As the Shinkansen (Japan’s famous bullet train) left Tokyo station, I felt my head being pushed back into my seat. I’d forgotten just how quick high-speed trains were; after all, I am British, and when Japan introduced bullet trains we were still running on steam. Whizzing through the coastal landscape at up to 175 miles an hour, these incredible inventions make Japan seem like a far smaller country than it actually is.
Looks like a spaceship, flies like the Concorde.
Sadly, as a result of them being so damn fast, we weren’t actually on the Shinkansen for long. We had to switch trains at Nagoya and take a bog-standard regional train to Takayama. Boring. But, it headed inland and through the mountains, so we got to admire the mist rolling through sleepy river valleys. Perfect peace – just like an image from a traditional Japanese scroll.
Before I came to Japan, I’d never heard of Takayama. But it’s quite a famous mountain/hot spring town, and is most certainly on the tourist trail. As well as being a base for mountain hikes and watersports activity, it’s got a very traditional old town – one of the only examples from the Edo period (Tokugawa Shogunate) left standing, after the devastation Japan suffered in World War 2. Along its main street, you can find lots of authentic arts and crafts shops, as well as teahouses and food stores.
Just over the stunning red bridge across the Miyagawa river is the Jin’ya, the local government office during the Tokugawa Shogunate. Since the area was rich in resources, the Shogun himself controlled the town, and that’s why the Jin’ya is so grand.
The plan was to see the old town, do some shopping, then check out the Jin’ya – but of course, it was raining, so we spent more time indoors than out. It might have killed my mood a bit, but the rain wasn’t going to stop me from experiencing all Takayama had to offer, no matter how much it tried.
Plus, it could have been worse. I might have had to pull lazy tourists around, like this poor bastard.
After browsing the shops for a while (including one shop that only sold cat-themed gifts, basically my heaven), I got a bit peckish. No surprise there – I’d been low-key hungry this entire trip, because I never knew when I’d be able to eat anything. Our guide had recommended we try some street food – a rarity in Japan. In particular, she suggested the dango – these rice balls that had been grilled and dipped in soy and sesame sauce. This adorable old lady was making them out in the rain, and simply ignoring her while she was hard at work would have been an awful thing to do. Plus, they smelled delicious.
They were only £1.50 a pop, too. A very filling and traditional snack, if ever you’re in Takayama.
The clock was soon approaching 4pm, and you know what that means. It’s tea time, of course! No self-respecting Brit goes without their afternoon cuppa. But I didn’t want my usual builder’s tea – I wanted to try a proper Japanese matcha, drank in the proper way. So, we stopped in a traditional tea house to warm up.
You take your shoes off, and make your way to the elevated tatami mats. In the centre is a hearth, where the kettle is usually boiled.
Matcha – a type of fine powdered green tea – is always served with a mochi (rice flour) sweet. I guess you could say it’s the Japanese equivalent of tea and a biccy.
I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of matcha, but I really enjoyed sitting cross-legged on the wicker mats, my hands wrapped around a warm bowl, filled with something that looked far too healthy for me. It wasn’t a full on Japanese tea ceremony, but it was a taster of how fancy and atmospheric they could be.
Once we’d sheltered in every shop we could and taken full advantage of all the free samples we could get, we headed over to the Jin’ya, which our guide Machi had essentially described as a “Samurai mansion”. It was more a mix between a government building and an elaborate private residence. With a torture chamber, for good measure.
Note how the gravel is carefully raked into a Japanese wave pattern. The attention to detail is breathtaking.
The Jin’ya, while looking small on the outside, is like a TARDIS – it’s huge on the inside. You pass through large, empty spaces that would have once held important meetings, with the shoguns and governors sitting on tatami mats, settling matters of great urgency. But it was the little things that intrigued me – for example, the “kitchenette for tea-making”, as the sign described. Thoughtful touches like this showed not only how the Jin’ya was incredibly well designed, but how we aren’t so different from our predecessors 500 years ago. I wonder if they stood around the water cooler and had heated discussions, too.
The Jin’ya is built from traditional Japanese building materials, and somehow manages to be rainproof, despite being made out of paper.
As well as meeting rooms, kitchenettes, bathrooms and bedrooms, the Jin’ya had a massive centrepiece – a stunning zen garden. The palace is actually built around the garden, which is designed to evoke different emotions when looked at from different angles. Again, the thoughtfulness that went into constructing this place is truly astounding.
Things took a bit of a dark turn when we headed to the storehouse, though. One of the last rooms you visit is the torture chamber, which was where prisoners were held – and, um, tortured. There’s a variety of instruments on display. I wondered what they were used for, but a quick glance to the left wall demonstrated exactly how they were used. Those Samurai didn’t mess around.
Leaving the Jin’ya slightly perturbed, it was time for dinner. By happy coincidence, William, my friend from Tokyo, was also in town. Me and my new veggie friend (or vegete-pal as Miranda Hart would say) from the tour met up with him for dinner, but there was just one problem – everywhere in Takayama that served vegetarian food was closed on a Monday.
Except a muesli restaurant.
Yep, you heard that right. A muesli restaurant was the only place in town serving vegetarian food. We went in, and I was very surprised to see another white face staring back at us, running the place. He was very keen, though. We sat down and I asked him where he was from. Turns out, he was a Swiss German who moved to Japan because he married a Japanese lady he met while travelling. They set up the restaurant because he’d noticed the lack of healthy food in Japanese restaurants, and wanted to share his passion for wholegrains with the world.
They don’t just serve muesli either, no. Tomy’s Muesli serve a selection of curries, one of which is purely vegan. Tomy and his wife also have a fruit and veg garden, and the meal was packed with their home grown, fresh vegetables. Having not had vegetables since I left England, this place was an absolute godsend. I felt so much better having eaten Tomy’s hearty food. He did make me eat the gherkin I’d left, though.
Served with a topping of oats, because after all, this is a muesli restaurant.
Talking to Tomy had made me realise that I missed European food more than I thought. Thankfully, Tomy had my back. He also did desserts.
He served me this delicious Engadiner Nusstorte, then proceeded to talk to the people next to us in Japanese. Is there anything this man can’t do?
“Danke schön”, I said to Tomy on my way out, grateful for his nutritious food and fascinating conversation. “Bitte schön”, he replied, surprised to hear someone attempting his mother tongue in a land so far, far away from home. The three of us headed into the night.
Well, down the road. We went to the bar next door, which was a bar-come-burger restaurant-come-clothes shop. Myself, my tour friend and William sat on the tatami mats and chatted about mid-20s life over a cup of hot plum wine. The three of us were from different English-speaking parts of the globe – the USA, Australia, and of course the OG England – but it’s amazing how much we had in common, simply by existing in this world as millennials.
I only stayed for one, because I wanted to get an early night, and make full use of our accommodation’s facilities. For this was no ordinary accommodation – we were staying in an old-fashioned Ryokan, which is like a Japanese version of a B&B. You sleep on traditional futons laid upon tatami mats, wear a yukata (cotton dressing gown) around the house, and of course strip off and get in the onsen – the communal bath.
Here’s me modelling the yukata. Had this been a normal hotel, I would have stolen it, but since it was a family run business my conscience trumped my kleptomania.
The water comes up from a natural hot spring in the ground, and is FANTASTIC for skin.
Because we were a bunch of Westerners, Machi had given us each a time slot for the communal baths, so we’d be using them alone. But I’ve never been that bothered about nudity, so would probably have gone in with other people regardless. When my time came, I washed my body, then plunged into the warm waters of the onsen, letting my skin soak up all the mineral-rich goodness. I span the little water wheel for amusement, listening to the gentle trickle it produced. What a perfect evening.
I got out, but someone had told me there was an outdoor bath I hadn’t seen, so I went back in. I deftly slid open the back door. Eek! A lady was already in there, totally nude. So was I. This would be awkward the next day, I thought. Luckily it wasn’t – she was remarkably cool about it. It was only my Britishness that made things weird, so I shrugged it off and moved on, retiring to bed.
The futon was essentially layers of thin mattresses on the floor, but by god, it was probably the comfiest sleep I had in Japan. I slept like a log, waking up the next day feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. The sun had come out, too, and Takayama was looking remarkably better in the sunshine.
First things first, we picked up some breakfast and a morning cuppa in a cafe by the Miyagawa River.
Sencha is apparently the most widely drunk tea in Japan, because it’s easier to make than matcha, and also tastes milder.
Breakfast consisted of some very thickly sliced toast and butter, some fruits, and a salad. Takayama was proving to be one of the healthier destinations in Japan – I was reaching at least 3 out of my 5-a-day here. The famous Miyagawa morning market just outside offered more fruity delights, but I had no way of preparing them, so I had to be content with my 7/11 chopped pineapple.
As well as improving our temper, the better weather afforded us the opportunity to take some photos of Takayama when it wasn’t pissing it down with rain. It looks quite lovely in this light.
A wooden building on the old street.
Lucky cat carving. Need I say more?
Barrels of sake. I didn’t drink this all to myself.
A shrine next to the Miyagawa River. Up here in the mountains, the water is beautifully clear. You can see all the fish in it, and the previous day, I’d spent about ten minutes calling everyone to the bridge to come look at this “absolute unit” of a koi carp.
Just as we were getting used to the sunshine in Takayama, we had to hop back on the train and make our way to the next destination – the historic city of Kyoto. Great, we thought, we can get some good pictures of that beautiful mountain gorge we unexpectedly passed on the way here. But as the suburban train chugged into Nagoya, where we were to change trains, Machi told us something crazy – the train was ten minutes late. In Japan, which is unheard of. That meant we only had 3 minutes to get our connecting bullet train.
I might have made a two minute connection in Clapham Junction once, but that was A) a miracle, B) I didn’t have luggage, and C) I didn’t have to show my ticket again. In one of Japan’s biggest cities, we had to get 14 of us off one train and onto another, running under the platforms and showing our Japan Rail passes to the guards as we went. To save time, one of the Canadians took my wheely bag, while I took his lighter backpack so we could run at a more equal speed.
I’m not sure exactly how we did it, but somehow, we all made it onto the train alive. Out of breath, but alive, and with all our luggage in tow. That Shinto prayer Machi had made on our first night must have worked – we did have a fortunate trip indeed.
Kyoto would be different to anything else I’d seen thus far in Japan, and my inner history nerd would come out in full force. Come back to the blog in a couple of days to learn about Japan’s imperial city, meet Emperor Akihito, and experience some more awful (but good craic) karaoke sessions.