Behind me, I could hear the train departing. About four and a half hours earlier, I had set out from bustling Tokyo Station. Now, I was virtually the only person at the ticket gate. This was fortunate as I struggled to coax my suitcase through the turnstile; the burgeoning bag bouncing off the barriers like a bowling ball down a bumper-clad lane.
My stubborn suitcase finally freed, I stepped out of the station into the sun-drenched courtyard and took a deep breath of fresh mountain air. A large tourist information center sat there in front of me, welcoming visitors in a multitude of languages to the one of Japan's most enchanting locations - Hida Takayama. Home of the famed thatched roofs of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this secluded region provides a glimpse into the pristine past, a snapshot of Japanese tradition with cultural artifacts wholly unique to the area.
This open secret has been drawing greater numbers of foreign tourists to this sleepy city with each passing year.
"I wasn't too impressed with Tokyo," said Sherri Bethelmy. She was standing outside the station, as well, waiting for her brother to return from the information center.
"I'm from New York. A big city is a big city. Big deal," she said, adding that she wished she had set aside more time for Takayama. She would only be staying for a couple of days.
Her brother, Bruce Nachbar, after returning from the information center, echoed her enthusiasm.
"I saw something on Shirakawa-go on television and thought, 'What can I combine this with?'" he said. He decided that while he was in the area, he would also visit Nagoya for some skiing before heading back to Tokyo.
I thanked them for their time and went to collect some informational materials of my own. As I looked over maps in seven different languages and the variety of resources present, I realized that travelers like Sherri and Bruce were far from the exception: they were becoming the rule. My very presence in Takayama was proof that more and more tourists are heading off the beaten path and opting for more rural and remote locales.
No one was more keenly aware of this than Naoko Wani and Yuki Asakura, the encyclopedic members of the Takayama Municipal Office Tourism Division. I met them at the reception for tour participants held at the Hida Hotel Plaza that afternoon. Ms. Wani and Mr. Asakura were charged with showing a bus-full of various members of the travel industry around their beautiful city. And so, once luggage had been deposited in rooms and pleasantries exchanged, we were whisked off to our first destination.
After a mere 15 minutes on the bus, our entourage found itself at Chanoyu no Mori. Literally, "Tea Water Forest," it is a name that seems apt when viewing the light brown exterior of the complex.
Once inside, an air of tranquility enraptures the patron. Pristine and warmly lit, the glowing earth tones of the museum's interior only serve to emphasize the iridescent cups and kettles that shine like the eyes of some antediluvian insect from within their meticulously cleaned glass cages, fitting since this tamamushi style translates to "jewel beetle." Here recent works by living national treasures--a cup crafted by Toyozo Arakawa in 1955--mingle aside the ancient--Obeshimi, a Red Raku tea bowl made by Raku Chojirou the First over 400 years ago. In total, the museum is home to approximately 1,600 various cups, dishes, scrolls, screens and figures.
Entrance into the museum only is 1,000 yen for adults and 600 yen for children. For additional 800 yen, guests can enjoy Japanese tea ceremony at the adjacent Tea Room Zuiunan with tea ware made by prominent artisans. For an additional 1,300 yen, guests can use tea ware crafted by living national treasures. To participate in tea ceremony, the cost is 1,000 yen and 1,500 yen, respectively. A combination ticket for the art museum and the neighboring festival museum costs 1,800 yen. Group rates are available. Reservations are necessary only for those guests wishing to partake in Japanese tea ceremony. A room can also be rented in the tea room. Prices range from 10,000 yen for a half-day to 35,000 yen for a full-day, with price also varying depending on the room chosen. Reservations must be placed at least one week in advance. A trip to the tea room pulls guests past the velvet ropes and liberates patient pottery from its pristine prison. After a bowl of tea and a couple of sweets, we were back on the bus and on our way to one of the world's most unique towns.
Chanoyu no Mori - Chanoyu Art Museum / 茶の湯の森 - 茶の湯美術館
506-0032 Gifu, Takayama, Chidori 1070 / 506-0032岐阜県高山市千鳥町1070
Hours: Normal operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The facility is closed on Wednesdays. The museum may close for a time during the winter holiday.
Access: Take the Matsuri no Mori-bound bus from Takayama Station. Parking is available for 50 average-sized cars, with additional parking possible at the neighboring Matsuri no Mori parking area (880 car limit).
Tea Room Zuiunan / 茶室 瑞雲庵
Normal operating hours are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The facility is closed on Wednesdays. The tea room may close for a time during the winter holiday.
It was another hour or so before we found ourselves at UNESCO World Heritage Site Shirakawa-go. First, we walked to a precipice overlooking the quaint town. Countless photographs, many of which grace the souvenirs and postcards being sold nearby, have been taken from this vantage point. Nonetheless, the stunning view of the valley below compels even the jaded tourist to reach for their iPhone and snap a shot or two.
Hiroshi Maruyama is one purveyor of the aforementioned postcards. He said he too has noticed an increase in tourists, citing the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, running from Toyama to Matsumoto, as a major reason for the increase in visitors. After looking over a few more items for sale, I headed down to the town itself.
As you walk down the sloping pathway into Shirakawa-go, the views of the valley unfold like a lotus blossom. Perfect moments seem to hold their breath while you gaze on a thatch-roofed house framed between two trees or a stone pathway leading through the grass. Each new glimpse is a masterpiece, like a Kabuki performance where any given second should resonate with a singular beauty. It was easy to see why this locale has garnered such praise, though its road to fame was also rather rocky.
Shirakawago Ogimachi Gassho-style Hamlet was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Its de facto symbol is the iconic Wada House, an Important National Cultural Property with clay walls and a garden. Constructed in the Edo era, the three-story building housed bedrooms, guestrooms, a Buddhist altar and a main hall. It also housed the village leader. Despite all of this, it almost didn't achieve its venerable status. There was this little issue of authenticity. The actual building had been repaired and the much-touted roof had been replaced numerous times. UNESCO had originally felt that that called the authenticity of the structure into question, making it more replica than relic. However, proponents were able to point out that even though the elements of the building were not "authentic," the style of creating them was an "authentic" time-honored tradition worthy of recognition. The judges were convinced.
The building now serves as a modest museum, displaying roof-thatching tools, snowshoes, lacquer ware and other items traditionally used in the area. And though there is no longer any village elder to be found at Wada House, it is also home to another, unexpected inhabitant - worms.
Silk worms, to be specific. Another time-honored tradition is the practice of sericulture in the upper floors of the homes. Even now, silk worm larvae are incubated in order to produce silk, a sight that thrilled the children who had been lugged along by their parents for a cultural excursion.
Not that they could escape from the education for long. The area is overflowing with fascinating facts, many of which the longtime area resident and current tour guide, Eiji Nishimura, regaled me with. For example, how do they make those intricate roofs?
"Everyone gets together every three years to make the roofs. In this way, the children can learn the practice, the village can come together and the buildings can stay in top shape," Nishimura said. "It is good for this place and the surrounding lifestyle."
The roofs, which are designed to withstand the extraordinary snowfall that blankets the valley, are indeed a communal effort.
"With 150 people, 300 including all the helpers holding the ladders, and so on, a roof can be finished in a single day, assuming the gathering of materials and other preparations have been completed beforehand."
Nishimura grew up in the more mountainous region just removed from Shirakawa-go, but his home was gassho-zukuri.
"There is nothing like it," he said, adding that the fresh air was the best part. "But winter was cold," he said with a grin.
Speaking of cold, while we had been talking, we had made our way outside of the Wada House, and stopped right in front of Yukinko, an ice cream and snack shop.
It was time for a treat.
As she handed me my ice cream, Sato Chitose, who ran the stand along with her husband, commented that she too had noticed an increase in visitors, especially from Europe.
Breathing in the fresh air, listening to the serene silence, looking over the peaceful surroundings, I could not help be a bit torn. I was reminded of my trip two-years ago to Yangshou, China. Near Guilin, it also achieved a level of notoriety for its Dr. Seuss-inspired karst hill landscape. With that notoriety came tourists. A lot of tourists. The town was virtually overrun with them, along with the accompanying bars, guesthouses and tour guides, many less than reputable. Yangshuo's boon proved a double-edged sword: On one edge, an influx of money and publicity. On the other, a mob of tourists that threatened to destroy the very source of that boon, the pristine state of its natural and cultural landscape. Would Takayama meet the same fate?
I put the question to Naoka Wani from the tourism division while we finished our respective ice creams. She seemed keenly aware of the risk-reward factor of marketing a town like Takayama. She mentioned, for example, that from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. no large buses are allowed through the village, a measure taken to help prevent the small community from being plowed under by tourists and transportation.
As we got back on one of those meddlesome buses, I felt privileged to have been a visitor in this living, functioning museum. I also felt confident that Takayama would succeed where other towns had failed, successfully sheathing the double-edged katana of tourism.
Takayama Municipal Tourism Board / 高山市役所商工観光部観光課
501-5627 Gifu, Takayama, Ono County, Shirakawa Village, Hagicho / 501-5627岐阜県高山市大野郡白川村萩町2945-3
Phone: 0576-96-1013 Fax: 0576-96-1716
Shirakawago / 白川郷
997 Ogi-machi, Shirakawa Village, Ohno-District, Gifu Prefecture 501-5627 / 501-5627岐阜県大野郡白川村大字荻町997番地
Admission: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed on occasion.
Access: About 50 minutes from Takayama Station by express shuttle bus via a circuitous route of tunnels and mountainous paths.
The next day brought a hastily devoured breakfast before heading back on the road. This time we plowed through the town's morning market, where we greeted by bottles of apple juice, various delicious treats and the ubiquitous "sarubobo," the plush doll that serves as Takayama's souvenir ambassador and makeshift mascot. The subsequent stroll through the old district conjured up memories of Gion in Kyoto. However, there were markedly less people competing for photo ops and window shopping. Often I had an entire street to myself. Enveloped by quiet and weathered wooden facades, it was easy to forget that only yesterday I had boarded one of the world's fastest trains to get here. That seemed like science fiction amidst this time-slip setting.
Our group eventually wound our way to Hodosatsu Hojusan Kioji. This temple sits on meticulously maintained grounds, overlooking part of the city from its hilly perch. From there, Hidenari Nakai, a monk at Kioji has noticed some changes.
"English signs have increased in the old town," Nakai said. He also mentioned that he does come across the occasional sightseer now, but he said the people he has come across, including those that visit Kioji, have always been very respectful.
One attraction that draws people of all backgrounds to Kioji is "Zazen," a type of seated meditation. For 500 yen, you can practice Zazen for 40 to 60 minutes. Walk-ins are accepted but available space is not guaranteed. It is recommended that people considering visiting to call ahead at least two to three hours before arriving. Even though the facility can hold about 80 people, it can easily be filled up with people, ranging from international university students dabbling in meditation to junior high school students on a class trip away from their 3DSs and PSPs. Also funerals and other events are held in the temple complex, which can leave no one available to oversee visitors seeking a Zazen sampler.
Hodosatsu Hojusan Kioji / 豊洞察 宝樹山 喜応寺
560-0834 Gifu, Takayama, Soyujimachi / 560-0834岐阜県高山市宗猷寺町
Phone: 0577-32-4516 Fax: 0577-32-4560
English pamphlet on Zazen available: (Soto Zen: The Practice of Zazen)
Once I was able to feel my legs again, I hobbled back to the bus. After receiving some more information from Wani-san and Asakura-san, I found myself outside of another popular stop in Takayama, Hida Folk Village.
When you enter you first are struck by the beauty of Goami Pond waiting just inside the gate. Across the pond, visitors can spy The Wakayamas' House. It was built in 1751 in Shokawa Village and moved after the completion of Miboro Dam submerged the area. Its sharply slanted roof and room layout are representative of Shokawa architecture during that era. It also was a silkworm breeding ground, with the second and third floors dedicated to the industry. Another dot on the village map is The Tanakas' House, built in the early 1700s is a typical farmhouse, giving visitors today valuable insight into how a farming family would have lived centuries ago.
For those who prefer a more interactive vacation, one of the most exciting aspects of a trip to Hida Folk Village is the plethora of hands-on activities. There are currently ten different classes available, usually taking about an hour to complete. For 1,300 yen (everything included) visitors can try their hand at creating any one of a variety of unique items, from chopsticks and handkerchiefs to glass art and kaleidoscopes. Classes are subject to availability based on number of participants. Classes usually consist of 10 to 50 participants, though this varies based on the item being made. At least ten participants are required to hold a class.
Of course, the star of the show is the one-and-only sarubobo. What better way to commemorate your trip then to bring home your own lumpy, misshapen sarubobo? Much like a child, you will cherish you sarubobo all the more for his unique qualities. And if you don't you can buy another one at the gift shop.
Hida Folk Village / 飛騨の里
1-590 Kamiokamoto-machi, Takayma, Gifu Prefecture / 岐阜県高山市上岡本町１丁目５９０
Adults are 700 yen. Elementary and junior high school students are 200 yen. Group rates are available. The village has "light up" from 5:50 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. in the winter. A special 300 yen entrance fee is required (100 yen for children). 300 yen for parking. 1,000 yen for large buses.
As I headed back to the hotel, the thought of leaving Takayama filled me with an unexpected tinge of melancholy. I had only been here for a brief time, but it was so welcoming. The vendors. The monks. The artisans. The very town itself. As I looked down at my new friend, a bright red sarubobo, I sensed he too was sad to be leaving his ancestral home, but I assured him (and myself, as well) that we would surely come back to visit again.Plan Your Trip!