This is my last installment about my trip to Japan over Christmas/New Year’s a few months ago. Other posts in this series are here.
The final leg of our trip took us high into the Japanese Alps, to a small city called Takayama. Takayama serves as a base for visitors seeking hiking, skiing, or other outdoor adventures in the mountains, but also contains an historic city centre. This holds a well-preserved collection of historic, ornate wooden houses, some of which have been converted to museums and several of which still operate as sake breweries.
We had just two nights and two days there total. We spent much of our time wandering around the historic district, checking out the shrines, sampling the local sake, and ducking into coffeeshops to warm up. Everything was covered in snow and ice and it was freezing! But the town was charming and it was a lovely, relaxing wrap-up to our trip.
The food in Takayama was heavily focused on local mountain cuisine, the specialities being Hida beef, grown in the region, and mountain vegatables. A very popular street food item is the Hida beef bun, a hot bun filled with steaming beef. I was thrilled to discover I could get a bun filled with mountain vegetables cooked in miso sauce. This was probably one of the best food items of the whole trip.
This vegetable dish, Hoba miso, is also a specialty of the area. It is a mixture of vegetables in miso paste, cooked on a magnolia leaf over a charcoal brazier. It was sweet, savory, tangy – fabulous.
We stayed at Sumiyoshi Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn overlooking the Miyagawa. I would highly recommend this ryokan to anyone; the staff/owners were lovely and the location was perfect. We opted to have the traditional dinner there our first night (there is an extra charge for this) and, as at the monastery, the many courses of this meal were served to us in our room, as we sat at a low table on the tatami floors. The food was excellent, and there was so much of it: rice, vegetables, tofu, tea, salmon, Hida beef for Andy, and my beloved hoba miso dish.
As at other traditional ryokan, the hot baths were communal and open only at night. We changed into the yakatas and slippers provided and made our way to the hot showers and baths, old pros at this by now. Luckily, these baths had locks so ryokan guests could use them privately or as families. The only thing I didn’t like about this set up was that, while we did have a lavatory adjacent to our room, it was not heated (just like at the monastery, and presumably every traditional Japanese house or inn). Only our bedroom itself was heated. I was not a fan of using the lavatory in ~20 degree weather in the middle of the night! I guess if you live there, you just are used to it.
On our second day, we took a day trip to an onsen resort in the mountains. We took a local bus up to Hirayu. The bus ride was about an hour and was full of breathtaking views of the snow-covered mountains. Hirayu is a small village built atop a cluster of hot springs. It is possible to stay overnight there, but we visited just for a day trip to enjoy the outdoor springs.
We were a little uncertain of what to expect. We entered the lobby, paid our fees, and separated at the entries to the male and female areas. There are separate locker rooms, which then lead into shower areas and outdoor hot springs, also separated by male/female because it is tradition to bathe in the nude. I was kind of nervous and didn’t really know what to expect, but this ended up being one of the highlights of the whole trip for me. For obvious reasons, there are no photos.
After storing my things in the locker room, I entered the shower area, where shampoo, conditioner, and soap were provided. There were maybe 20 women and girls there (some families), but it was definitely not crowded. After washing, I moved to the outdoor area. This was amazing. There was a collection of 8-10 outdoor pools of natural steaming hot springs, nestled into the hillside. It was so incredibly calming and relaxing to move from pool to pool, sitting in the steaming water, staring at the snow-covered trees and mountain peaks in all directions. It was very peaceful and calming, and a wonderful way to end our two weeks of travel. Something about it was so spiritual and relaxing. I certainly felt very far away from everything.
I went in and out of the pools and the sauna, and eventually dried off, dressed, and dried my hair (luckily, blow dryers were provided). I met Andy outside, and we walked around the town a bit before catching the bus back to Takayama for our last evening.
All in all, it was less than a full day. We probably were back in Takayama by 3pm or so, and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the town some more and having one last dinner.
With that, our trip to Japan came to an end. We left early the next morning for a long journey back to Tokyo for our flight out that afternoon. This was such an incredible trip, full of unforgettable experiences. I loved so many things about Japanese culture: the attention to detail, intentional pursuit of beauty, the care with which food and crafts are prepared, the mixture of reverence for tradition and embrace of new technology and trends. I will never get tired of traveling, of learning new things and embracing new traditions and cultures.