hida beefin’

Oh god, this is really long. Markets, castles, rantings about maps, the shogun’s torture chambers, 300-year-old parade floats, and a surprise guest appearance by Tommy Lee Jones, it’s all inside:

We were woken up by the burbling sounds of the fountains and fish outside our room, and by the less burbling sounds of our Scottish and Irish next-door neighbors chatting in the morning. There’s nothing quite like staying in a building with paper walls to give a little insight into the historical Japanese cultural emphasis on quietness, manners and politeness: when your merest whisper can be easily overheard by everyone in a house, you’ll probably consider learning sign language too.

After making the small internal pilgrimage necessary to hit the toothbrushing sink, the western-style toilet and the shower all in a single morning, we were ready to head out and see Takayama proper. Takayama is a small town arranged around two rivers with bridges over them basically about every block, and alongside one of the rivers is one of two early-morning markets. The markets are a combination of working farmers’ markets selling fresh produce and pickles to the locals, and local arts and crafts fair, selling snacks, knick-knacks and thingies (and pickles) to visitors.

Along the way, we saw our first sign that the time-honored tradition of western movie stars making a quick buck by doing a product endorsement in Japan is still alive and well: apparently Tommy Lee Jones has lent his craggy visage to my favorite brand of canned ultra-sweet Japanese iced coffee:

We’d gotten up a little later than we’d hoped to, and by the time we actually got to the market it was about 10am and we were both getting to be on the cranky side of hungry, so on the theory that the market would still be there in another 20 minutes, we aborted our first pass at it and went back across the river to a small cafe/teashop that was offering a ¥450 set breakfast. Sadly for me, we didn’t look too closely at what the set consisted of,, and a few minutes later we were presented with identical trays consisting of a large piece of thick Japanese toast, and a single hard-boiled egg. For the record, I’d probably eat a pound of the congealed mountain yam stuff before a bite of a boiled egg, so Miranda traded her toast for my egg, and I resolved to get a bit more food at the market. While we ate, we had a lovely view of the river, and noticed that there were several schools of koi swimming in the river itself, putting a fair bit of effort into keeping stationary against the current. It wasn’t clear if they’d been put there intentionally or were escapees from some residents’ koi gardens, but they were very pretty and immediately visible in the crystal-clear water.

Thus fortified, we re-crossed the river and made our way through the market, which had obviously passed its peak time and was slowing down at lot. We leisurely moved from booth to booth, sampling various pickles and sweets, and making notes for the next morning when we figured we’d be doing the majority of our shopping.

Once we hit the end of market, we had to put a bit of effort into fending off a hard sell of black sesame brittle candy, and then turned around and headed back toward our next top, the Takayama-Jinya.

The Takayama-Jinya is the former seat of government for Takayama-Hida during the Edo period, when the Tokugowa Shogonate replaced the local governor with direct control over the province, in order to more efficiently extract rice taxes, timber and minerals from an area that was rich in all three. Possibly a little too rich for its own good: according to placards placed at the Jinya, on many years the province didn’t have enough rice left to feed itself after taxes were levied, and several of the Shogun’s representatives either had to put down riots or flee from them.

The Jinya is one of the few buildings of its type and era left, as many of them were either torn down during the Meiji restoration or afterward, or destroyed (by bombs or for firewood) during the war. It’s been carefully preserved and restored, and is large enough to spend most of an afternoon wandering through.

The Jinya and its outbuildings sprawl around a series of gardens, and the internal rooms are carefully arranged so that by opening screens and doors, you can catch any hint of a crossbreeze. The Jinya also provided a visceral reminder to me that pre-war generations of Japanese were much, much shorter than the current average, as I managed to crack my head against the overhanging crossbeams on two separate occasions. For the record, they are of very solid construction.

Along one of the passageways was a privy, which had the most signs in the most languages of any of the rooms in the place:

Further down was the “interrogation room,” where people who had made the mistake of displeasing the shogun’s local representatives (probably by, say, withholding rice tax) could be questioned at length, usually kneeling on wooden spikes, or having their legs broken by enormous stone blocks. The interrogator himself got to sit on a nicely raised tatami platform looking down on the poor unfortunates.

After the interrogation room we left the main building and entered the storehouses, which have been converted into a museum of Edo-era documents from when the building had still been in use — survey maps, tax collection tables and the like. There were also pictures and short biographies of the various governors: which ones had managed to put down riots, which ones had been killed by mobs and so forth. Ironically, not only had several of the Edo-era governors been killed by the locals, but so had the Meiji-era reformist governor, who died in prison shortly after a riot by enraged conservatives. Governor of Hida was apparently a pretty thankless job, if you don’t count the money, power, influence and the lovely house.

From the Jinya, we walked back toward the center of town, where three long streets are comprised of the original private merchant houses that were the town’s center in the 1700s. Most of the houses have been converted into stores for the purpose of separating visitors from their money as quickly as possible, and while that sounds kind of tacky it mostly wasn’t: Hida’s local craft specialties have been doll-making, sake-making and lacquerware for apparently decades-to-centuries now, and those crafts were on prominent display in the stores. Multiple sake breweries were represented (denoting by huge cedar-stick spheres hanging from their entrances) and offered free tastings. The effect was like a charming mix of Napa and the Jersey Shore.

We found a couple of very promising sakes and one lacquerware and furniture store that could easily have soaked up all of our discretionary income for the next decade or so, but we left everything where it was, figuring again that we’d do all of our actual shopping the next morning and not have to lug bags around town for the rest of the afternoon, so we merely carefully noted the location of a few key stores and moved on.

At this point, we were getting a bit peckish again.. god, this travelogue does really seem to revolve around my stomach, doesn’t it? Oh well, I knew I was going to eat my way across this country when we bought the tickets. Anyway, lunchtime. Restaurants were thick on the ground in the Sanmachi district, and we passed a very promising-looking one that had a menu on the outside that mentioned duck-meat ramen. That’s about the best idea I’ve heard in months, so we walked in and got a table. Sadly, it turned out that the duck soup was a seasonal dish only, but we did well anyway: we’d managed to stumble into Ebisu, a restaurant that’s been famous for soba noodles for just over a hundred years. And yes, they make their own:

After an amazing lunch of cold soba and hot tempura, we crossed over to the west side of town and to the Kusakabe Folk House museum, wherein one of the larger merchant houses has been opened up to the public. The brochure at the museum made the interesting point that Takayama, due to its direct administration by the shogun, had never had much of a local samurai class, and so there had been room for the local merchant class to actually stretch out a bit and put together their houses and stores in the center of town.

The Kusakabe house was one of the largest of its type, with two floors, about 15 rooms, and a garden and tea house in the back.

This wall-hanging was found on the first floor, and was bereft of English signage, but we guessed that it commemorated the driving of the train tunnels through the alps, something that probably opened up the Hida area to a heretofore mythical amount of commerce:

In some ways, the Kusakabe house was prettier than the Jinya: absent the need to crush the visitor with imperial grandeur, there was more room for whimsical details, like the carved panels over the door lintels:

Apparently unusually, the house had not been directly constructed by its residents, but commissioned of and planned by the town’s master carpenters, and they’d done an amazing job: the primary structure of the house was made of three beams, each easily 40 feet long, made from single red pines:

The same attendant who told us about the beams offered to take our picture, and since certain relatives have complained that there were very few pictures of us in this narrative, we consented to the inevitably goofy-looking “roundeye tourists posing in old Japanese architecture” photo:

From the Kusakabe house, it was a short walk to the Takayama Festival Float museum. Takayama, like many towns in Japan has several local seasonal festivals. Takayama’s festivals (one in autumn, one in spring) involve floats. So far we’re not too far away from carnival or mardi gras, but Takayama’s floats are a little…different. For starters, they’re 30 feet tall.

There are eleven floats in total (plus a portable shrine, but we’ll get to that), and the float museum has a rotating selection of a few of them on display at any time. The floats which are not in the museum are kept in enormously tall sheds scattered around the town center; walking around, you would inevitably pass them: in an area of Japan where the average building was two stories tall at most, the looming whitewashed doors were a little hard to miss.

The museum has on permanent display the original portable shrine that used to lead the parade. “Portable” is used somewhat advisedly: the shrine apparently weighs two and a half tons: the upper sections were made of various hardwoods, and the black band around the middle (and an unclear amount of the undercarriage) was made of, um, iron. The shrine required 80 people to carry it, 40 at a time and switching off frequently. According to the taped narration that we got to carry around the museum, it’s been retired from active duty (and replaced by a much smaller shrine) because it’s become impossible to find 80 people of exactly the same height to volunteer to carry the damn thing along a multi-mile route twice a year; an unexpected side-effect of post-war Japan’s height boom.

(For those of you who are scratching your head rather than giggling: the Osbourne 1 was the first “portable” computer, from 1982. It weighed 35 pounds, was the size of a large samsonite suitcase, and was “portable” by virtue of having both an internal 5” CRT monitor and, well, a handle.)

The floats were kept inside a huge glass-walled chamber (hence any odd reflections on these photos), and a path circled it, rising slowly from floor level to above the floats. The float in the last picture here has a marionette on the front, which apparently does multiple tricks involving both itself and the two smaller puppets on the side, and requires 8 puppeteers (operating 36 strings) to operate while the float is moving.

Also according to the tape, most of the floats are about 250 years old, and the oldest one is a little over three hundred years old. All of the floats are registered National Treasures, and the reason that they all look brand-new is that in addition to the amount of gold and lacquer used in their construction, the government funds their continual repair and upkeep.

Next door to the float museum, and free for holders of museum tickets, is a small building that contained, according to the somewhat worn audiotape we were listening to, “a scale reconstruction of the (mumble mumble) temple complex at (mumble mumble), with a computer controlled lighting system to simulate day and night as seen from (mumble mumble).” Figuring that it was free and air-conditioned, we walked over to take a look, only to find ourselves in a basketball court-sized room filled with an exact scale replica of… the Tosho-gu temple complex at Nikko. Nikko, I feel compelled to point out, is no more than four hours by train or car from Takayama. Apparently the model had been commissioned by a rich devout Buddhist, had toured the world on several exhibitions, and he’d requested that it be permanently installed near the float museum in Takayama, proximity to the original be damned. As with much of Japan, it was pleasantly baffling.

Quickly exhausting the amusement value of a miniature representation of somewhere we’d been less than a week before, we walked back out into the heat, and took a walk down Takayama’s shrine path: a 2km walking path that winds through nearly a dozen Buddhist and Shinto temples, each about a few feet from each other. None of the shrines was open to visitors, so we got to briskly move from building to building, through their various gardens (green and stone both), keeping to the shade and taking pictures.

The path crossed one major road, and a pedestrian underpass was helpfully provided. This was the second underpass we’d used in Takayama (the first on the previous day, on the way out to the folk village), and while they’re not exactly interesting per se, they’re notable for what they lack:

Note carefully the complete lack of graffiti. Or of urine stains. You can’t tell from a photo, but there was also no smell of urine. It’s not very clear in this picture, but the decorations in the middle of the tunnel are simply hanging from strings on hooks, and they were obviously several months to several years old, and completely unmolested.

America, this was not. Not coincidentally, as we were making this walk, our bags, including my laptop and one of my cameras, were sitting in a room made largely of paper, with exactly zero locks between it and the street. Our level of worry about the stuff in our room? Zero. Japan’s lack of crime is pretty much a cliche, but it’s also basically true, and for an American — especially a resident of, say, San Francisco or New York City — it’s a little unnerving. I’ll leave theorizing about the reasons for it to professional sociologists and criminologists, and merely say that it’s amazing how quickly you learn to trust in this, and a little depressing to think how quickly I’ll have to un-learn it once we get back to the states.

One of the last temples along the path is the Tensho-ji, which is also the local youth hostel, and had by far the most gorgeous garden we’d seen yet.

Having gotten through as many shrines as we were capable of in the midafternoon heat, we sauntered downhill toward the hotel to drop horizontal for a while, upload photos, catch up on email and so forth.

A few hours later, it was time for dinner. (Like an army, this blog travels on its stomach!) While it’s largely unknown in the states, inside Japan the Hida area is as famous for its beef as the Kobe region, and apparently takes similarly excessive care of its cows. Lonely Planet, Rough Guide and the “Takayama Gourmet Guide” that Tommy had provided all agreed that a restaurant called Shosuya was the best place to sample the stuff, so after checking the map, we strode out into the balmy early evening in the restaurant’s direction.

…more or less. Between the LP map and the Hida tourist map, we ended up about a block from it without having much of an idea where it was, before we had the bright idea of asking the ice cream vendor we were standing in front of while helplessly consulting the maps.

Quick digression: Japanese cities have streets, but by and large the streets are not named, and while buildings are technically numbered, they are not numbered in relation to the streets. Instead, cities are divided up into districts (ku), each ward is divided into neighborhoods (kinjo), each neighborhood is subdivided into sections comprised of 6-20 blocks (chome), each block in a chome is numbered, and each building in a block is numbered, but both numberings are not necessarily in any obvious sequence. Street signs, when they exist, will usually tell you which kinjo and chome you are in, but at that point you are on your own, roundeye, and the problem is compounded by the previously mentioned fact that tourist maps (nevermind the crap in LP) will often omit smaller streets, making block-counting (which is really your only viable option for navigation) an inexact science at best. The only thing that keeps this all from being fatally aggravating is that much like, say, London, it’s apparently just as confusing to the locals: you’ll often see Japanese people staring distractedly at maps on streetcorners, and judging from the ads we saw on the Tokyo metro, there’s a very brisk business in hand-held GPS navigators. Also, back at the Takayama-Jinya, one of the documents on display in the storehouse section had been a very detailed street map of Takayama, including prominent labelled landmarks for navigation: apparently everyone in Japan has been lost for hundreds of years at a minimum.

But I digress: there was an ice cream vendor on the street corner where we were standing, and after we asked her “Shosuya wa, doko desu ka?”, she was very amused to point out that it was about twenty feet away, around the corner.

Hida beef? Fucking amazing. I’m not much of a red meat eater these days, but this was a strong contender for the best meal I’ve had in Japan so far. It was simplicity itself: a dozen slices of Hida beef, a white-hot charcoal brazier, some rice, and a few vegetables to grill on the side. The brazier was hot enough that in about 30 seconds you could get a good sear on the outside of the meat while leaving the inside still pink-to-red, and it was… god, I don’t really have the vocabulary for this stuff. Salty and irony, with that full-mouth “beefy” flavor, but delicately textured, amazingly marbled and basically no connective tissue at all. I ate about a third of it raw or barely cooked at all. Miranda had a piece and asked for seconds. It’s a good thing that there’s basically no equivalent in the states for under a hundred dollars a plate, or I’d be a lot heavier and a lot poorer.

Miranda had a “mini-sukiyaki”, and I fear I’m doing it a disservice by talking about it after that glowing description. It was also fantastic; I’ll let her handle the descriptive details if she cares to.

More than sated, we took a quick stroll around the darkened city center, and then returned home to pack.

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