14.3.15

Japan: Day 17 - Takayama. Let the eating begin!!


Today I had an early 2-hour bus ride from Kanazawa to Takayama to look forward to. That isn't me being sarcastic, I've heard that the views during the route are some what spectacular. I'm also leaving Takayama early tomorrow so getting on the road as soon as possible was a priority, ensuring I can make the most of my time in the city. I had breakfast at 6am, packed my bag and headed for the station to get the first bus at 8.20am. The breakfast options here were really good at Trusty so I had a tasty spread to keep me going through the morning. This was the first public transport I'd used whilst in Kanazawa - with my cab experience from the station the other day I thought it'd be best to take the bus, which was a 200-yen fare to the station (£1.10).


The one place I hadn't seen in Kanazawa that I was told to check out was the main entrance to Kanazawa station because supposedly it's pretty grand. And do you know what, for station entrances it's not that bad. I'd also like to thank the lady that was posing for a photo which I kind of jumped in on ... She actually adds something to the picture I feel.
 

Satisfied that I'd seen everything on the list in Kanazawa I headed into the station. The closer I got to the centre of the station the busier it became, which at first I assumed was due to it being rush hour, but there was some sort of launch taking place. There were at least 50 photographers, police dotted throughout, the concourse, promo reps giving out balloons, a gathering of costume characters (which I couldn't resist to get a photo with) and an alien? ... plus a stage within the centre of the concourse  and a tunnel of girls all dressed up in kimonos! I tried to find out what was going on but it was all a bit hectic, there were no logos anywhere and no one spoke English, so with 10 minutes until my bus departed I left, slightly frustrated as to not knowing what the hell was going on!
 

My seat on the bus was reserved thanks to InsideJapan, I was sitting right at the front with a window seat so could make the most of these potentially amazing views. And to be fair ... they were pretty fantastic. About an hour into the trip we started to become surrounded by mountains, the further we drove, the closer these mountains closed in on us until we were making our way up and through them. It was at this point that I saw some of the most beautiful views that I've seen on the trip so far.


And then it looked as though we were passing what seemed to be a very pretty little village in the middle of it all, which had an old school looking little bridge across a snowy river. I was trying to get a photograph through the glass and was failing miserably due to the angles and the sun being in totally the wrong direction when the bus driver turned in to said village, parked up and said "toilet break. 15." With no need to pee I jumped off of that bus and shot over to the bridge to get a few shots before we moved on.  The very small and icy bridge (which rocked as you crossed it, making it feel like a scene out of Indiana Jones ... if he went to Alaska!) lead to an old school folk village. This place was a tourist attraction that I had luckily stumbled across. The place was called Og-machi Gassho-Zukuri Village and was really pretty, something you'd imagine to be in Santa Clause: The movie. I took a few shots of the village, the bridge and river before darting back to the bus. This was a big highlight and definitely made my day.
 

This was the only stop before our final destination: Takayama, which was around half an hour away. The closer we got to Takayama the further away mountains got, the land became flat and the snow started to disappear. By the time we got to the final stop the sun was beating down and it was pretty warm.

The hotel was a straight 5-minute walk from the station and would have been hard to miss seeing that it is the tallest building in the area (tahnks InsideJapan). Again I was way too early to check in but filled out their forms, moved some of my stuff around in my bags (to make my backpack lighter) and then checked-in some of my luggage so I could go explore. The hotel was really nice and was a guest house which basically means you have to take your shoes off before you enter. But it's ok because they provide a locker for your shoes and slippers! But I didn't need to worry about this now because I was off to see what Takayama had to offer.

 

Takayama is a city in the mountains and over the course of the last 300 years has been allowed to develop its own culture due to the high altitude and separation from other areas of Japan, which have kept the area fairly isolated. It's got some real character with its narrow streets and quirky little houses dotted through the hills.

 

My first stop after strolling through the streets was Takayama Jinya. This building was a branch office of the Edo Bakufu (the government) from 1692 to 1868. It's designated as a national historic site and is the only existing building of its kind in Japan. The building comprised of a rice storehouse, law court and interrogation room, an authentic Japanese-style garden from the 17th century and a few guest rooms with some really cool books and old scripts. It had a similar feel to the Samurai house in Kanazawa and was great because you could fully explore the premises without much restriction (except to the gardens which you weren't allowed to enter).

 

From here I crossed Takayama's symbolic bright red Nakabashi bridge on my way to the Old Town.

 

San‐machi Suji is the centre of the old town of Takayama and is still a living part of the city, despite its old buildings and quaint atmosphere. The three main streets of San‐machi Suji (Ichino‐machi, Nino‐machi and San‐machi) are narrow, and lined with stores selling traditional wares, craftsman's workshops, inns and breweries (indicated by a ball made of cedar hanging outside). There's also restaurants serving local delicacies such as soba noodles, and a number of small museums, where the buildings are every bit as interesting as the items on display. There is a calmness in the air and a touch of heritage and history in every shop and house and every street.

 

Every store selling food has samples for you to help yourself to ... so I thought why would I pass up on the opportunity to try some stuff I won't be able to get elsewhere? Only an idiot would miss this chance! So I made a pact with myself (yes a pact with myself ... seeing that no one else is here I have to keep myself in check) to try every - single - sample on offer! This challenge took me a good hour to finish because each store had something different on offer! I can't list them all but there were loads of different sponge filled cakes, mainly tasting of orange, chocolate or a slightly fruity / perfume type 'flavour', there were a lot of things filled with red bean paste or jam, sesame flavoured chews, every different type of flavoured rice cracker (soy sauce, lobster, oyster, sesame, wasabi), a lot of things made from peanut wheat, jelly fruit flavoured sweets (strange texture), super hot nuts and a few others which escape my memory.

 

Now satisfied that I had become the Pokemon master of the sample eating world in Old Town I could carry on with my head held high, victorious and a little full! All in all there were some pretty intriguing flavours on offer and is something I'd definitely recommend if you're ever in the area.

There seems to be a lot of well dressed, fairly over pampered dogs in the region. I've also noticed it quite a bit across Japan, dog owners seem to treat their dogs more like a toddler, carting them around in prams wearing bomber jackets or some sort of hat!

 

There were 3 specialities down these streets that I really wanted to try; the first on the list is Hida beef sushi. “Hida-gyu” (Hida Beef) is the specific name given to beef from a black-haired Japanese cattle breed, that has been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. Hida-gyu is required to have been confirmed and certified as Yield Score of Grade A or B by the Hida Beef Brand Promotion Conference, and have a Firmness and Texture Grade of 5, 4 or 3 as graded by the Japan Meat Grading Association. This beef is something that the area prides itself on and is said to be the tastiest in all of Japan. Down Ichino‐machi there are two places that sell Hida beef sushi and draw in the biggest crowds and queues. One stall had a queue twice as long as the other stall, which was pretty much directly opposite, so I obviously joined the longest queue. (I'd waited this long to try Hida beef sushi, what's another 15 minutes?) There were 4 options on the menu; I went for option C which was a combination of the main 3 - Hida beef sushi (medium rare), 1 piece with ginger and soy sauce and 1 piece with salt, then 1 piece of Gunkan - Hida beef with dried seaweed and fresh egg.





After waiting only 10 minutes I had my 3 piece (a bit different to a 3 piece in KFC!) which were presented nicely on a fish flavoured rice cracker, I went into the little restaurant (which was part of a store selling allsorts of china) and devoured all 3. They were delicious and the beef was ridiculously succulent. I was a bit dubious as to whether the raw egg on top would work, but it really did. They were tasty, but as I find with sushi I'd need about 20-25 pieces to fill me up and at 900-yen for 3 (£4.95) that'd be a costly dinner!

 

On to the next on miy list; the rice cracker. This is a favoured snack in the area and at 250-yen a pop (£1.37) it's not badly priced. There's quite a few vendors selling these down San‐machi Suji, but again there seems to be a particular one that draws in the punters. These crackers are grilled and flipped over time and time again, occasionally being dipped into a pot of thick tamari-soy sauce until golden brown. They're pretty sticky so are given to you in a wrapper. In all honesty this wasn't my favourite thing I'd had whilst out in Japan. It was rather large and the burnt soy sauce gave it a marmite-esc taste - I love marmite, but it was rather dry, kind of like a stale twiglet ... yes, a sticky stale twiglet is how I'd describe the rice cracker! I managed a few bites and then put the rest in a plastic bag to dispose of later on.

 

The 3rd and final local delicasy that was on my list to try down San‐machi Suji was sweet dumplings. These are balls of kneaded rice flour on a bamboo skewer which are basted with soy sauce while cooking, scorched until they are ‘fox red’ and then served ready to eat. A number of stalls were selling these and they all looked pretty similar so I just picked the closest one. The one I chose was a tiny little hole in the wall, you couldn't even see the womans face as you handed over the cash (70-yen, which is 38p!) in exchange for a stick of sweet dumplings. Ok ... firstly, they're not sweet - not sweet at all! They had a similar flavour to the rice cracker as again it's burnt soy sauce that's providing the flavour on the outside, but the texture was strange; quite doughy and really hot. Again, I wouldn't say I'm a fan of these. I managed a couple of balls and again, slid the rest of the stick into the plastic bag to keep the unfinished rice cracker company until I found a bin!


From here I wanted to check out the Shiroyama Park and the Takayama Castle Ruins, which are a long, rather steep walk up the mountain, but I'd just eaten my weight in treats so I thought this could be just what I needed. I took a 'shortcut' to the park which pretty much led me up a garden path! One which hadn't been used recently and was knee deep in snow, but I persisted and eventually got to the entrance of the park. To my disappointment the park and the route to the ruins had been closed due to the snow making it too dangerous. I tried a few different routes round but they were all blocked off. To be fair it was pretty deep so can understand the reason for closing it, so was not at a loss as what to do because this was the last thing on my list for the day. With that I went exploring.

 

The first little gem I came across was this row of torii gates leading to a small shrine. The thick snow made it perfect for taking a few shots as it made the red of the torii gates really stand out.


From here I headed west, again relying on my maps app using the Pocket Wifi from Japan Experience if I ended up getting lost to point me back in the right direction. I was deep into the residential area, passing schools that were filled with kids wrapped up in hats and gloves (no photos of this ... it felt a little weird pointing a camera at a school full of kids), a couple more shrines, a few bridges over a frozen pond and a frozen moat and a cemetry. I've really enjoyed these parts of the days where I can just wonder off and see what I find - sometimes it's been nothing interesting, but other times it's really been worth it.

 

With the sun going down I thought it best to make my way back to the hotel to check-in, grab a shower and then go and find some dinner. I couldn't have chose a better time to walk through the hotel room door ... my 10th floor rooms window faced out over Takayama, facing directly where the sun was setting over the mountains in the distance. I was able to fit my hand and camera out of the side of the window that only opened slightly to take a few shots as the colour of the sky changed as the sun disappeared.

 

Knowing that I'm a fan of a burger, InsideJapan had mentioned previously that I should check this place in Takayama out which supposedly does one of the best burgers in Japan! After testing this highly talked of Hida beef earlier this afternoon and being very impressed this sounded like a great idea. I grabbed my wallet, my phone and Pocket WiFi and started the 15 minute walk to Centre4 Hamburgers (not the catchiest or coolest name I know, but everything else do to with this place makes up for it!)
When it goes dark here in Takayama pretty much everything closes and everybody disappears. The street that the restaurant is on was pretty much the only thing open, so with its light on it was quite easy to find.


To enter the restaurant you had to walk through a closed store which seemed to deal in antiques, which if anything added to the quirkiness of the experience. After going through a door at the back you were all of a sudden outside again! There was a path to the door to the restaurant, next to a little courtyard filled with loads of old school american props - it looked cool. And inside was even better, this tiny restaurant was littlered with retro american signs, bottles, clothing, books and food wrappers - making a funky dining room that feels like the extension of someone's home.


There was room up at the bar for 1, so I took a seat and checked out the menu: home-style burgers, club sandwiches, and chilli and clam chowder. This young Japanese couple are living their dream, welcoming visitors from around the world, offering a menu full of great options - but there was only one option for me; The Special - A Hida beef patty (the beef that I fell in love with earlier in the day), topped with cheese, onion and crisp lettuce in a toasted bun, smeared with mayo. This burger was delicious - everything about it was perfect. The toasted bun, the crispy lettuce, the delicious beef ... I could have ordered it again!


The atmosphere is really amazing and it feels like you're in Aspen, not high up in the mountains of Japan. I'd highly recommend this place if you're ever in the region and are a fan of a great burger, it's the best meal I've had since being out here.


After this I wasn't ready to call it a night (seeing that it's Saturday night after all), so I went for a walk around the empty streets, popped into Macdonalds to grab a chocolate milkshake (the heart wants what it wants, ok!) and checked out some bowling, catching the last round of a local weekly competition and the resulting winners ceremony!


This was literally the only thing I could find open that wasn't a restaurant or a convenience store, and at 10.30pm with a super early morning following travelling to Matsumoto (my penultimate city of my trip - WHERE AS THE TIME GONE!) I headed back to the hotel for a good nights sleep. But it had been a fun packed day. I'd highly recommend Takayama for a 1-2 day visit, such a great atmosphere and it feels a little different to a lot of Japan.
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