January 5, 2009

Takayama, Japan

Leaving Tokyo for Takayama had me a little worried that perhaps we were on a bullet train headed nowhere. Even though the tickets in our hands said Takayama and the printed hotel address said Takayama, more than a few people I had met traveling who had lived in Japan for many years had never, ever heard of Takayama. I remained suspicious, but as we started to wind through the landscape of the Japanese Alps, I didn’t really care where were heading so long as it was going to be as beautiful as what I saw from the window.
We arrived in Takayama, a place that actually exists and is labeled the “little Kyoto” of Japan for it’s preservation of historical charm, and were immediately ushered into the door of our ryokan and into the thousands of rules that exist within. A ryokan is a traditional type of Japanese lodging which has simple rooms lined with tatami mats and sleeping futons on the floor. They typically serve a five to seven course breakfast and dinner and make use of available hot springs by offering separated soaking tubs for men and women.
There is a definite etiquette involved and as this was being explained to us in a welcome ceremony padded with cupcakes and tea, I felt as though they were prepping us for our entrance exams into a secret ryokan cult. There was a box full of robes, vests, jackets and sashes; you had to wear the robe on the premises and it had to be tied in a special way with the “evening” sash, not the “sleeping” sash, and could be layered with the vest for trips outside of the room and the jacket for when you left the building for the baths. There were hall slippers that could not be worn on the tatami mats and tatami socks that could not be worn in the halls and bathroom slippers that couldn’t be worn in either of these places. We had barely put our bags down and I already had so many questions. 
Could I wear my vest outside of the building or only my jacket or both at the same time or only my jacket and not my vest inside the building and was this appropriate for breakfast and dinner or only breakfast or only dinner? Did my robe tie to the right or to the left? Did I have to remember which hall slippers were mine or could I take any pair that fit? Were there sash police?
They needed to know right away what we wanted for dinner the next night and when we asked for a little more time with our decision it looked as though the whole operation might blow.
This was certainly worth all the initial confusion though, because once we got settled, it no longer felt like a grade school classroom, but rather a warm cocoon of free-wheeling-robe wearing-Japanese-love. It was soon time for dinner and we were led to our private dining room where we were fed one delicious and beautifully presented plate after the other while being formally introduced to Hida Beef, a local specialty similar in pedigree to Kobe beef.
During our meal they had dimmed the lights in our room and lined up the sleeping futons covered with puffy blankets and once we had digested on these for a few minutes, it was time to walk across the street to the soaking chambers. The female bath was in a warm, wooden house with a big soaking tub with smooth rocks and waterfalls, a shower deck looking out onto a garden courtyard and a resting room with a suspended tea kettle. Jessica and I just kept looking at each other in disbelief and I knew at that moment that they could have added a hundred and ten more rules for me to follow – I wasn’t going anywhere on that Christmas Eve.
After dreams of St. Nick secretly nibbling edamame, drinking mugs full of sake and leaving me a piece of origami under my pillow, I awoke on Christmas feeling relaxed and ready to explore the town’s riverside markets, hillside temples and quaint streets lined with traditional wooden houses, shops and restaurants. We were dismissed from the ryokan for lunch so we happened upon a restaurant serving up the Hida beef we had liked so much from the previous night and, before long, we started a self-grilling love affair with the local delicacy. It was the prefect compliment to our Sushi Santa Christmas dinner where we toasted, in our robes, to the loved ones we all had lost, the importance of being together and our gratitude at being able to have such a wonderful experience in Takayama. And, as if our loved ones had heard our prayer, when we finished our dinner and looked out the window, we saw the town being gently covered in pure, white snow.


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