Japan Travel Blog April 2015: Takayama Old Town

Oh sakura season, why’d you have to end so soon?

When my Dad and I arrived in Japan, it was already the tail-end of sakura season. In some parts of Japan the season was already over, but here in Takayama we were able to see a little bit of the magic that seems able to stop people on their tracks. It must be because it almost looks like the flowers are actually glowing in the sunlight.

And just like I keep mentioning, this is my first time seeing cherry blossoms, so regardless of the fact that I couldn’t see cherry blossom season in its full glory I’ll take what I can! There were a few trees of different kinds of sakura all over the Old Town so it was a nice hanami session for me as we walked around. It was the only time I could do some actual cherry blossom-spotting during the whole trip. The one below is of the somei yoshino 5-petal variety. So purdyyyyy.

Takayama Old Town is quite atmospheric. It’s considered as one of the old towns in Japan that has been most meticulously preserved from the Edo period. That era spans from the early 1600s to the mid 1800’s, so seeing the state of the houses here is nothing short of impressive! While you’re here it’s quite easy to imagine merchants of olden times rushing from one shop to the next, their straw hats bobbing up and down as they carry their heavy wares on their backs.

The best way for me to share this place with you is probably by bombarding you with photos. Ready?

Considering that more than 400 years have passed since these wooden houses were built you just absolutely have to admire the preservation efforts here. Many of the old houses have been turned into shops and eateries, but there are apparently homes here that are actually open to the public interested in stepping further back into time.

I love how they infused some tiny modern elements to the old houses. Even the UCC cafe around here has maintained the original style and structure of the house while giving the interior a branded touch. I feel like it’s a thing they have mastered here in Japan. The exterior of the house belongs to another time but the moment you step inside you suddenly remember that you’re in the year 2015.

By the way, if you’re a fan of sake, this is the place to get your fill as sake is actually Takayama’s specialty! You can easily spot the sake breweries here in Old Town by looking for the giant round sugidama (balls of cedar branches) hanging outside. I thought I had a photo of the sake brewery but I can’t find it… 🙁

There are a bunch of things you can do around here, including riding on a rickshaw drawn by a man in full old era costume. They look pretty adorable! I think prices go around 5000 yen for a 30-minute ride. I’m not a fan of having a guy drag me around in a heavy wooden cart even if it is their job so this isn’t a thing I tend to go for, but it’s quite a normal sight here in Japan. (Even in Tokyo, which I’ll talk about in a future post.)

Apart from walking around, mostly my Dad and I just shopped around for some interesting food to take home. You can line up for sushi, buy some mochi or dango, and even get some of the famous Japanese soft serves in different flavours.

And yes, some stores (especially the big ones) offer taste tests. Just so you know what you’re buying, because most of the food packages don’t have a word of English on them.

We bought some sakura mochi. Ain’t that a pretty pink flower on top? You’re actually not supposed to consume too much sakura essence or it will be poisonous.

We also bought some Dorayaki, mini cakes with red bean sandwiched in the middle. There are days when I get a hankering for red bean and that day was one of those days. (But what I really wanted was a taiyaki…)

I did a pretty horrible job of remembering the names of the stores we bought stuff from thanks to the excitement about being here. (Also because I can’t read Japanese..?) Many moments along the trip, I almost forgot I was planning to blog about it all as I would find myself quietly absorbing all I can of Japan. The effects this place is having on me!

Anyway, my Dad spotted a live cooking demo of senbei (rice crackers) and it proved to be the perfect way to get us inside to browse and buy a bunch of snacks. Spicy rice crackers with nori are awesome.

Look at these two ladies enjoying their freshly cooked senbei. Seeing them all dressed up really pushes the “wear a kimono around town” travel goal I have for Japan on top of the list.

Travel goals aside, at the moment I’m just happy I have a decent photo of myself in Takayama as proof that I was here! Very rarely do I get a solo picture since I’m always the one holding the camera. 🙂

A few blocks from the Old Town is the Betsuin Shorenji Temple. We didn’t go in though I managed to snap a couple of photos since this was where our tour bus was parked so I though I’d share it here because it’s quite a nice little temple compound. Very quiet and not all crowded compared to the Old Town.

I love this mini stone garden in the middle of the lot.

As a footnote to the day we spent exploring Takayama, I though I’d share with you the ryokan we stayed in for the evening. Thankfully it was only one (super memorable) night because our bedrooms didn’t have any private showers! All the showers were located in the hot spring area which was… well, awkward for me but not for everyone else it seems.

This post was supposed to go up last night but I couldn’t read the name of the ryokan from the picture so I spent some time looking for a ryokan that started with the word 中 (read in Japanese as ‘naka‘), and finally I found it this morning: Nakadaya. It’s a small ryokan (inn) with an onsen (hot spring), which is the typical type of establishment around these parts since it’s a little colder up here in the mountainous area. Hot springs are popular here because they fit the weather perfectly.

It’s pretty cozy isn’t it? Almost all the bedrooms here are in the traditional style. The tatami floors are quite nice. You’re not allowed to wear slippers once you step on them which helps to maintain their cleanliness and quality. It was a great experience sleeping like this. 🙂

Behind this red curtain is the door that leads to the ladies’ onsen. Typically red curtains stand for female and the dark blue cloth in the distance is for the male. Because you’re supposed to be completely naked when in the hot spring, obviously they keep men and women separate.

Here in this particular ryokan they have a period in the late evening where they switch areas because the two hot springs they have here are different– one’s a wooden hot spring and outdoors, the other is a stone hot spring and indoors. Management wants to allow people to experience both hot springs I guess. In the morning they switch back.

If you’re new to the whole hot spring thing like me, you might feel shy about walking around naked in the locker area to the hot spring. I don’t have photos of the hot springs themselves because I didn’t go to the public one, and the private one I went to was so hot and smoky I wasn’t sure if the moisture was going to have a bad effect on my phone/camera so I didn’t risk it. You can see the photos of the hot springs here instead.

It’s quite typical in a hot spring hotel to provide kimonos and normally that’s what you wear when you’re walking around the ryokan, and even while having meals. This was my first time to experience consuming the artful kaiseki, set meals prepared meticulously to highlight a balance in colour and taste of various Japanese dishes. It’s kind of similar to the French degustation, only I’m partial to Japanese food so I vote for this haha! A small serving of quite a number of things makes you quite full in the end.

The people in this ryokan were super accommodating so I thought it would be worth it to give them a shoutout on this post to thank them for their hospitality. 🙂

This post ended up a lot longer than I intended it to be haha!

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