goodbye kamikochi, hello takayama

Our last day in Kamikochi dawned much like the previous one: to the sound of running water and a slight breeze through the room, and then with a staggering gorgeous breakfast in the dining room.

After breakfast, we packed our bags and bid farewell to our room with not a few sighs and wistful glances. As if to taunt us, the morning was clearer than the day before, and we could clearly see the mountains from our back veranda. But time and the maid service wait for no man, so we rolled our bags down to reception and took off on a quick morning stroll.

Kamikochi? Still unbelievably gorgeous.

We took roughly the same path down to the onsen-hotel that we’d taken the day before, but cut closer to the river.

Finally at 10am there was no avoiding it, and we turned around, retrieved our bags, and got on the bus to Takayama. This was a two-stage bus ride, transferring through a small onsen town on the other side of the mountains, and the highway took a winding route through rockfall zones, plunging canyons and mile-long tunnels drilled straight through the mountains. There was very little traffic: apparently most of the region is closed to private cars during the summer months, so the only other things on the road were other busses and the occasional taxi — which was good, since in several places the road was effectively only a single lane wide, and busses had to make use of pull-outs to get past each other going in opposite directions.

We got into Takayama around noon, and easily found our way to our hotel: Takayama is a small place, with less than a hundred thousand residents, and you could easily walk across the entire city in half an hour. Getting to our hotel took about five minutes even with bags. We were to be staying at the Zen Ro Ji, which is actually a Zen buddhist temple that rents out rooms to travellers, run by a somewhat gruff but English-fluent monk named Tommy. Our room wouldn’t be open until 3, so we dropped our bags and headed out to our first destination: the Hida-no-Sato Folk Village.

A quick word: the Lonely Planet delicately calls the walk from the city center to Hida-no-Sato “unpleasant,” and recommends taking the bus instead. An intrepid traveler might look at the mere 1.5km distance and scoff at such wimpery. What LP, with perhaps a bit too much British understatement, is attempting to convey is that the first half of the trip is through a shade-free industrial/shopping area along a major highway with few crossings, that the second half is up a constant 15-to-20-degree grade, and that there is little to no signage for pedestrians. It wasn’t the worst mistake we’ve ever made as travelers, but if you ever visit Takayama? Take the bus.

Somewhat sweatier than we’d anticipated, we arrived at the folk village, which is an outdoor museum consisting of about a dozen old peasant and merchant buildings from the 1600s through 1800s that have been preserved and moved to Takayama-Hida from various points in the surrounding prefectures.

Walking up through the village, there was an odd odor of smoke in the air, the source of which became obvious once we went into the first house: not only did all of the houses have a working firepit, but in most of them a slowly burning fire had been set up.

Signs explained that the smoke from the fire was actually an integral part of the preservation of the houses: Takayama has a humid climate in the summer and tons of snow in the winter, so the smoke regulates the humidity in the houses, drives out insects, and keeps the wooden or straw roofs from rotting.

Some of the roofs were made from cedar shingles, weighted down with stones. A small building described as a “sawhouse” had pictures demonstrating their manufacture: essentially two men wielding a massive hand-saw cut a single yard-wide cedar trunk into quarter-inch-thick sheets. By hand, did I mention?

Other houses had thatch roofs, which were comprised of two-foot-thick and roughly two-yard-long bundles of straw that were tightly bound together with straw or hemp rope, and then tied with more rope to the structure of the building:

Another one of the outbuildings was a charcoal kiln, for making the all-important winter fuel. I’m not sure why greenery had been allowed to become part of its straw roof: the kiln was not in operation, and it may simply be a good demonstration of what happens to a straw roof when smoke isn’t applied regularly:

Further down the path was a shinto shrine. I’m not sure if ‘deconsecrated’ is an applicable concept in the Shinto religion, but in any case it seemed to have most of the religious accoutrements removed from the altars and allowed visitors the run of the place, including a signboard on the main bell encouraging people to make a wish and ring it:

The trail eventually led back down to the lake at the entrance, where one of the last buildings passed was a true bit of rural pre-modern Japan: a water mill, where a trickle of water into two “scoops” eventually weighed them down enough to pivot down and dump their load into the lake below and then spring back up, powering a hammer on the other side of the beam that would rise and then fall down with great force into the pestle below.

Cleverly managing to avoid buying any of the stunning pieces for sale at the lacquerware-making exhibit hall by arriving on a day when that building was closed, we headed downhill towards the Hida-Takayama Museum of Art. Which, incongruously enough for a town that does most of its tourist trade based on artifacts from premodern Japan, is actually a museum of the decorative arts, focussing primarily on art nouveau and art deco glassware from 19th and early 20th century Europe. The museum is originally the work of a single, never named, and presumably enormously wealthy collector, who put together an insane number of pieces and commissioned a gorgeous modern building on a hillside overlooking all of Takayama:

Without a doubt the centerpiece of the collection is a room with a single exhibit: an art deco fountain that apparently used to be at the head of the Champs-Elysses shopping arcade in Paris. How on earth it got into the hands of a private collector in Japan I cannot possibly imagine, but it was practically worth making the entire trip just to see it:

Possibly not obvious from the photo: not only is the fountain still working, but the entire room is lit with recessed lighting that shifts colors every few seconds matching the shifting of the colors of the fountain’s interior lights. It’s a little beyond awesome.

Also awesome: an entire room full of Émile Gallé pieces, of which one here:

And last but certainly far from least: a dining room comprised entirely of works by Charles Rennie Mackintosh:

It’s a pretty small museum: about 12 rooms of the permanent collection on the second floor, and then a (currently empty) temporary exhibition room on the first floor. We practically had the entire place to ourselves — there were only three or four other visitors — which would have been worrisome for the museum’s future, except that it was very obvious how the place kept in business: weddings, weddings and more weddings. There had actually been a wedding in progress when Miranda visited this place in 2003, and several discreet stands in the hallways had a spread of brochures and pictures hinting at the obvious advantages to hosting your wedding at the museum: for starters, for some amount of money that I hesitate to even consider, you can have your wedding photos taken with the bride and groom seated on one of Mackintosh’s couches.

The museum cafe, the Mackintosh Tea Room, had a set-price tea-and-cake that we availed ourselves of. The cafe was of course also stunning, done up in deco-style black wood with white accents, with an old full-size music box in a corner and tunes from it playing on the sound system. We had a cake-and-ice cream dish that was practically a work of art itself, and then we made a fatal error and decided to check out the gift shop.

A gift shop in a museum dedicated to art deco and art nouveau glassware? What the hell was I thinking? And more importantly, how the hell am I going to get it all home without it shattering into a million pieces? Um, further details as they happen: this promises to be hilarious.

Thoroughly laden down, we strode to the exit, only to find that the museum — and its primary exit — had closed at 5pm. Well no worries, there was another exit past the gift shop, so to only a small amount of tittering by the shop ladies we backtracked and went out that way. The museum runs a shuttle — an actual old red london double-decker bus that goes between the museum and the town central bus terminal, and lo and behold there was the bus idling in the parking lot! Only when we got to it, the driver in a burst of Japanese pointed us at the bus stop sign on the other side of the parking lot. It seemed a little odd that he’d have a preference as to which side of the lot we boarded on, but whatever, we walked over to the sign, and sat down on the bench while we waited for him to finish his cigarette break or whatever the issue was…

…and waited a bit, and watched him turn off the bus, carry a bag of trash from it to a dumpster, and then walk in the direction of the museum and disappear. Huh, perhaps the timetable posted helpfully at the bus stop bore further examination? Oh dear: museum closing, 5pm. Last shuttle bus: 4:55. Last municipal bus: 4:45. Us: screwed.

Oh well, the clouds had come in over the last few hours and it had cooled off considerably, and we were heading downtown this time. Switching off the gift shop bag between us, we made it back to the hotel in about half an hour, stopping only at the odd sight of the “City of Denver Park”, a park apparently built to commemorate Takayama’s sister city relationships (of which Denver was the one in the USA: there were four more in Japan, and one in China), with apparently a tree planted for each time the Mayor of Denver had visited. Note to my sister: run for mayor, it comes with a great free junket.

At the hotel/monastary, we were shown around: it’s a bit of a sprawling place, and our room, the lavatories, the sinks the kitchen and the showers are all in different wings. Our room was actually nearly as large as the one in Kamikochi, but was one of several rooms in a row facing out onto the central garden, with only paper shoji doors in between them. Obviously loud athletic sex was not to be on the menu for tonight. This being Japan, there was even a wifi signal to be found in the room, although it was weirdly intermittent and seemed to maybe be coming from a neighbor — the hotel’s actual wifi only covered the nonresidential bits.

Tommy was kind enough to provide a “gourmet guide to Takayama”, which listed every restaurant in the city by type, as well as noting whether they took credit cards or had an English menu. After two straight days of kaiseki cuisine at the lodge in Kamikochi, we were both up for something a little more straightforward, so we found an izakaya called Murasaki, and as it happened Takayama is small enough that the tourist map is almost entirely accurate, and when we found ourselves on the street that we thought Murasaki was supposed to be on, a bemused sushi barman let us know that we were one street off. Only a single street off! Progress!

Murasaki turned out to be a pretty active local watering hole, and if you’re ever in the area, I recommend it without hesistation. The English menu was simply the Japanese menu with english names on white stickers over the Japanese ones, so the whole gamut was available to us, and everything we had was great. Their gyoza may have been the best that I’ve ever had: scallion-laden on the inside, crunchy on the bottom and soft on the top. We went through two 180ml bottles of what turned out to be really excellent local sake (Takayama has several breweries and is noted for the stuff), and after settling our bill did a small, slighly tipsy wander through downtown Takayama before returning home.

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