Wednesday 26 February 2014

A weekend in the mountains - Takayama and Shirakawa-go (part 2)

This is part 2 of a 3 part series about a trip to Hida Takayama and Shirakawago.  You can find part 1 here.

After a great nights sleep I woke up the next morning and got ready to head off to Shirakawa-go and exited the hotel only to be faced with this.....

The snow had come down heavily overnight and had covered Takayama in a blanket of white turning it into a real winter wonderland!  I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.  However, looking down at my feet, I realised trying to walk around in (sometimes) knee-high snow in regular sneakers was going to result in extremely cold and wet feet, something I wanted to avoid!  A friend, Emiko had kindly emailed details of where to find a shoe store and I wandered off to find it.  Reaching it soon enough, I was relieved to find that they had some snow boots in my size, something that is not guaranteed at all shoe stores in Japan, and I don't have especially large feet.

Prepped and ready to go, I bought a ticket for the bus and began the hour long ride to Shirakawa-go.  The anticipation inside of me was beginning to build.  I have been to some pretty amazing places in the one year since I started this blog, but Shirakawa-go was about to kick it up a notch.

Shirakawa-go has been named a World Heritage site.  The village is well-known for the unique Gassho-zukuri (prayer hands) construction style with their roofs constructed in a very steeply slanted angle.  This results in a very strong design and also helps for the snow to easily slide off the roof.  This is a good thing as Shirakawa-go receives some of the heaviest snowfall in winter in the world with a yearly average of over 10 metres of snow!!  Another reason for the snow boots!

Getting off the bus, I got my first glimpse of some of these unique houses.

Amazing........  This moment had been three years in the making and I was definitely not disappointed!  This was not the main part of town though, we had to cross a suspension bridge over the river to get to the main part of the village.

I nervously stepped out onto the bridge and with every step I could feel the bridge swaying.  All I could imagine was the bridge breaking and me falling into the raging, freezing cold river below!

Fortunately I made it to the other side without plummeting into the frigid waters below and proceeded through the gates and into the main part of the village.

For the next two hours I simply walked around astonished at the beauty of Shirakawa-go.  Allow me to let the pictures do the talking for me.

Let me tell you, if you think these pictures are beautiful, then imagine 10 times more spectacular as that is what it was like in reality.  The beauty of the area was simply breathtaking and it definitely made the three year wait worth it!

A couple of the houses have been opened up to the public and you can go inside and have a closer look at what these amazing houses looked like on the inside.

A miniature shrine,

a beautiful heavy wood table

traditional old style Japanese sliding doors,

some wood shelving,

amazing detail in the artwork on these doors,

a fireplace for the family to sit around and enjoy dinner,

a closer look at the bindings that hold these houses together

and a look at the area on the second floor inside the roof space.

Going back out into the snow, I continued wandering around and taking in the sights of Shirakawa-go.  Walking along the street I saw this:

An igloo like structure called a Kamakura in Japanese.  So what's the most natural thing to do when you see a Kamakura?  Wander inside of course!

It was actually quite a few degrees warmer inside!  Walking further along the street I saw a big pile of snow and almost paid no attention to it until I saw the slightest hint of a number plate of a car!

I definitely wouldn't have wanted to be the owner of that car if they needed it in a hurry!

I kept on walking as I knew there was a shrine here somewhere that I wanted to have a look at.  I finally found it buried in snow.

I didn't stay too long as most of the beautiful architecture was hidden by snow.  I did, however notice that the hand cleansing spring was there and water was just barely trickling out.

One of the monks had cracked a hole in the ice so people could still dip in and get some water to rinse their hands and drink to cleanse themselves.  So of course, if they had gone to the trouble of making the water available, I was going to wash my hands and drink!  The coldness of the water bit into my hands, but it also tasted crisp and fresh!!

It was getting close to last bus back to Hida Takayama so I made my way back to the bus station, jumped on the bus and returned to the hotel.

One of my coworkers had suggested a place to go for dinner so I went there for dinner.  The place is called Center 4 Burger and is a hamburger place owned by a young Japanese couple (he speaks English very well) and is set up with a nice rustic feel to it.

When I got there I didn't know if it was open or not as I couldn't see anyone inside but after a couple of minutes the owner came out and told me they were open and took me inside.  You actually have to go through a couple of doors and a small outdoors area to get to the actual restaurant, so if you go there and the sign is outside, they are open!

They have a good selection of burgers and other food,

and imported beers too.

I ordered the bacon cheeseburger

and it was great! I definitely recommend this place when you go to Hida Takayama.

My appetite satisfied I set off in search of a bar I had read about online.  The reviews said that it was a really nice place and the owner was really friendly but that it was a little hard to find so I entered the address into my phone and followed my GPS.  

On the way I passed the same statue of the cat holding the fish, although something about it looked a little different......

Poor kitty, he looked a little cold!

I continued on and pretty soon I found the bar and walked inside to find only the lovely owner, Hisayo there.  She welcomed me in and we had a great chat, she is a very friendly lady who speaks English well. The interior is very interesting with a lot of things on the wall to go around looking at

and a funky little flower lamp on the bar.

I stayed and chatted with Hisayo and some other regulars who came in and enjoyed a perfect finish to a great day.

Well, I hope you enjoyed Shirakawa-go.  I know I was stunned by the spectacular beauty of the place and would love to go back in summer time to see how it looks without all of the wonderful snow.  Next up is a post about Hida Takayama itself.  Thanks for reading and see you again in a few days time!

Sunday 16 February 2014

A weekend in the mountains - Takayama and Shirakawa-go (part 1)

About 3 years ago while planning a holiday in Japan I stumbled across some photos of a place called Shirakawa-go on the internet and was so stunned by it's beauty that I vowed that I would visit one day.  Talking with some of my students, they advised me to combine that trip with a trip to Hida Takayama to take in it's Old World charm.  A couple of weeks ago I had the chance to do exactly that.

Takayama (or Hida Takayama as it is also known as) is located in the Japanese Alps slightly closer to the Japan Sea side of the main island of Honshu.  Due to it's elevation and location, it is a fairly isolated part of Japan and has developed it's own culture.  It is and area that is historically well know for it's carpentry.  It is said that carpenters from Takayama did a lot of the work on the Imperial Palace in Kyoto as well as a lot of the Temples in Kyoto and Nara.

I had a three day weekend coming up and decided that this was the time that I would finally visit those wonderful places.  I decided this time that I would use the bus rather than the train to travel to Takayama.  The bus ride was only about an hour longer than the train (5 hours rather than 4) and half the price of the train, so it wasn't that difficult a decision to make.  The bus wasn't full so I had plenty of space so I got out my Google Nexus (thanks Dan) put some headphones on and settled down to watch a movie while the bus made its was toward the mountains.

As the bus approached the mountains I put the tablet away as I always love the mountain views.  One day, I would love to stop in some of these mountain towns and just wander around for a day.

The bus made a stop at a roadside stop

where I filled up on refreshments

before we continued on further into the mountains.  More and more snow started appearing on the ground outside, and those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love snow!

I will never, ever get sick of the mountains.  Every time I go through these mountains, I am amazed by the incredible beauty of the scenery.  Coming from a very flat place, I find mountain scenery fantastically picturesque.

We made our last roadside stop and we were now well and truly in snow country.

A short while later we arrived in Takayama.  My hotel (Country Hotel Takayama) was perfectly located just across the street from the bus and train station.

It was a simple standard business hotel.  The room was not large, but all I needed was somewhere to sleep and the price was really good at 5,000 yen per night.  Added to that was the fact that the staff were really friendly and helpful and spoke English to me whenever I came to the desk.

Settled in to my room I decided that it was time for dinner.  The Hida Takayama area is quite well known for it's beef, know as Hida gyu (Hida beef) locals (and a whole lot of other Japanese people too!) will tell you that Hida beef is much better than the more well know Wagyu and Kobe beef.  I decided that it was time to find out for myself.  I had researched a few restaurants a little before going to Takayama and on TripAdvisor, by far the highest rated Hida beef restaurant was Maruaki. 

It was obviously my destiny to eat at Maruaki because it was located less than 5 minute on foot from my hotel.  I sat down and took a look at the menu (which is written in both Japanese and English).

I ordered the cheaper of the two selections and pretty soon it was brought to my table.

The marbling of the fat in the meat was incredible!

While it may not be the healthiest of meats, the fat does make for amazing tasting beef!!

The staff lit the little barbecue in the middle of my table and left me to cook the beef to my own liking.

I usually eat my beef well done, but this time I cooked pieces medium-rare, medium and well done and each way, the taste was stunningly juicy and delicious.  I am happy I was dining alone and that the restaurant was not busy as I would have embarrassed myself with the noises, the moans of beefy pleasure, that I was making!!

I left the restaurant still buzzing in my beefy high and wandered back in the general direction of the hotel taking in the sights along the way.  I took photos of a couple of things I saw along the way as I wanted to make sure that I wasn't having beef-induced hallucinationsI wasn't......

The second one called "Sarubobo" and is traditionally made by grandmothers for their grandchildren to protect them from bad luck and for their daughters for good luck in marriage and childbirth.  The first one?................Well, I guess cats love fish right?

It was now about 9:30 on a Friday night and the streets were relatively empty.

I found a bar called "Junk"

and wandered in for a beer.

The staff were friendly and spoke some English so were able to have a chat and I tried a little of my very poor Japanese.  One of the staff told me that Tokyo was getting a lot of snow that night.  I thought it was pretty funny as I had come to Takayama to see some snow and now Tokyo was getting a big dump of snow!

I walked back to the hotel and went to sleep completely unaware of what I would wake up to the next day!!

Takayama had not disappointed so far and I was really looking forward to Shirakawa-go the next day.

Thanks for reading part one.  I will try and get part two finished in a few days.