It was a long ride to Takayama: a couple of hours west to Nagoya by Shinkansen or bullet train, then a couple more on an express. The train headed north into Gifu prefecture to what is known as the Japanese Alps, following the Hida river in a spectacular stretch, at first along a rock canyon. Deep and narrow, the pale beige rock along its sides reflected in the dark slow-moving current, creating the illusion of even deeper walls. The winding river was spanned at intervals with small, gracefully arched bridges and some plain metal ones—one red, now white, then blue, red or white again. Tunnel after tunnel covered the road; you never knew what side the river would be on when you emerged from the darkness.
I love morning markets! There’s a sense of local life in the air. I walked to a different one each morning. Among the vegetable stalls were bagged cut veggies, some pickled, others processed by hand in some way, and the vendors provided small bowls or cups with tasters. I bought a bag of seafood spices from a woman who mixed them from piles at her stall. Handcrafted goods included odd stuffed red dolls with no face (a mascot of the area), balls of twisted wood which I discovered were cat toys, and pretty little bags containing six little beanbag balls each. I pointed to the beanbag kit and asked two women, “Nan da ke?” (What is it?) They said something in Japanese and I’m sure I gave them a blank look. Then one grabbed a couple and started juggling them, shouting “Child toy!”
The old wooden houses and shops in Takayama’s historic section came alive in early morning as the shop owners came out to set up their displays. The area is known for its small sake breweries that offer free tasters and bottles for sale. In the evening, I had a few drinks wandering the streets and bought a bottle to bring back to Tokyo. The quiet streets were a bit mysterious at night, especially if you imagine the electric lights replaced by gas or flame, and dirt or gravel instead of asphalt on the streets. You could be transported back centuries.
I stayed at a temple, still functioning, but now also in use as a hostel with simple tatami rooms. Across the street was a small café, perfect for breakfast. When I came back years later, with my son, the first morning we came in, the staff behind the counter looked at us suspiciously. We were foreigners, and when my son is off work, he lets his beard grow, so it’s hard to tell how old he is. I introduced us in my simple Japanese, saying we were staying at the temple and this is my son. What a welcome we received each morning! They were happy to host us, knowing we were a family.
A former-American Buddhist monk, surprisingly a transplant from Colorado, recommended a local style restaurant in one of the old houses for dinner. I had an assortment of delicious, wild mountain plants one night with a warm bottle of local sake. It was so good, I went back the next and had meat, vegetables and tofu on a leaf with miso bean paste over a little grill set up at my table for me to tend.
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