Our heads ringing with mild hangovers from our exploits in Golden Gai, we made our way to Tokyo station. Our journey to Takayama was convoluted by Japanese standards as it involved a train change at Nagoya. By our standards though, the three-hour journey was a dream!
The wide, reclining seats were as luxurious as any first class carriage in the UK and we settled down with a bento box lunch for the ninety minute Shinkansen journey to Nagoya. Forgive me a moment of train geekery here, but I loved the bullet trains. Sleek, punctual and with oodles of leg room (even for a giant like me), they were a positively relaxing way to get around the country.
At Nagoya we switched trains as our journey took us higher into the mountains. Thoughtfully, the train type also switched to a “wide-view” with extra large windows so that we could enjoy the views better. The scenery was breathtaking – deep lakes and dramatic gorges sat below moody, grey mountains flecked with the deep green of pine trees. Huge snowdrifts several feet high sat at their base. Something told me I’d be digging my woollen socks back out from the bottom of my rucksack when we arrived.
Takayama (or Hida-Takayama, to give it its full title) is a compact little city located in the Northern Alps of Japan’s Honshū island. Although not really a feature on most first-time itineraries to Japan, it is famous with domestic tourists for its well-preserved Edo style old quarter.
One of our main reasons for picking Takayama was the opportunity to stay in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. Unfortunately, they tend to price towards the top end of accommodation so we’d opted for a cheaper version – a minshuku – which offered a “breakfast-only” stay but otherwise a very similar experience. To avoid confusing myself, I’ll carry on calling it a ryokan.
We arrived at the house and removed our shoes at the front step, swapping them for house slippers donned in all Japanese houses (outside shoes are verboten). A tiny elderly Japanese lady welcomed us and showed us to our room, which was laid out with tatami reed mats, a futon each and some house robes.
In Japanese ryokans, guests traditionally wear yukata (as the robes are known in Japanese) after bathing, but we wore them all the time in the ryokan as they were incredibly comfortable! Plus, they saved on our laundry bills…
Looking us up and down, our hostess chuckled and mimed that we were enormous (this happens to me a lot with the Japanese) and went off to get some extra-large robes for our giant gaijin frames.
The lovely Japanese granny then gave us a tour of the rest of the house. Unfortunately there was something of a language barrier: she didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Japanese. Undeterred, she proceeded with the tour. In Japanese. We nodded, smiled and tried to pretend we’d become fluent in Japanese during the brief period since we’d arrived, hoping desperately that we wouldn’t miss some vital bit of information that would lead to an International Incident.
Tea had been laid out for us in our room so, once we’d donned our yukata, we kneeled at the low table and poured ourselves a cup of green tea from the elegant, bamboo-handled teapot before heading out for a quick explore around the town and a bite to eat.
After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, Takayama felt like a little country village. I was struck by how clean, quiet and calm it felt. The quaint streets were lined by wooden houses with funny little box-shaped cars parked outside, and alpine water gurgled in little streams that ran alongside the road.
The next morning, we woke to find a breakfast tray at our door. We sat in our robes and enjoyed a nutritious breakfast of rice balls flavoured with seaweed and a tart little plum buried in the centre, washed down with a cup of green tea. Our lovely Japanese granny had left a note which, when Tourist Information kindly translated it for us, wished us a lovely day and an enjoyable stay in Takayama. What a poppet.
There seemed to be an understanding that you left the ryokan by 10am and didn’t come back until the afternoon, so we donned our warm socks and walked to the Hida-no-Sato folk village. Although technically a museum, the village has been restored over time with genuine traditional alpine buildings from all over Japan being carefully restored and relocated to form a somewhat eclectic collection here in Takayama.
The village is laid out around Goami pond, which would have been the lifeblood of the village once upon a time, supplying fish and irrigation to the rice paddies as well as acting as the local children’s swimming pool and ice rink, depending on the season.
Although we aren’t particular architecture buffs, the village was still an interesting insight into life in the Japanese alps and the thought and ingenuity that has to go into thriving in such harsh conditions. The roofs had especially thick rafters and high pitches to ensure they could withstand up to two metres of snow, while the open-plan fires of the inside kept the worst of the cold away and repelled insects with the smoke.
Although not occupied, the village still hosts some artisan weavers and carvers who sell their work to visitors. There were also some really interesting traditional tools on show, such as a water powered hammer which would pound the earth to ward off wild boars, or be used to grind rice.
In the afternoon we took a stroll through the local temple and up to a hill overlooking the city. We were enjoying the peaceful, misty views when we spotted a rather alarming sign! Who knew there were bears in Japan?!
Back in the safety of the town we walked through the pretty streets, popping into sake shops (alas, no free samples) and sampling delicious dumplings from streetside vendors.
By now we were chilled to the bone (eight hours out in mountain air will do that to you, especially after the heat of Burma!) and headed back for the ultimate ryokan experience – the ofuro bathing area. Often referred to as onsen (actually the hot springs that power the baths), bathing in Japan is a whole new – and nerve-wracking for the uninitiated – experience. For a start, it’s communal Yes, the whole thing (although mercifully almost always gender segregated).
Then there is the intricacy of the bathing ritual. Once you’ve placed your belongings in a basket, you don a small towel and washcloth and head into the bathing area to take a seat at one of the showers. There, you wash yourself head to toe with soap (hair can be saved for post-onsen if preferred) and rinse until all the suds are gone. Once totally sud-free and the cleanest you are ever likely to be, you are free to enter the borderline-scalding waters of the communal bath and enjoy a relaxing bathing experience that warms you to the very core.
Once you are done in the bath you take another shower to rinse the bathwater off, don your robe and head back to your room to enjoy a pleasant pot of green tea before snuggling down for the cosiest, deepest sleep ever.
We checked out the next day and thanked the Japanese hostess as best we could. She offered us umbrellas for the rainy walk to the station, and found a packet of sweets for our train journey. We were touched by her kindness, and I’ve kept her little notes as a souvenir and a reminder of our lovely stay.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Takayama, but I’m so pleased we decided to spend a couple of nights there. The town is pleasant enough, but the highlight was absolutely the experience of staying in a ryokan and I’d recommend it to anyone. Despite the language barrier, we felt incredibly welcome and the room – despite its simplicity – was one of the cosiest and most comfortable we stayed in.
If you want to visit Takayama
- We stayed for two nights. One day is enough to explore the town, so if you are short on time an overnight visit would suffice but two allows you to fully enjoy the ryokan experience!
- Takayama is great for food. We had amazing burgers at Center4Hamburgers and also sampled the ramen noodles that Takayama is famous for – there are plenty of shops around. It’s worth noting that most places seem to shut down between lunch and dinner, and close by about 9:30pm.
- We stayed at the Ryokan Seibe. Although ryokans can seem a bit intimidating it’s well worth stepping out of your comfort zone! We recommend reading up on ryokan etiquette ahead of time so you feel more confident. Some great resources are below: