Japan Part 4 - Takayama
The day after our day trip to Hiroshima, we left Kyoto heading towards the Japanese Alps on a 4 hour train journey through rural landscapes alongside the Hida River. We were heading to Takayama and our first taste of staying in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese style inn).
In ryokan, the floors are covered in tatami mats (room size measured by the number of tatami mats on the floor) so no shoes are allowed. At the entrance your outdoor shoes are taken off and either you wander in stocking feet or put on in the indoor slippers provided. On the tatami mats themselves not even the slippers are allowed. The room is laid out with a small table a cushions on the floor during the daytime, but when you are having dinner, staff at the ryokan transform your room for sleeping, laying the futons and the voluminous duvets out on the floor. Everyone is given a yukata and many wear this traditional style dressing gown at all times in the ryokan. In some towns it is even normal for people to go out to bars and restaurants wearing the yukata.
The Hida Folk Museum was near our ryokan and after a lunch of soba noodles in a little restaurant we took a short hike up the hill behind the ryokan to get a view over the town and the snow covered Alps in the distance before visiting the museum.
Many old buildings from the surrounding area have been brought to the Folk Museum, including some gassho-zukuri houses from the nearby Shirakawa-go Valley. These huge houses with their steep thatched roofs are quite spectacular. Of the 1800 original gassho-zukuri houses in the area only about 150 remain with 50 of them in the village of Ogimachi. 3 to 4 story high, extended families of 20 to 30 people would live on the ground floor with the upper floors reserved for silk worm cultivation.
Other houses in the Folk Museum were also of national importance (recognised as cultural assets by the Japanese government which will ensure their up-keep). The Taguchi's House with it's 78 foot frontage was brought from the village of Kanayama and was once the village leader's home so all the rooms were devised to make one large room for village meetings.
On returning to our ryokan we had our first experience of the communal baths....an interesting experience to share with people you just met a few days before.....sitting on small wooden stools to wash before entering the hot baths - a relaxing experience once the initial feeling of nakedness had worn off.
After a dinner of tempura some of us went outside in our yukatas and wooden clogs to take a walk in the moonlight. I haven't laughed so much in a long time, trying to walk in wooden stilt clogs was not the easiest!
The next morning we went into the centre of Takayama and visited the Takayama Jinya (the historical government office) which was built in 1692 and served as the government headquarters in the town (one of 64 such buildings in Edo Japan and the only one remaining). It contains 482 tatami mats and many rooms, including the private quarters of government officials, the courthouse, kitchens, stores, a teahouse and reception rooms.
After our guided tour of the building we wandered into the old centre of Takayama with its morning markets and streets full of Edo-style merchant buildings housing shops and restaurants - the Sanomachi Quarter. The old buildings and streets were beautifully preserved and the views were only slightly spoiled by the electricity wires!
We also visited the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan (the Takayama Festival Float Museum). Takayama is famous for its festivals, held twice a year, once to seek blessings for a good harvest and one to say thanks for a good harvest. The festivals began about 350 years ago as a simple village ceremony, but as the area is famous for its timber production and quality artisans, the various districts of the town started to compete to build the most elaborate floats. This means that the town has a remarkable heritage - 23 floats each worth in the region of £3m. Around the town are a number of storehouses where the floats are kept, the tall buildings with the large doors a distinct giveaway that a float resides within (they are over 20m tall). The spring festival sees 12 floats paraded through the town, each pulled by up to 40 men and attracting up to 30000 visitors to the 2 day event, the autumn event repeats the ceremony with the other 11 floats.
Dinner in the ryokan on the second night was served in the upstairs dining room, 5 or 6 of us seated around each fire pit, with fish and rice cooking over a charcoal fire, and little pots of stock used to cook vegetables and hida beef - yum!!