Takayama and Kamikochi

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September 12th 2014
Published: September 14th 2014
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We arrived in Takayama about 4 hours after we left Tokyo. We actually got kicked off our first Shinkansen (fast train) as our JR rail pass didn’t cover that train. Kicked off sounds a lot more dramatic than it was; in fact we got numerous apologies from the man checking tickets, a bow and a please change at the next station.

Takayama is a town of about 90,000 people to the north west of Tokyo in the mountains. It is famous for its traditional houses which line some of the main streets in the town. Our train was met at the station by a car from our home for the next three nights – a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). We were shown to our tatami mat room by one of the staff who explained how the room works and where the pubic bathrooms were. Yes, public bathrooms. As in, men in one room…women in another, bathing in public. Naked. He also explained that, for the shy people, there was a private bathroom but that you had to collect the key from reception prior to use (I think to shame you into using the public rooms!).

After checking in we went for a stroll through the town which is absolutely tiny compared to Tokyo. It has a very relaxed feel about it and is clearly a tourist town. The surrounding mountains are covered in lovely green trees – a refreshing sight after the concrete jungle that is Tokyo. After strolling around through the streets lined with traditional houses for a few hours we headed back to our room for some green tea.

During the day our room has a little table and seats (cushions on the floor with a backrest) set up. At night, a futon is rolled out. Scott is definitely not designed for sitting on the floor…he complains a lot about how uncomfortable it is! I think it is quite comfortable, though have stood up a few times and found that my foot (or leg) is completely numb. After a few cups of green tea Scott decided it was time to brave the public bathroom.

On his return Scott said that it was very enjoyable indeed. When you walk in there is a mostly dry area where you undress. Through a door is the first wet area where you scrub yourself while sitting on a little plastic stool with the supplied shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Once you’re clean there are two options – the indoor or outdoor mineral bath. The baths are very hot, very deep and very relaxing (for 5 or so minutes before you start to cook!). I decided to wait until later that night before I braved the public bath in the hope it might be completely empty...

After Scott had cooled down it was time for dinner. We had ordered the first nights dinner at our ryokan after hearing that it was the thing to do in Takayama. The food did not disappoint. Scott had a ‘normal’ meal (i.e. meat and fish) whilst I went with the vegetarian option (with egg and fish stock). We each had about 10 little dishes including one dessert. Most of the dishes were cold with the exception of a stew (cooked while you ate the other dishes) and some tempura. Most things were delicious…some of the textures were a little odd but as there was so much food it didn’t really matter if you didn’t particularly like one of them! We decided the meal was so yummy we would order dinner at the ryokan for the following two nights as well.

After dinner we returned to our room and lay on our futons rubbing our very full stomachs while watching TV. At 10:30 I decided it was time to brave the public bath. Fortunately there was only one other woman when I arrived. After the initial ‘oh it feels so weird to be naked in public’ it was actually quite an enjoyable experience. The outdoor bath was lovely and hot and very very relaxing.

We had arranged for breakfasts with our hotel as well, so the following morning (after yet another bath – I don’t think either of us have ever been cleaner!) we ventured to the dining room. Breakfast was almost as much of an experience as dinner with about 7 dishes each. My favourite was the rice with miso paste and pickled ginger mixed into it – yum.

After breakfast we made our way to the town market. The market was not particularly exciting, but worth a visit to see the various different snacks on offer. After the market we made our way back through the traditional streets before returning to our ryokan for more green tea and to do some washing.

Scott picked up some lunch (steamed buns and chargrilled rice balls with a yummy sauce on sticks) while I finished the washing. After lunch we went for a walk up the hill past some of the temples and historical sights (including a cemetery). We returned to our ryokan for another 10 course dinner followed by another bath and TV in our futon.

The following day we caught a bus to Kamikochi which is a mountain resort about a 2 hour (at 50km/hr) bus ride from Takayama. The bus goes via Hirayu Onsen which is a small town which a lot of people use as a base when visiting Kamikochi. From Hirayu Onsen to Kamikochi it was about 45 minutes – most of the journey was in tunnels so we didn’t get to admire the view much.

Kamikochi apparently hosts some of the most impressive scenery in all of Japan and upon arrival it was not hard to see why they make this claim. The blue river is surrounded on either side by impressive tree covered mountains with peaks at about 3000m above sea level. The weather today was absolutely gorgeous so we had unbelievable blue sky as well. Upon arrival at the bus terminal we bought a map and then headed off on a walk towards Myonji-ike Pond. The scenery was absolutely spectacular and quite different to anything we’ve seen on any of our other trips. There were quite a few people along the well-marked trail but it didn’t feel particularly crowded.

We made it to the pond after about an hour. Along the way we passed numerous Japanese people kitted out in very fancy hiking gear – complete with skins, hiking boots, large pack and walking poles. It definitely seemed like overkill given the walk was pretty much flat all the way! We had to pay 300 yen to visit but it was worth the money. Some of the autumn leaves were starting to change colour which gave us a bit of insight into how spectacular it must look during peak season (when all the autumn leaves are at their best!).

After the pond it took us about an hour to return to the bus stop. Along the way we came across some monkeys – I think I grabbed Scott’s arm in fear and hid before I could even say “monkeys”. A large group made its way past us (while I cowered in fear and Scott took photos) before we were able to continue walking.

Upon return we grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants (Scott had Japanese curry with fried chicken and I had soba noodles with local vegetables).

After lunch we headed out on another trail – this one was supposed to take about an hour, but as the scenery was slightly less impressive we returned about half an hour after we left.

We caught the bus back from Kamikochi at about 3pm and arrived back in Takayama in time to have a sake / beer in our room before dinner.

Dinner was another 10 course feast of delicious local food. After dinner we each had another bath before returning to our room to lie on our futons.

We both enjoyed Takayama and Kamikochi a lot. The experience of staying in a ryokan was definitely worth trying. I don’t think we’ve ever been so well fed or so clean before! Scott managed 7 baths in three days, while I ‘only’ had 6. Next stop is Shirakawa-go.

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