Archive for May 27th, 2008

Ogimachi to Takayama

Tuesday, May 27th, 2008

Shirakawago 白川郷 (Ogimachi 荻町)

An early rise gave me the jump on everybody and I was unlocking the latch to the front door and outside in the quiet of the morning within a few minutes of waking. My morning walk, to the part of Ogimachi that I hadn't seen yesterday, passed only a few of the village's gassho structures. Instead, I passed the valley's largest rice and vegetable farms—large in the sense that they weren't postage stamp sized lots, but rather large enough to justify a small tractor for tilling (but barely large enough.) The sun had not yet fully risen over the crest of the hills to the east, yet the flanks of the hills to the west were brightly lit, and the contrast of light and shadows made a beautiful panorama. Indeed, a lone photographer had stopped his car in the middle of the road and set up his tripod to capture the morning; there were no other cars moving about yet to quarrel over his possession of the road.

I pushed the limits of my time constraint—the 8 AM appointment for breakfast was non-negotiable—walking in an outward arc, hoping to find the way across the Shokawa 庄川 and around to the backside of the village to close the circuit of the morning's jaunt. I made it to the “point of no return”—the highway tunnel that short-cuts through the steep embankment of the river's far side—just before my watch indicated that I would have to decide whether or not to make the return trip back along my outbound path. Oh, how I wanted to avoid retracing my steps!

The tunnel was about a quarter-kilometer long, smoothly curved along a wide radius, and had a safety fence separating the pedestrian sidewalk from the traffic: no charm, but more than enough safety to encourage me in. Only a few cars were driving the highway, and the ones that came solo through the tunnel made a sharp, loud, reverberating, rubber-on-concrete sound: not an echo, and not a Doppler effect; rather, a uniformly loud rumble from entrance to exit.

On the far side of the tunnel, I found myself at the folk village where school children visit and learn about heritage crafts and traditional work-life; the folk-village wasn't yet open, the bus parking lot was empty, and I made my way without delay over the swinging suspension bridge, through Ogimachi's back streets, and back to the ryokan in a perfectly timed arrival for asa-gohan.

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After breakfast we packed, checked out, and stored our bags in the foyer before heading out for a morning of village exploration. I wasn't expecting to discover anything new within the village, since the little that we hadn't seen upon yesterday's arrival, I had just seen before breakfast. Still, I wanted to wander and linger and savor the setting and study the architecture of these very old houses up close. Hiro was less interested in a repeat performance and chose to remain at a shrine for a couple hours of quiet time.

Individual farmers were continuing to plant their rice fields—finishing up really, as most of the young starts had been transplanted into the flooded fields before our arrival. There was a casualness about the farming here that was difficult to interpret: were they not serious or were they just comfortable with the pace of this lifestyle? Witness: a neighbor leaving for the day's work elsewhere, briefly halting his car alongside a field, pausing for a morning greeting with a farmer—the farmer himself stooped over, rice plants in hand, rubber boots treading the mud paddy, now under four inches of water; affable words and carefree laughs are shared. The neighborly chat was so affectionate, it was glorious to witness: were they friends, or family members, or was this village so close-knit that everyone shared the details of everyone else's business?

The entire village and its agrarian life are recognized by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site; significantly, it's not just the quaint houses that are important, but the way of life. This aspect of preservation is so essential: preserving the vitality of the village together with its architectural uniqueness. I'm in awe that it has been achieved with such apparent success, and my best wishes go towards the necessary support for sustaining this authentic livelihood.

My mid-morning walk led me to one of the National Trust houses: these are structures that are no longer lived in and maintained up by the occupants, instead they are discretely boarded up and locked, preserved for future generations. And they are genuine: original timbers, construction without nails, unblemished by electric utility lines and satellite reception dishes. Important no doubt, but lifeless, and frozen in time—unlike most of the village's homes which have flowers in bloom, laundry hanging outside, cats chasing each other through the streets, children playing, mothers worrying, neighbors being neighborly.

The final activity before declaring that I had “done the town,” was to walk the path up to the scenic overlook. The path—a paved road normally closed to automobiles—leads through the woods, climbs up at a steady gradient, and emerges at a mountain plateau that overlooks the village; the single shop at the plateau has a small amphitheater for seating (presumably for some purpose other than just a resting spot for weary hikers like myself) which overlooks the village, now a couple hundred feet below us. My camera's batteries ran out of charge at this point, but the photo-point had been snapped countless times by visitors before me and it didn't suffer for one less picture.

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Our bus out of town departed from the folk-village parking lot located across the Shokawa, which by late morning was teaming with high school students and tour groups and all the day-trippers that we had seen too much of yesterday on our arrival here. Lunch was as snack-bar affair: dango 団子 and koroke コロッケ.

The bus route to Takayama was along highway 156 heading south before turning back along highway 158 heading northeast. We were on one of the last buses to take this route, as the new Tokai-Hokuriku Expressway tunnel will be opened July 6th, 2008 shortening our two hour trip to just 50 minutes. The inaccessibility and isolation of Shirakawago was what preserved its distinctiveness all these centuries; I hope all these transportation and communication improvements won't change what has, until now, been so preciously kept.

Takayama 高山

The guidebooks had led us to believe that Takayama would be every bit as charming as Shirakawago, so when the bus arrived at the outskirts and began making its way through a long series of traffic lights I began to wonder if we had been misled. This wasn't the charming village architecture or the simple rural lifestyle we had just left.

But there was no time to fret about expectations, as the immediate order of business was to contact a distant relative of an American friend, and to arrange a small but important transaction over some used wedding kimonos. Within minutes of arriving at the bus center we had stowed our luggage and were being driven through town by our new acquaintance. First stop, a tiny shop—neglected and almost invisible to the passing populous—that housed stacks of old kimonos, arranged into piles by color. The shopkeeper's midden-like organization left no room for an aisle: it was a tight squeeze for the four of us, with eminent worry that the stacks and stacks of material would topple with an accidental bump of the elbow. Maybe some other visiting foreigner would delight in such a selection, but this time there was nothing here for us.

Our acquaintance drove to a parking garage where the real transaction occurred: a curious venue for Japan where courtesies and formalities are of utmost importance. Transacting business in a parking garage? There we were huddled over the tailgate of the car, unfolding and examining four gorgeous, vibrant, and very expensive wedding kimonos, admiring the artistic design and fine craftsmanship, negotiating terms. But within minutes the deal was struck, and we were off to a nearby tea-shop for the softer side of the transaction, now sealed with an afternoon snack of sweet-bean paste and green-tea ice cream.

Upon returning to the bus center/train station we were confronted with the hassle of trying to retrieve our luggage from one of the country's new high-tech self-service lockers, which confused us: on arrival we had stowed our things in a compartment that had just been vacated (the door was unlocked), but which the computer had somehow recognized as being still occupied by the previous renter. These high-tech lockers have no physical key, instead your personal cell-phone is the identifying crypto-key that let's the computer know who the legitimate renter is—at least that's the way it's supposed to work. But the computer wouldn't accept our credentials, and our possessions remained sealed. My weak Japanese language skills were no match for this, and Hiro's frustration with the technology was mounting as well. The crisis was resolved only with a call to the company's hot-line and the help of an operator who was able to remotely disengage the lock. We won't be using that kind of locker any more!

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Today's accommodations are at Chogoro 長五郎, a ryokan situated southwest of the train station, just far enough from the center of things to feel a bit relaxed, but too far to walk with a backpack and suitcase. A call to the ryokan summoned our transportation—a fifteen passenger mini-tour bus driven by one of the family members—and we were here within minutes, checked-in, and sprawling out on the tatami.

I've been sorting through brochures, ticket stubs, schedules, and my personal guidebook (Internet pages and maps printed and clipped together before leaving home), culling out the papers that no longer serve me. It seems that the unneeded papers don't quite balance out the mementos: the net balance being an overall increase in both weight and dimensions. Still, I've made the mistake repeatedly in the past of discarding too ruthlessly, and ending up without mementos and without memories. And at this point in my life, memories are becoming important. (If a tree falls in a forest and nobody remembers it, did the tree ever exist?)

This place has two baths which alternate at set times, switching from men's to women's, so that each sex can experience the newer, nicer facility: an indoor/outdoor combination where the outdoor bath overlooks the neighborhood below and the city in the distance—a typical arrangement for this type of place, but a bit sparse in terms of aesthetics.

Dinner, served in a grand room that probably could seat more than thirty people, was attended solely by the two of us and a solo traveler. The room's veranda overlooked an enclosed courtyard garden with mature plantings and well-maintained grounds; the usual paraphernalia of pumps and pipes for the koi pond weren't as prominent as at many places, and without those distractions the setting was closer to the ideal than we've often seen. The winter-time storm doors had been completely removed from the veranda, leaving a wide expanse between the grand room and the garden with only thin panes of glass separating us; the eight or ten inner sliding shoji having been tucked away today, left the view unbroken except for the cedar posts supporting the header.

Dinner was masterfully prepared, the right amount of everything, a balance of tastes and colors, and all served on traditional tableware: fish on rectangular fish plates, tsukemono in pinch pots, rice in classic pedestal-bottomed bowls, vegetables in round-sided bowls. A filling dinner to cap a full day.

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Ogimachi to Takayama: two hours by express city bus.
Bus center to downtown: five minutes by car.
Station to ryokan: ten minutes by shuttle.
Chogoro ryokan 長五郎 only ¥5715 per person with dinner and breakfast. Our best deal of the trip.
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