a shop to escape the rain for a minute or two. The historic streets were nice, but it was a shame to see them on a gloomy, rainy day. The dark wood buildings and roofs looked refreshingly authentic Japanese after the modernness of Tokyo.
A map we had picked up showed a few walking routes which went past shrines and to castle ruins. We walked along part of Kitayamaa Walking Course which passes the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan (store house of autumn festival floats, 820Y), the Sakurayama Nikkokan Temple, and to Kitayama Park at the top of a steep hill. The park was small and unimpressive in the rain. We saw some stone walls that might have been the castle ruins but we weren’t sure.
For lunch we went to a Korean restaurant where we forwent more wagyu beef and instead had bibimbap. At 3pm we had heard that the floats with the puppets would be performing, so we walked to the nearest float to watch. The puppet moved slowly but deliberately. We watched as he danced in time to the music, then picked up a fan, bells, and a mask. I wondered if the character was a conductor or a magician. Later we learned that the character was a young boy dancing to music. When the boy looks in a mask box he is suddenly turned into an old man.
Next we walked to the Takayama Museum of History and Art (free). The museum had some English on the signs but not much. We saw small displays about the town history and the festivals. The most interesting part was a 10 minute video which, in English, talked about the spring festival. It was the most we had learned about the festival during our time in Takayama.
We took a break before dinner to dry off at the guest house. When we got back to our room, we found that the low table had been moved to the side of the room, and blankets were laid out on mats for sleeping. The accommodation was very similar to the homestay we had in Myanmar. The bathrooms were also a new experience for us. There was a shared toilet room with two stalls. There was also a separate bathing room only open during certain hours of the day. The bathing room had a small changing room and a second room with a tub of hot water as well as a shower head on the wall.
When we were ready, we went back out for dinner and to look at a few more landmarks on our map. First we went in search of one of the two foot baths on the map. We found Sakura Footbath. It was a small stone pond with hot spring water to a depth of approximately 4 inches. We dipped our feet in the hot water for a few minutes. On our way back, we passed the other footbath shown on our map, Hanami Footbath. Next we visited Hida Kokubunji Temple (飛騨国分寺). We tried to take some photographs of the three story pagoda, but it was too dark.
For dinner we walked towards a few restaurants that we seen earlier in the day. Before we got to them we happened pass a street filled with tented stands and people. We walked down the street for a while passing mostly food stands but also a few games. We decided to try several of the food stands for dinner. The first meal we had looked better than it tasted. It was mostly grilled cabbage wrapped in a burrito like shell and served with an egg on top, BBQ sauce, and mayonnaise. Next we had some fried chicken nuggets. Another adventurous food we tried was a meat kabob. The stand sold beef, pork, or chicken so we ordered the beef. The beef was a cheap cut of meat that was mostly fat and we didn’t even finish it. The stands also had some sort of squid, turkey legs, many forms of hotdogs, chocolate dipped bananas, and crepes. We also walked passed a few sake breweries that our map had indicated, but they were closed for the evening.
Day 03 – Wednesday April 15, 2015
We woke up slightly early due to the light coming in the rice paper windows. We also both admitted to having stiff shoulders after sleeping on the thin floor mattresses. We packed up our bags, but were able to leave them in the hotel while we spent the day at the festival.
Once again it was chilly and rainy which put a damper on our spirits and on the festival events. While walking towards the festival, we heard drums and flutes and could see the festival parade down the street. We stopped to watch the start of the parade called the Gojunko Procession. The parade was led by two men dressed as dragons and beating brooms against the street. Next came one large drum followed by duos of men controlling dancing dragons. The parade continued with boys beating gongs, girls playing flutes, and the Sanno-sama shrine which is the religious centerpiece of the parade.
We decided to go the other direction and head off the procession to watch it again, but when we got towards the center of the festival we could already hear flutes and drums in front of us. Dragons were dancing near one of the floats. We think there must have been several troops performing around town at the same time. We missed the dragon dance, but they only moved down the road a few feet before performing again. When that performance was over, they moved slightly further down the road and repeated the dance again.
We left the crowds and walked several blocks to the Matsumoto heritage house. On the way we passed a float which we had not visited on the previous day. The float didn’t have a large crowd and hardly any tourists. One man approached us, asked where we had come from, and thanked us for attending the festival. He handed us each a festival keychain and offered us a drink which of course turned out to be sake. We chatted for a while and the other men working at the float tried to offer us more sakes to try. We thanked them, but excused ourselves to visit the heritage house.
Takayama has at least four restored traditional houses deemed a heritage house. Some cost a fee to enter, but the Matsumoto house (松本家住宅) was free. The house looked very much like one out of an old movie set in Japan. The rooms were mostly square in shape and made from dark wood and rice paper partitions. The house was divided by an open courtyard. We were able to walk freely through the house including climbing to the upstairs areas.
Since we hadn’t eaten yet, lunch was on our minds. We wanted to skip the hida beef which is so prevalent in town and find something simpler. We walked to the Le Midi noodle shop we had seen the night before. The noodle shop (which is one of three Le Midi restaurants, each of a different type) was crowded. We added our name to the list and studied the menu while waiting. When we were called to come in, we found it to be very similar to the ramen shops in Tokyo. Most diners sat at a long counter that ran the length of the restaurant and the chefs prepared the food on the other side. To place our order we used a ticket machine at the door. The soups were good, and I especially enjoyed that the special mushroom soup had more vegetables than we had typically been finding in Japanese cuisine.
Now that lunch was over, we felt that we could return to the Funasaka Brewing Company (舩坂酒造店) which we had briefly walked in earlier. We learned from some tourists on the street that the sake breweries can be identified by a large decorative ball hung (cedar) over the door. We did a brief tasting of dry vs sweet sake. The sake is served in a square wooden cup sitting on a plate. It is poured until it overflows onto the plate and when finished, one pours the spilled sake back into the cup. When we emerged from the brewery something incredible happened, the sun came out!
We wanted to take advantage of the sun so we decided to give another heritage trail a try. This time we headed to the Higashiyama walking course. I enjoyed this course much more even though we only saw a small portion on it (and the sun probably helped too). The Higashiyama walking course passes many temple and shrines, of which we visited about 4.
We cut our walk short when we saw the time. After retrieving our bags we made a quick stop at the Hida Kokubunji Temple (飛騨国分寺) for pictures and then caught the train to Kyoto.
Sake – Takayaka has a large number of sake breweries, a nice resource can be found at the Hida Website.