Monday, June 4, 2012

EPIC JAPAN POST, Part Two

Walking through old town.
Takayama Spring Festival

One of the things Takayama is famous for are its two yearly festivals - one held in the spring, and one in the autumn. Each festival has a unique set of floats that are carefully kept and tended to (and held in large climate-controlled buildings when not in use), and brought out for the festivals. These floats are beautiful and intricate, with carvings and paintings, and golden accents. They are from the 17th century, so while they are well kept up, obviously great care is taken that nothing bad happens to them.


So the fact that it was raining on the first morning of the Spring Festival was kind of a letdown, since the parade of floats through the city happens early that day, and they don't bring the floats out in the rain, for obvious reasons. But we were still able to grab some umbrellas and stroll through the old portion of the city (with buildings that date from the Edo period, and have not been changed since), and explore the shops and sights.

Ancient gutters carved into the stone.
Takayama is a fun place to shop and look around. On the surface, you do get a little bit of a "theme park" feel to this place, as it's almost TOO perfect....but then again, I get the feeling that it's just like that. There's the city proper, with it's city buildings, apartments, train system, etc. But there's also the "Old Town", which consists of several city blocks of beautifully preserved Edo-period buildings (1600 to mid 1800s) housing everything from shops to homes, art galleries to restaurants.  The streets are narrow by modern standards (but considering how small Japanese vehicles are, this is not a problem) and are flanked by 18 inch deep gutters on either side (to deal with rain and snowmelt from the mountains, I assume) which were always flowing with clear water. Though every door has a little bridge that goes over the gutter, much remains unguarded, and I can only imagine the broken ankles that could result if you were not paying attention.

Udon. I could eat this every day.
We took the opportunity to warm up from the rainy day in an udon restaurant - for those who are unfamiliar, udon is a type of noodle: thick, chewy and long. They're often served in a big bowl with broth and various toppings and accoutrements. I ordered mine with greens, daikon, and bonito flakes (transparently-thin shavings of smoked and preserved fish).  I wish this place was in my town at home, because I would eat there ALL the time.

Seated at Kakusho.
Speaking of food, after a day of shopping and sightseeing, we celebrated the clearing of the rainclouds with a beautiful, elegant dinner at the restaurant Kakusho.  This restaurant, like much of old town in Takayama, is seated in a building and garden that are over 200 years old, and has been preparing traditional meals for 12 generations. Kakusho is another kaiseki restaurant, but the difference here is that the meal we had is a type known as "Shojin-Ryiori", which is a multicourse meal that is entirely vegetarian. This was one of my favorite meals - not only was the house, garden, and food incredibly beautiful and meticulously crafted, but the owner of the restaurant was a very courteous and welcoming woman, who happened to speak very good English, and helped us learn about the food and the history of the restaurant.  We arrived early evening, and left in darkness, walking through a quiet section of town to eventually arrive where crowds were forming on either side of the street.

A plate from dinner - so pretty and delicious!

The rain had cleared up, which meant that the 400 year old floats could be stuffed with traditionally-dressed children playing musical instruments, hung with dozens of lanterns, and pulled by strong male volunteers through the streets of Takayama.  We stood and watched the 7 floats creak by, each similar but different, with gilded details, feather tassels, huge paintings, and enormous wheels. At one point, Shinji lead us to a small street where we stood back behind the ever-flowing gutters, watching a float come to a stop, while costumed lion dancers carrying large wooden masks with clapping jaws, danced around the float. Then, as if by some  unseen cue, everything stopped, and all the men standing around in the crowd began to sing. Everything was totally silent, save for their voices. When they finished, the float began its retreat until it would emerge again next spring.

Men pulling a float - they looked very heavy.
We followed the floats' path for a while, then ducked into Coffee DON to warm up with hot drinks, and talk about what we'd just seen. The next day would be our last morning in Takayama, and then it was off for a holiday of sorts, in the beautiful resort town of Gero.

There was about an hour before we left for Gero the next morning, and I was determined to see some shrines. At the far end of town is a section with a grouping of old shrines and temples, so we hoofed our way up there, and came across a quiet, serene old cemetery in a grove of pine trees. At the top of the hill was a shrine guarded by moss-covered stone lions (one had money in his mouth, so I fed him some yen and took his picture). We prayed at the shrine like we had been taught days before, and walked back down the hill.

Salad with chunks of incredible sashimi!
On the way to Gero, we stopped at a restaurant serving what  must be the greatest guilty pleasure food in all of Japan: broiled unagi (freshwater eel).  I'm not sure of the name of this place, but basically the man in the kitchen selects an eel for you out of a tank of water, takes about 10 seconds to kill, butterfly, skewer, and place it over hot coils, and when it's done cooking (and after being basted in a secret special sauce), it's chopped into sections, put in a box with seasoned rice, and brought to your table. So delicious. I should also mention that in addition to the eel, we had a fresh salad with greens and amazingly tender sashimi, and a clear soup with one object floating in it. That object was the heart of the eel I was about to eat. I was told it was good for one's health. That was all the encouragement I needed. Sorry, Mr Eel.


Want some noooooowwww!
In Gero, we arrived at Suihouen, which is a Ryokan - a traditional style of inn that often incorporates a series of public and/or private onsen (hot spring baths). They're places you go to relax and visit, soak your muscles and brain in near-boiling, exquisitely clean water, and eat fancy, beautiful food. When we got there, we were each shown to our rooms, luggage stowed, and told to undress. Each of us was given a yukata (a casual cotton kimono) and tabi (split-toe socks) to wear, which is what everyone staying at the inn wears everywhere inside - in the hallways, the lounge, and the restaurant. Your shoes are left at the front door, and you don't see them again until you leave, as most of the inn, including your room,  is floored with delicate (and heated!) tatami mats.

Look at these jerks.

The Japanese idea of hot baths is different from the western one - for starters, no swimsuits allowed. The idea is that swimsuits against the body are not really super clean, and because the water is so pure, you want to make sure you don't bring anything dirty into it, for the sake of the other bathers. There are showering stations right beside all the baths, where, after you strip down in the dressing room, you use the bottles of soap and shampoo to thoroughly clean every inch of yourself, then follow with a good rinsing from a wooden bucket over your head, before grabbing the tiny "modesty towel" they give you, folding it up and sitting it on top of your head, and getting in the bath. We had access to a private rented bath, which had a lock and could be used by anyone in our party, for privacy. But the inn had two public baths - one on the ground floor and one on the roof - and unless you opt for the special suite, that's what you do when you go visit a ryokan. I tried out our private bath (which was insanely hot; my muscles turned to jelly about three minutes in) before dinner, but wanted to see what the rooftop bath was like (I think I was the only one in our party to go to the public bath, ha). It was nighttime by the time dinner had digested to the point where a hot soak sounded like a good idea, and I went upstairs. It was really nice - I had the place to myself, and half-floated in hot spring water under the night sky, with the mountains to my right and the  lights of the city to my left.
Wasabi.
Drawing a gift for the inn's owners
Dinner at Suihouen was another elaborate multi-course affair, this time with hot cooking burners in the middle of our table. Hida beef (a regional specialty of very fatty marbled steak) was cooked in the local style with a seasoned miso called Hoba miso, on top of a leaf with mushrooms and vegetables. Exquisitely prepared fish and vegetables, and a very beautiful plate of sashimi (red snapper, squid-wrapped salmon, and tuna) was served with gold-leafed roe and freshly-grated wasabi. This was the first time I'd ever had real wasabi - the green putty that you get at most asian restaurants and markets is often either dehydrated and reconstituted wasabi, or in some cases, not even wasabi root at all. The way  you're supposed to grate it is by rubbing thumb-sized chunks of the root over a wooden paddle that has an attached piece of shark's skin. The scales on the skin act as a sort of microplane and shave bits of the wasabi into a paste. Super green, pungent and fresh. So good with the raw fish.

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