A bridge to Japan's past

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I had blown into Takayama about the same time as a typhoon alert. "Be careful!" the English-speaking man at the train station information booth cautioned me. The storm, he said, was headed this way the next day.

Duly warned and with a city map in hand, I rolled my luggage a few blocks to the ryokan, or inn, where I had booked a room.

Among my first views of Takayama: a convenience store, nondescript, blocky commercial buildings and a McDonald's selling McGrand burgers for $3.60. I wondered what people had been smoking when they raved about Takayama as "little Kyoto."

Takayama, I would learn, hides its considerable charms behind an ugly facade. Foremost among its attributes is a beautifully preserved cluster of centuries-old wooden houses, as well as a plethora of temples and shrines.

I had arrived in late afternoon after a journey of almost six hours by train, first the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, then the Limited Express Hida to Takayama, about 330 miles northwest of Japan's capital. At Ryokan Asunaro, I was shown to a big, airy room with bath. My futon was rolled out on the mat-covered floor, and a tea service was set out on a low red-and-black lacquered table.

This city of 97,000 beckoned me for three days in early September last year as I searched for old Japan after five days in the neon and glitz of Tokyo. Takayama, nestled deep in the Japan Alps in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture, clings to vestiges of a disappearing Japan.

The city's isolation has protected it from the relentless march of "progress" that has swept much of the country. It has no airport, and it is not a destination one stumbles upon on the way to somewhere else. It is a compact, manageable city, easily covered in a couple of days on foot or bicycle.

The brunt of the typhoon bypassed Takayama, but it still brought rain and wind so fierce that it blew my windproof umbrella inside-out and caused me to grab a light pole to avoid being swept off the sidewalk.

Venturing out my first night, I happened on Tenpura Ebihachi, a little tempura restaurant on a side street. From my counter seat, I watched the proprietor deep-frying battered morsels of shrimp and vegetables, replenishing my plate as I worked my way through a generous portion. It was fresh and delicious, and the bill, with a bottle of local beer, was $18. Takayama does not have Tokyo prices.

Over dinner, I leafed through brochures I'd picked up at the tourist booth and decided to start the following day at the markets that take place daily from about 7 a.m. until noon on the banks of the Miyagawa River, which bisects the city.

At my ryokan, breakfast was at 8 in a communal dining room. I had just seated myself on the floor when someone came to light a flame beneath my mini-hibachi. This was my introduction to a local specialty, hoba-miso, which is miso (fermented soybean) paste topped with shredded scallions. It's spooned onto a magnolia leaf, set over heat and, when it sizzles, is spooned onto rice. Absolutely addictive — sweet, spicy and sort of nutty.

The 18-room Ryokan Asunaro, once a prosperous farmer's home, is lovely, with its wooden interior and Japanese antiques. But the man and woman who checked me in seemed to be trying to do everything, schlepping the bags as well as serving the meals. They seemed slightly put upon because I had a heavy bag and I asked for an extra towel. The courtyard garden showed signs of neglect. As ryokan experiences go, this one disappointed.


Open-air shopping IT was hot and sunny as I set out for the Miyagawa morning market on the east bank of the river, where women from neighboring farms, aprons tied over their kimonos, had set up booths under white tarps. Their flowers and fresh produce — corn, cabbage, tiny eggplants, beans — were spread out on straw mats. Opposite them, tantalizing smells wafted from food booths.

I lingered so long that, as I crossed the lovely red Nakabashi bridge, I could see that Jinjamae, the second, smaller, market was just closing. So I bought a ticket to nearby Takayama Jinya, the historical government house, where I was offered an English-speaking guide, My, for the next hour at no additional charge.

The government house is largely a 19th century reconstruction of a 17th century complex that once held the region's official offices. As My and I doffed our shoes and walked through the gate, she gave me a brief history of Takayama.

For 300 years, it was governed by a samurai family but in 1692 came under control of the Tokugawa shogunate, a feudal military dictatorship. A representative of the Edo (which later became Tokyo) government was appointed to oversee the Hida area, of which Takayama was the administrative center. The Meiji Restoration, the revolution of 1866 to 1869, ousted the shogunates and led to the creation of a modern state. Once, there were 60 of these buildings in outlying regions of Japan; this is the only one left.

The tatami-matted rooms in the residence of the onetime head officials were nice, but I was more intrigued with the torture room, where miscreants were forced to sit for days on wooden slats holding 88 pounds of stones on their laps. Here too is the bamboo cage in which they were carried to Edo for trial.

In the old town, I strolled Ichino-machi, Nino-machi and San-machi, the three short, narrow parallel pedestrian streets that together constitute the San-machi Suji area, traditional home to sake brewers and merchants and today the centerpiece of visitors' Takayama.

On Ichino-machi I visited Kyodokan, the local history museum, housed in a century-old former sake brewery. (Once there were 56 sake breweries in town; today, there are eight, identifiable by the balls of cedar leaves that hang outside.) The museum's eclectic collection includes a pair of antique rickshaws, abacuses, a wig festooned with multiple hair ornaments and a wooden-block pillow. (The one at my ryokan felt like wood but was actually filled with buckwheat husks.)

If the old town isn't exactly as it was 300 years ago, neither is it Disneyland. Shops and cafes occupy many of the unpainted dark-wood houses with their overhanging eaves and wooden lattice windows, but commercialization is tasteful.

The hand-lettered signs (no neon here) are in Japanese, so I was never quite certain when I parted a doorway curtain (a noren) what I'd find on the other side — a small crafts shop selling local lacquerware, woodcraft or pottery, or perhaps a noodle restaurant.

Twice a year — on April 14 and 15 and Oct. 9 and 10 — the city's population swells to 500,000 as visitors pour in for the Takayama Festival. This event, which dates from at least the 17th century, is regarded as one of the three most important in Japan (together with the Gion Festival in Kyoto and Chichibu Night Festival in Saitama prefecture).

The spring festival, Sanno, is to ensure a good rice crop; the autumn festival, Hachiman, is to give thanks for a bountiful harvest.

I was too early for the festival, so the next best thing was a visit to the Festival Floats Exhibit Hall, where four floats (called yatai) are displayed in an enormously high glass-walled space surrounded by a catwalk.

The floats, some of which are 300 years old, are elaborate creations, as tall as two-story houses, with gilded wood, lacquer, elaborately carved animals and flowers, tassels and mirrors. Today, one float would cost $4 million to build. (A sweepstakes-quality float for the Rose Parade costs as much as half a million dollars.)

In all, there are 23 floats, which are stored in warehouses around the city and rotated into the hall. At festival times, 11 or 12 are pulled through the streets and over the bridges on their wooden wheels, the lead float preceded by dancers in lion costumes. Flutes and drums play, and elaborately costumed marionettes prance atop floats. The floats' bobbing lanterns cast a glow over the old town.


A leisurely visit FROM the exhibit hall, I hurried to Kusakabe Heritage House, a 19th century wooden home considered a superb example of Meiji-era architecture. Craftsmen of the Hida region were so skilled, it's said, that they were called to build the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. The house, once the home of a prosperous merchant family, is now a museum of furniture and crafts. Although I arrived just before closing time, I was warmly welcomed, seated at a small garden table and served tea and a rice cake. No hurry, they insisted, encouraging me — the only visitor — to browse the rooms displaying ceramics, lacquerware and beautiful old wooden chests.

After a night at the ryokan, I'd moved, as planned, to the Hida Hotel Plaza near the railroad station. It's one of those big, overly ornate, commercial hotels with a 24-hour public bath. When I peeked into the bath late one night, dozens of Japanese women stopped in mid-sudsing and soaking to stare.

Laid out on my bed was a pair of pajamas fit for a sumo wrestler. I wondered if, because I'd booked for one, they'd assumed I was a man. (My first choice in Takayama, Ryokan Nagase, does not take single travelers.)

Dinner that night was a comedy of errors, maybe the result of a language gap. In my wanderings, I'd spotted the inviting Japanese-style Ryokan Hoshokaku in Shiroyama Park and asked at my hotel if Hoshokaku served dinner. Certainly, I was told. So a cab delivered me there and sped off, and I walked into a lobby awash with Japanese couples. When I said that I'd come for dinner, the man at the front desk explained politely but firmly that the dining room was reserved for guests because the hotel was fully booked.. Soon an apologetic management-type appeared and began phoning around to find me a place to eat. (By then it was after 8, and Takayama is an early town.) He then summoned a hotel limo to take me to Cresson, sort of a glorified coffee shop. It was less than memorable but had the great virtue of serving until 10:15 p.m. The only customer, I settled for a mediocre steak and salad, which seemed like the quickest and simplest choice.


Don't-miss destinations TWO good reasons to visit Takayama are the Hida folk village on the edge of town and, an hour and 40 minutes away by bus, Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The folk village, which is not inhabited, is an outdoor museum of 30 farmhouses and buildings from the early 17th to early 20th centuries, either relocated or reconstructed, on a beautiful 24-acre site where swans glide along a lake. Shirakawa-go is a real village with thatched-roof houses in the gassho style — so called because the steep pitch of the roof resembles hands folded in prayer. (Gassho means to pray.)

A bus from the train station makes the 10-minute run to the village, which was established in the '50s as a link to a culture that largely disappeared during Japan's postwar economic boom. Once at the village, you meander at leisure, crossing footbridges over a rushing stream and looking at the thatch-roofed houses, some simple, some reflecting the owners' wealth. I was intrigued by the earthen-floored farmer's house with its Buddhist altar and central hearth — and an indoor room for the livestock, the family's most precious commodity. In some houses, artisans demonstrate local crafts.

On my last day in Takayama, I boarded an early bus at the train station for Shirakawa-go. It was a glorious, warm, blue-sky day, and we traveled a scenic road through a series of tunnels and across a wide river before dropping down into the Shokawa Valley for our first glimpse of the thatched-roof houses at the foot of sacred Mt. Hakusan. Crossing the Sho River on the block-long Deai footbridge, I was in the hamlet of Ogimachi. Seen from a distance, the village is magical. Up close, the reality is that modern tin-roofed houses outnumber the 100 or so wooden gassho houses. And there's a speedy mart and a gas station. I reminded myself that Ogimachi, population 600, does not exist just for tourists, as some visitors apparently assume. (Tourists are reminded not to "peek into residences or open doors of the houses.")

The gassho houses were built originally to accommodate both families and sericulture — the raising of silkworms — which was vitally important to Shirakawa-go until the mid-20th century. In one house, I climbed the steps to a multistory attic space where, under a roof supported by huge, hand-hewn wood beams, the worms were once raised.

I learned that the thatched roofs need to be removed and replaced every 25 to 35 years. When this happens, village volunteers pitch in. In this place of isolation and harsh winters, survival depends upon neighbor helping neighbor.

One of the joys of visiting Takayama is that sites of interest are so easy to find — directions are signposted for pedestrians — and, in September, tourists were conspicuously absent. No tour busses clogged the streets.

Another is that getting there is such a pleasure. From Nagoya, the express train follows the path of the Hidagawa River through heavily wooded valleys and above steep gorges. We passed neat tile-roofed houses with vegetable gardens, Buddhist cemeteries and rice fields being worked by men and women. The train is clean and comfortable, with wide windows for viewing.

Only hours from the sound-and-light show that is Tokyo, Takayama could be on a different planet.



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Japan's quiet charms

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, nonstop service to Tokyo is offered on JAL, All Nippon, United, Northwest, Korean, American, Singapore and Varig. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $780.

I took the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, then the Limited Express Hida to Takayama. For more information: http://www.japanrail.com .

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 81 (country code for Japan) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Ryokan Hoshokaku, 1-88 Baba-cho, 577-34-0700, fax 577-35-0717, http://www.hoshokaku.co.jp . Some rooms in this lovely hotel in Shiroyama Park have private outdoor baths. Doubles, with two meals, from $142. Dining room open to the public, by reservation, if not fully booked by guests.

Ryokan Asunaro, 2-96-2 Hatsuda-cho, 577-33-5551, fax 577-34-6155, http://www.yado-asunaro.com . Spacious rooms in lovely century-old house. Only ryokan-style hospitality seemed lacking. Doubles, with two meals, from $123.

Hida Hotel Plaza, 2-60 Hanaoka-cho, 577-33-4600, fax 577-33-4602, http://www.hida-hotelplaza.co.jp . Centrally located hotel is Western style, if the novelty of sleeping on the floor has paled. Doubles from $145.

WHERE TO EAT:

Kyoya, 1-77 Ojin-machi, 577-33-4622. Guests sit at low tables with hibachis and grill specialties such as thinly sliced Hida beef with local vegetables. Dinner entrees from $18.

Tenpura Ebihachi, 41 Aioi-machi, 577-34-6806. Nothing fancy, but the tempura is fresh and good. Set menus from about $18.

Cresson, 46 Yurakucho, 577-32-6976, serves until 10:15 p.m. and, for those who can't face another noodle, has an eclectic menu including pizza and fried chicken. Nothing great, but there is a moderately priced à la carte menu.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Hida Takayama Tourist Information Office at the train station, 577-32-5328, fax 577-33-5565. English-speaking staff.

Takayama Ryokan Assn., 577-33-1181, fax 577-33-9606, http://www.takayamaryokan.jp/english/index.htm .

Tourism Department of Takayama, 577-35-3145, fax 577-35-3167, http://www.hida.jp/english/index.htm .

Japan National Tourist Organization in Los Angeles, (213) 623-1952, http://www.japantravelinfo.com .

— Beverly Beyette


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