It's always a bit worrying when they make an announcement while you're on a train, and everyone gets off except for the sleeping Japanese and the gaijin.
Most of our rail journeys so far have been on whizzy express trains and shinkansen: the same could have applied to today's journey from Toyama to Takayama, but the train times didn't quite work out for us, as the fast services were either too early or too late. Which is why today's journey is taking place on a local single-carriage puffer train between the two cities. For a large part we're accompanied by just the aforementioned sleepers, and a couple of white guys dressed like Mormons. Aside from the big exodus from the train part way through, we also have to transfer onto a two-carriage service for the last hour of our 150 minute run to Takayama, to make room for the schoolkids on their journey home for the weekend.
Still, we make it into Takayama in good time, and it's just a couple of blocks to our inn for the next two days, the Minshuku Kuwataniya. Like the best of its kind, it's a beguiling mixture of old and new - we're staying in a traditional tatami mat room, but it's got a huge hi-def telly at one end of it. After sharing hotels with just local tourists for a few days, it's a shock to arrive in Takayama and discover that the whole place is crawling with foreigners. When I say 'foreigners', I mean 'people who look like me', obviously.
It's late afternoon when we arrive, so we only really have time for an initial exploratory wander round town before we head back to the Kuwataniya in time for dinner, the only big hotel meal we've got planned for this holiday. Hida beef is the local speciality in this town - well-marbled meat coming from cows pampered to the same degree as the more famous ones in Kobe - and my rather fine dinner is centered around a delicately cooked portion of it, along with the usual Japanese accompaniments. The Belated Birthday Girl had an equally good mixture of vegetables and fishpaste cakes: she needs a paragraph for this one.
"Japanese traditional guesthouses come in a variety of forms, including those known as 'ryokan' and the generally more humble 'minshuku', often described as Japanese B&Bs. But to my mind, the difference between a ryokan and a minshuku is often blurred, particularly at the ones like ours in Takayama which serve seriously good traditional Japanese meals. The dinner at Kuwataniya includes local specialities, and is as beautifully presented as at any lower to mid-range ryokan. The breakfasts were also fine and substantial affairs featuring local specialities such as hoba miso. The atmosphere is possibly a little less formal than you'd expect at a ryokan, but that can be true at the lower end ryokan as well. And the prices were extremely reasonable."
We grab some time in the hotel baths afterwards: for the first time this year we're segregated by sex, and The BBG smugly reports that the ladies' upstairs bath is much bigger than the gents' downstairs one. (Theoretically, they're supposed to swap the genders of the baths regularly, but that doesn't happen during the two days we stay there.) The baths do their job: we're too relaxed to do anything else that day except lounge around in our room reviewing our first week's worth of holiday photography. (At some point we'll put them all up in online albums for you: let's finish the holiday first, though, shall we?)
It's an early start to the day, as we have to be downstairs in time for breakfast at 7.30. Still, it gives us an excuse to check out the morning market at Miya-gawa, a whole riverbank's worth of stalls selling food and other local products. It's during this shopping expedition that we're introduced to the local mascot of Takayama - Sarubobo, the Lucky Monkey Baby. He's available in every size from tiny mobile phone charm to giant stuffed toy, and comes in a variety of colours to give you good luck in different areas of your life.
We have a carefully planned list of Takayama attractions to visit today, and the first one is probably the best. In the West, there's a culture of nostalgia for the 1960s, thanks to a post-war baby boom which, if you think about it, was partly Japan's fault. The Japanese equivalent period coincides with the reign of Emperor Hirohito, the Showa era that runs from 1926 to 1989. Yes, there were a few dodgy years in the middle of that, but the post-war Showa era is a touchstone for modern Japanese culture, and the Takayama Showa-kan museum crams a huge number of period artefacts into a tiny space. A series of rooms recreating locations of the time - a hairdresser's, a doctor's surgery, a school - rub shoulders with rooms crammed full of generally themed items. As it's comparatively recent history, there's plenty to strike pangs of nostalgia in anyone over 20: for me, the room full of old radios and reel-to-reel recorders took me back to an electrical shop from my childhood. You could cynically look at this collection and insist it's just a pile of old junk stored in one place, but the same could be said for any collection from the British Museum on downwards.
In central Takayama, most of the more traditional historical interest comes from the beautifully preserved old merchant houses in the San-machi Suji area. To be honest, once you've seen one or two of them you've really seen them all. Kusakabe Mingeikan is probably the best-looking of the lot, but Yoshijima-ke just down the road takes a couple more chances with its presentation, with jazz playing in the background and modern art pieces by Toko Shinoda adding further visual interest. Once you've done those two, and grabbed a bowl of noodles at Kimon a bit further down the same road, those are probably all the merchant houses you need: although little temporary exhibitions are opening and closing in these buildings all the time, such as the little free one we stumble across celebrating a local craftsman.
We head a bit further north for our afternoon session, spending time around the Sakurayama Hachiman-gu shrine, which has a number of exhibitions taking place around it. Takayama Yatai Kaikan has a number of huge festival floats on display: you don't really need the taped English commentary (it's captioned well enough), but it's worth getting for the charming note of apology attached to it. In the same complex, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan is a large-scale model of the shrine at Nikko, where you'll have to peek really hard to find the legendary wall frieze of the Three Wise Monkeys.
Shishi Kaikan, just outside the shrine to the south, has a charming show displaying traditional karakuri puppets: The BBG and I missed the first five minutes of the show we attended, so they obligingly performed them again just for us at the end. After doing that lot back to back, you'll be ready for coffee and cake at the charming Rakuda cafe, and I'm not just saying that because the owner has a couple of records by the Monkees on her wall.
So Saturday daytime in Takayama is a blast: Saturday evening, on the other hand, is curiously underpowered. Maybe it's a hangover from after Golden Week, but there's virtually nobody on the streets when we venture out at 7.30pm. It doesn't help that the first restaurant we try, Tenaga Ashinaga (literally 'long arms long legs', named after a couple of statues on the nearby Naka-basi bridge) is basically offering Hida beef or nothing: their one fish option is off.
This is no good for The BBG, so we try the nearby Sakana - I assume it's named after the Japanese for 'fish', but she says it's actually the very similar word for a snack eaten with sake. Nevertheless, she reports that her fish sashimi is excellent, and my Hida beef is even better than last night's. But there are only four other people in the restaurant with us, and when we move on for a nightcap to the related Ateya sake bar (that URL has to be some sort of first), we're the only ones there. The BBG elaborates:
"Although the food at our alternative to Tenaga Ashinaga was very good, it was somewhat expensive for what we got, and the portions were definitely on the small side, meaning we left there with our appetites not fully sated, and somewhat taken aback by the bill, costing nearly 3 times as much as our far more satisfying and excellent meals in Matsumoto. I suspect this is partly a result of the very touristy nature of Takayama, but the restaurant was overpriced to my mind. We then went to the nearby sake bar we'd seen earlier in the day - by complete coincidence, a related establishment - and I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of information I was given about the sake we were served, particularly as we'd been enticed in by a friendly English sign. So although the sake was nice, I again left not fully satisfied, this time in a different way. Both were small niggles in the overall scheme of things, but just something to look out for."
Breakfast at 7.30 again, which means we miss most of NHK's Sunday replacement for their daily asadora soap, a puppet version of The Three Musketeers. (I'll probably return to their normal daily show, Ge Ge Ge Woman, in the next piece.) We check out of the Kuwataniya and drop our bags at the bus terminal before heading out to our last attraction in Takayama, the Hida Folk Village, on a bargain combo ticket (admission plus return bus journey for ¥900). You'd think we'd be wary of open-air multi-site museums after Friday's washout at Toyama, but luckily today's weather is much nicer.
The Folk Village has twenty or so traditional buildings, in a wide variety of styles, which have all been just picked up and plonked down in a single location. The buildings themselves are lovely, and there are all sorts of little subdisplays in many of them, from a giant koi nobori (fish banner made out of cloth) to an explanation of the mechanics of silk production (the first time I've heard the word 'sericulture' used outside of a Human League record). It's a lovely place for a slow stroll, and becomes curiously hypnotic by the end. Mind you, that might just be the effects of a long delay after an early breakfast, which we remedy with curry rice at the Cafe Scenery back at Takayama Station. And then we're off again.
The BBG's Takayama Photos