Two Weeks in Japan, Part 5: Takayama

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone.

After Hikone we headed to Takayama, it was August the 15th, 2012. The scenery was beautiful, you will read in guides that Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps, that means beautiful dense forests, creeks and mountains. Bullet trains in Japan were very comfortable and fast but it was actually nice that the train that took us to Takayama was not a high-speed one, this way we could better appreciate landscape.
Our seats were right after the driver’s cab, he wore white gloves and we were intrigued with these gestures he did: about four times per minute he would raise his hand, point it to a railway sign and then to some of the panel’s instruments which looked like some kind of ritual…

Japan 2012
Driver waving: a mystery to be solved!
Japan 2012
The Japanese Alps

When we arrived at Takayama, it was already night and we had to walk about 20 minutes to our ryokan: Sosuke. The room was about 50 €/person/night, it was much nicer than the one in Nagoya but less fancy than the expensive one at Kinosaki Onsen.
Since we had waken up early, walked all over the castle area in Hikone, and ridden the train for more than 5 hours, all with a smothering heat and humidity, we decided to grab dinner at a supermarket nearby and eat at our room. After that I just laid back and watched Japanese TV as they have quite some interesting TV shows there!

The next morning we went to a local street market. It wasn’t as impressive as our Lonely Planet Guide mentioned so we walked all over town, visiting some temples, traditional stores and even a small museum. Wood craftsmanship is a traditional art in Takayama so there were really beautiful wood carvings but we also entered a very interesting shop with the most original figures hand-made with bolts, nuts, washes, etc. We ended up buying a small donkey figure which we named Giló (just a funny sounding Portuguese name).

Our donkey Giló doesn’t look this dangerous but it is also awesome!
Beautiful bridge in a temple in Takayama

Hida Furukawa

During the evening that same day, we also took the train to a small town nearby, called Hida Furukawa which has some canals going through it with giant Koi fish. There were small wooden boxes in front of the canals with small bags of pieces of bread. Each bag 100 ¥ if I remember correctly and since it’s Japan and everybody is honest, there was no security mechanism whatsoever in the boxes to guarantee people paid (and yes, in case you’re wondering, we did pay). I love Koi fish, so I really enjoyed this small trip.

Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
Koi fish are great!
Koi fish in Hida Furukawa
It’s a beauty!

After a visit to some of the Hida Furukawa’s temples, we headed back to our ryokan in Takayama only to find some kind of ceremony in the entrance of a fancy hotel nearby. People were playing traditional songs and dancing in a circle with a strange participant: someone with a costume of what looked to be Godzilla… 🙂

I thought Godzilla liked Tokyo, maybe he retired to Takayama for the relaxed environment!

Hida No Sato

The next morning we went to Hida No Sato (or Hida Folk Village), an open air museum about 20 minutes walking from our hotel which turned out not to be so easy to make because we took a wrong turn and it was freaking hot!
Anyway, we eventually got to Hida No Sato and it was totally worth the walk and the price (about 10 €). It had many traditional houses which belonged to several parts of the region and had been reassembled there. Inside the houses there were texts and pictures showing how the villagers used to live. We saw pictures of men carrying tree logs (which looked bigger then themselves) down a snowy mountain; it was a very hard life.

Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
Us, passing as locals in the museum!
Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
A traditional house of the region
Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village), Takayama
A gate in Hida No Sato

After Hida No Sato, we took the train to Tokyo. It would be the 2nd half of our trip and we would spend an amazing week at this great city but that is the subject of the next post.

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Takayama”]

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 4: Nagoya and Hikone

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen.
This series of articles has been dragging but I need to make an effort and finish it, especially because I have had such a great feedback.

Our original plans for Kinosaki Onsen were to go to the beach to the north of it but it was raining a lot and we decided instead to start the trip to Takayama but it was just too far away so we chose a point in the middle of the route to stay: Nagoya.


I had read on our guide that Nagoya didn’t have much to see and it was right. We found a ryokan to stay by choosing one from the list we got at the tourist information office at Nagoya’s train station and calling them to check for the availability.
This ryokan, which I cannot really remember the name (and I don’t have my notes here unfortunately) was a bit cheaper than the others but of course, it wasn’t half as good as the others.
The room was big and with a Japanese garden in a patio but while it looked nice, the garden turned out to be composed of artificial plants and the tatamis, futan, etc. also didn’t have the same quality as the other ryokans we stayed at.

Our room's plastic garden in Nagoya
Zen fake: always green, never ending relaxation

On Toilets

The worst though, was the toilet. In the previous article I forgot to tell you how cool the toilet was in Morizuya ryokan. Yes, it was one of those high tech Japanese toilets. When I opened the door to the toilet’s cabinet, the toilet opened it lid automagically! It also included a heated seat but there was no toilet paper… Instead, I had a control pad mounted in the wall next to it, illustrated with pictographs of what the buttons did. See, one doesn’t need toilet paper in Japan… think water jets. I can tell you that you’ll feel very fresh! In comparison, we’re in the dark ages of hygiene here in the West. I could go on about how I think they got smart computer vision algorithms who can find the exact spot where to point the water jet but I’m not.

Hi-tech toilet controls
Hit the right button and you’ll feel reborn!

Anyway, this was not the case in Nagoya’s ryokan. You would think that with such advanced technology in fields for which innovation isn’t the first thing we think about, I expected the “beginner’s” level to be a regular, western toilet but it was in fact a squat one. I still tried to utilize it but my lazy, western body doesn’t have the balance required. Luckily there was a 7-Eleven around the corner with a regular toilet and very clean (as everything in Japan).

During the evening we didn’t know what to see so we just took a walk until the Nagoya Noh Theater which has a nice samurai statue outside.

Japan 2012
Nice Samurai statue outside Nagoya Noh Theater

Hikone Castle

The next day, we headed to Takayama but we did a little detour to visit Hikone Castle. I love Japanese architecture so I wanted to visit a Japanese castle during our trip but we discarded the famous Himeji Castle because it is under restoration until 2014. Hikone Castle was the alternative we chose, it was conveniently located on our way to Takayama.
Hikone Castle is a small one but is one of the few which hasn’t been destroyed in any war or any other tragic events throughout history. I also kept thinking “I think I sneaked into this place in Tenchu“!

Hikone's Castle
The Magnificent Hikone Castle
Hikone's Castle
Simply beautiful
Hikone's Castle garden
Relaxing at the garden on the back of Hikone Castle

Since our backpacks were very heavy, it was crazy hot&humid and there were too many steps to climb, we kindly asked for the tickets office to keep them, which they kindly did even though it couldn’t fit any of the lockers.
We had to queue for a little while at the entrance of the castle and chatted a bit with the guard there. He was very nice and knew some Portuguese words (there are a lot of Japanese immigrants in Brasil and he had family there) and said that Helena’s eyes looked a bit Japanese. So far she’s been told that she looks Turkish, American (someone said it was because of her freckles… go figure) and now Japanese! She’s a citizen of the World for sure, let’s see when they say she looks Swedish or African 🙂

Hikone Castle was very nice and quick to see but the ticket also gave access to the gardens behind the castle which were very beautiful and relaxing. The town’s mascot is a cute samurai cat called Neko-nyan, be sure to take a picture with it if you go there.

Neko-nyan loves taking pictures with Western tourists!

After Hikone, we finally headed to Takayama, the Japanese Alps. I will hopefully not take that long to write about it so stay tuned and enjoy some more pics meanwhile!

[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”Nagoya,Hikone”]

to be continued…

Two Weeks in Japan, Part 3: Kinosaki Onsen

This article is part of the “Two Weeks in Japan” series and follows Two Weeks in Japan, Part 2: Kyoto.
It’s been a while since I wrote the previous article in this series but I’m determined to continue writing these articles and finishing the series.

Getting a place to stay

Three days after we arrived in Kyoto, we left and headed to Kinosaki Onsen, in Yogo Perfecture. Kinosaki is a small town famous for its Onsen (natural hot springs) and we were in the mood for some relaxation time.
As we got there, we headed for the tourist info center because we hadn’t reserved our lodging in advance… Big mistake. There was an old lady at the counter which spoke very limited English but was very nice and we were told that every place in town was full so we only had a couple of expensive options left. Around 115 €, she pointed to a calculator, after converting the currency. Well, comparing to the ~50 € per person per night we had paid in Kyoto that’s not a big increase I thought so I said okay but right away my “spidey sense” told me I was missing something… The lady hadn’t specified whether it was per person or per room. It was per person. Whoa, now that was a big inscrease so we said we couldn’t take that one. After making another call, she told us the only remaining alternative left was a ryokan called Morizuya for ~75 € a person. That would be the most expensive hotel we had ever paid (and the most expensive in the whole trip) but there were no other alternatives so we took it. After all, the entrance to the hot springs was included so we kind of considered it the “glamour” moment of our trip.

Our room in Morizuya ryokan, in Kinosaki
Our room in Kinosaki Onsen

As you can see in the photo, the room in the Morizuya ryokan turned out to be huge. It was actually bigger than our first apartment in the city we lived in at that time (Coruña). We had our private sink but the toilet was shared. Still, as I have mentioned in previous articles, this wasn’t a problem because everything in Japan is neatly clean.

Going to the hot springs

After dropping our backpacks, we went to a food supermarket for lunch (they had plenty of nice food like tempura and even tables for seating outside) and then it was time to go explore the Onsen! For that purpose, at the ryokan, besides the common yukata (a traditional style, light clothing), both Helena and I were given a (very feminine) wooden handbag (which had a towel inside) and a pair of very Japanese wooden flip-flops. Since it had started raining a bit, we also took a traditional style umbrella. We had a map of the hot springs’ places and the one we were going to was about 5 minutes walking from Morizuya’s so we headed out. Walking with those wooden flip-flops isn’t easy and those 5 minutes turned easily into 10. The rain wasn’t helping either and I kept thinking, the yukata, the umbrella and the wooden handbag and flip-flops… My old University friends would love to see me dressed up like this. Luckily we had left our phones and camera at the ryokan so there are no evidences for an eventual mockery.
We also realized that we were the only Westerners in town so let’s say we felt very special 🙂

Fireworks in Kinosaki
Fireworks in Kinosaki

The public baths are divided in two (for men and women) since people bathe naked. I felt a bit awkward, not precisely because of being naked, but because I was the only Western in there and, to keep it simple I’ll just say that bodies differ a lot. Adults behave like adults and acted natural in the face of difference but kids are always less influenced by society’s etiquette and would stare 🙂
Helena and I met after half an hour at the entrance and she told me she also felt like that but it wasn’t so bad so we went for our next public baths. This second one was a longer walk and short after we left, it started raining a lot… We got there with our feet and part of the yukata soaked.

I liked this second Onsen a lot. It had less people and a larger outside pool. In this pool, the water was a bit too hot for me so I sat on a rock, naked, with only my legs in the water, getting the hot vapors from below and the cold rain falling from above. I will never forget how great it felt!

Traditional japanese breakfast
Me, enjoying my Japanese breakfast

After getting back to the hotel and changing into our clothes, we went outside for dinner. We ended up (mistakenly) entering a Korean place which was expensive and not good at all but after we left, the rain was gone and everybody was out in the street watching the fireworks in the night sky and murmuring sounds of awe.

The next morning we had a traditional Japanese breakfast (needs to be ordered the day before) served in our room. I liked it but Helena didn’t find it very funny to have fish for breakfast.

Traditional japanese breakfast
Helena, not enjoying her Japanese breakfast
After we checked out, the owner asked us where we were heading (the train station) and told us he’d drive us there, no extra costs or anything. People are nice in Japan.

Our original idea was to go north from Kinosaki and spend a day at the beach but it kept raining so instead we headed to Nagoya for an overnight stay, which was more or less half-way through the long trip to our next main destination Takayama.

Since we spent quite some time at the public baths, we didn’t take many pictures in Kinosaki but there you go:
[flickr-gallery mode=”tag” tags=”kinosaki”]

to be continued…