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Published: April 11th 2018
A series of mountain towns give a flavour of smaller-town Japan.
Our first stop is at Matsumoto, as we’re told the castle is worth a stop but the town has little else to capture you. We find ourselves charmed.
The bus and train stations converge on the main city square, which create s hub for narrow, chararacter-filled streets with odd turns and bends. A colourful variety of shops, from musical instruments to bakeries to stationery made window-shopping fun.
We pop into a coffee shop and I’m immediately drawn to a small display of fanciful post-cards, with playful scenes of children and cats - I pick out a few for our grand girls, only to find that the artist is the young woman serving us our kohi. We bought more and she signed them all for us. The conversation gets more bold as we both try more language. Her name is Yuki and it means “snow”; she tells us we made her happy. She lets us take her picture. One of those unexpected gifts a day can bring.
Now the Matsumoto Castle is indeed worth the visit. This is the oldest castle in Japan with its original keep
(or donjon as they are called), built in the late 1500s. The cherry blossoms make a beautiful frame for its Christmas-tree like buildings. You can feel the muscled readiness for war in this place. The six levels are all about where you’d store or fire your arrows and guns, over the hefty moat protecting it all. The staircases are as steep as a ship’s in some places, and almost as narrow. To see the likes of all sizes of retiree tourists gripping the glass-smooth bamboo railings to haul ourselves up the uneven stairs was worrisome at times. Two way traffic on the way down was positively harrowing to watch.
The wood floors had planks wider than a foot and whatever wood they were, I could feel the grain through my socks. The black wood, heavy beams and walls, combined with the lack of things like bedrooms gave the whole thing a definite gravitas.
Leaving Matsumoto by bus, we head further up the mountains. Late-season snow and ice patches are seen in the woods and the temperatures continue to fall.
I’ve not said a lot about weather thus far. In Langkawi, Malaysia we had our hottest temps in
the low 40s. Bali was a little cooler in the mid-30s. Taipei in the 20s. Shin-Hotaka, a mountain resort in the ski region is raining at about 7 degrees. We wanted to buy more socks.
The mountains are as they are intended to be anywhere in the world. Breathtaking and stoic and humbling. In this off-season, Hotaka wears the remains of last winter in a tired sort of way. Our hotel looks deserted when we walk in. No lights. No people. A Bates hotel, perhaps? By dinner time, tour busses had arrived and we had plenty of Asian company. The set of two ropeways (cable cars) that rise to the top of the mountain is the main offseason attraction. It’s closed our first day due to wind; and the video cam of fog cloud deters us the second day.
Our next bus brings us to Takayama. A couple historic villages are nearby that had been isolated by geography and weather over the centuries, accessible only by high mountain passes. The townspeople became known for their fruit and veg (cold winters and mild summers) and given that this is timber land, for their wood craftsmanship. Dating back to the
Nara period (we’ll be visiting there next week) 700AD, these woodworkers went to the ancient capitals to build palaces and temples. And at home, festival floats.
We visit a museum of these festival floats - and these are in a class of their own. The exhibit hall is three stories high and has doors almost as high. Twelve floats are used twice a year in some of Japan’s most beautiful festivals. The wheeled floats are maneuvered by a dozen or more men, designated by robe colour on who is a pusher and who pulls. Some of the floats (yatai) are a couple stories high, elaborately decorated with folklore embedded, and are several hundred years old. The artistry continues inside under the roof and behind panels. Many have a landing on the top tier for important people to ride through the streets -and add weight for the poor guys moving the thing. Festival dates are fixed and if weather is inclemate, small unimpressive stand-in floats are used to the disappointment of the attendees.
Four floats have marionettes, representing gods and japanese nobility. One float has three marionettes, 36 strings and require 8 puppeteers.
We attend a
show demonstrating the techniques of old. Apparently eons ago, a wealthy merchant‘s watch needed repair on his way through town. The guy brave enough to try to figure out how to fix it became enthralled with the gears and wheels, which eventually led to the first puppets of this kind. Its the rustic charm that enamors the viewer - not the slick, how’d-they-do-that type at all. Little glimpses of the hooks, pulleys and the ‘manipulator’ himself add to the delight.
A village has been recreated to show life as it was back in the day of these Hida mountain people. We wake up to enormous Charlie Brown snowflakes falling on one cold, grey day. The thatch roofs of the folk village are snow covered, hiding the moss that normally makes them look like a movie set for a fairy tale. Tough life though. The buildings are bone-chilling even on this spring day in April. Difficult to imagine a family with one small open fire inside surviving a winter in a building with high-pitched thatched roofs and rice paper on its windows.
One of the houses in the village was built with supports made from the forks
of chestnut trees. They, combined with other very large pillars, protected the house from damage in the 1858 earthquake that destroyed many others. This house moved a metre and remained in tact.
Another big item in the Tatayama region is Hida beef, coming from Japanese black cattle bred in the this region. Compared here with Kobe beef, the raw version is very pale pink with small ribbons of fat throughout. Cooked in ramen soup or grilled on a hot plate on your table, it’s very tender and tasty.
A sidebar on pronunciations. A good tip to remember is that a, e and i in Japanese are pronounced as in the word ‘spaghetti ’. Thus, Hida beef is pronounced ’Heed-ah.’ Pasta has helped me a lot.
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