Archive for May 28th, 2008

Takayama and Okuhida

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

Hida-Takayama 飛騨高山

Yesterday's introduction to Takayama included a brief visit to Sanmachi 三町, a designated preservation district where unpainted, wood-sided shops of a bygone era are protected from the mish-mash of neon, talking signs, and brash commercialization so ubiquitous elsewhere in modern-day Japan. And that brief visit left me with a mixture of feelings: an immediate distaste coming from the notion that beyond the traditional architecture was another “must see” tourist trap selling manufactured art and ready-made geegaws; and yet at the same time a curiosity to see what it was really all about. What was genuine and what was façade?

Today's free time was long enough that we could choose to do several things before catching the bus out of town. I was still ambivalent about devoting much time to Sanmachi, and chose instead to take the walking tour along the town's outer perimeter. My planned itinerary was to be Shiroyama Park, the Higashiyama Temple walking course, and if time allowed, the Kitayama walking course. Hiro decided to plan her own separate itinerary for the day and we were to meet at the bus center at two o'clock.

My planned itinerary was abandoned within minutes. The morning market at Jinya-mae was in operation: thirty or so stalls selling homemade pickles, fresh garden produce, home canned jellies, and a few saru-bobo—Takayama's mascot doll, made from red felt, always in the same pose: arms and legs outstretched exclaiming something, but what? The market was honest and the few tourists up and about at the time mingled with the otherwise mostly-local gathering of shoppers. I resisted the temptation to buy a package of the largest, softest umeboshi 梅干 I have ever come across: I've been over-doing my salt intake these past few days, and these notoriously salty plums would have been more than I needed.

The morning market is set up directly in front of Takayama Jinya, which was my first spur of the moment diversion. The tour of Takayama Jinya turned out to be the best unplanned event of the day: I stayed there for over two hours.

Takayama Jinya 高山陣屋 was the local government complex for collecting taxes, administering justice, and enforcing the laws of the Edo-based Tokugawa clan. From 1692 until 1868, this complex was the seat of authority for the Hida province, with twenty-five successive head officials in a 192 year period overseeing the day to day functions of the government. Today it stands intact, about half of the buildings having been restored in 1996, while the other half remains authentic: portions having been constructed in 1816, 1832, 1840 and 1841. The rice storehouse dates to 1600; rice was the commodity used for the payment of taxes, so this storehouse was something like our Fort Knox.

For me the attraction of Takayama Jinya was manifold: architecture, history, design, aesthetics. Immediately upon entering the front gate I was drawn to the strength and simplicity of the white-washed exterior walls, the unfinished wood panels, the level grounds, the pea-stone gravel approaches. From the outside, the roof-lines are the principal clue to the complexity of the interior building layout: the gable ends of the various compartments meet at right angles interlocking and integrating the whole building complex.

Just outside the main building entrance is an antechamber used in its day as the waiting place for citizens seeking an audience: it is unfurnished, serving merely as a rain and sun shelter, housing simple wooden benches. At the entrance, volunteer ushers today respectfully ensure compliance with the no-shoes rule—not uncommon for places like this, but unusual in the provision of plastic bags for carrying your shoes through to the end of the prescribed route. Once within, today's visitors are shown into the formal reception hall, elegantly floored with tatami mats, and beautifully adorned with wallpaper decorated with a repeating pattern of the blue and white, sea wave-like Tokugawa family symbol. Adjacent to the reception is a longer room, with better outdoor lighting, used by the secretaries and scribes and accountants who, seated on the tatami, carried out their daily work on low tables.

Beyond the administrative offices, the self-guided tour route brought me into a small kitchen. This facility probably had been used, in its day, to prepare tea and other necessaries for the bureaucrats. It had its own separate exterior door for deliveries. Remarkably, there was an indoor sink as well as a clay-fired stove. The small details of this room captivated me: the security latches on the door and windows, the kugikakushi artfully hiding nails, and the jizai-kagi used to adjust the height of pots suspended above the floor pit fireplaces.

The most elegant part of the complex was the newly re-created living quarters where the head official resided, where rooms for his wife were nearly equal in size, where the maids were housed, and where the main kitchen was situated. Tatami of the finest craftsmanship graced every part of the building, leaving me with an impression of grace and beauty seldom found in such heightened fashion.

Attached to the head officials room was a ceremonial tea room where matcha would have been served with formality and solemnity. It was closet-sized, accessible by a low, half-height doorway entered only by a person already sitting seiza-style (kneeling with legs folded under thighs, and resting on heels), and of such tight dimensions overall as to impart an immediate sense of intimacy between the two individuals sharing the space for tea. I was struck by how profoundly such a space could bind people, and by how easily such a simple act as a sharing a ceremonial bowl of matcha could be the binding medium: agreements sealed in this way must have needed very little help from scribes and secretaries for enforcement.

The large kitchen in the rear was the most spacious room in the building, having a double-height, open beamed ceiling, and giving me the sense that here was the counterpart to the solemnity found elsewhere: this kitchen must have been humming constantly with produce deliveries, food preparation, smoky stoves, boiling pots, outbursts of emotions kept in check everywhere else, whispered schemes and intrigues left unspoken in the offices, and food, food, food, fueling the whole operation. Three clay-fired stoves were at the center of it all; sinks and preparation counters lay around the perimeter; and a large unfloored storage area off to the side could have stored roots and shoots and grains for months of off-season use. Having been recently reconstructed, the room was all too clean; but with just a little imagination, puffs of smoke, a greasy film over everything, and a complement of mice and crickets stealing the stores, the real kitchen emerged in my mind.

The final part of the tour was a walk through the rice storehouse, where each storage room was refashioned into museum space housing historical exhibits. Compared to the offices and residence quarters, this separate structure had no elegance at all; but when I consider that it has been standing for 408 years, I'm in awe. The height of the ceiling was probably six or eight meters above the floor, creating very spacious compartments for storing rice. I can only guess that bumper crops were held over for lean years, perhaps even for multiple years at a time. Protection from rain and fire and earthquakes must have been paramount, otherwise how can we account for it remaining intact?

The historical exhibits failed to captivate me the way the clean architecture of the other building had, my inability to read very much Japanese kanji was the chief impediment, but my lack of knowledge about the period in general made it difficult to put the exhibits into context. The only exception to this was the very first exhibit, which was composed of maps depicting the area and identifying the owners of each piece of outlying land. One map in particular I spent some time sketching out for future reference trying to remember the color scheme and the flow of lines: rivers were sketched in yellow; daimyo identifiers in red, oblong-round rectangles; hills in black stroked hachures washed in shades of green; road and paths in simple black lines; and bridges of three types: three or four simple parallel strokes for foot-paths, a larger variety of that same pattern for roads, and a curved arch-framed set of strokes for the sturdiest of bridges—all of them drawn in red ink.

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Leaving Takayama Jinya I crossed Nakabashi, the “middle bridge” spanning the Miyagawa 宮川, and was at the foot of Shiroyama Park in minutes. Shiroyama Park 城山公園 rises abruptly out of the valley, a steady climb to the top where for a brief few years Takayama Castle was situated. The entire park is now covered in a dense overgrowth of bamboo, and I wondered if it was a natural regrowth of the hill's native vegetation, or if it simply got out of control after the castle grounds had been cleared of its virgin growth. What would this park look like if it was well tended?

As it was, the lack of maintenance in the park made it suitable mostly for dog walkers and mid-morning strollers. No wildlife stirred, not even birds. It was something of a green desert, at least the way I experienced it.

The climb down from the top of the park was steady, leading to a playground occupied by hundreds of young school children playing organized games. Off to one side, a group of young mothers with their toddlers had set up picnic blankets to enjoy their mid-day lunch. Here was the life of the park. I would have lingered to soak it in, but I was so conspicuous that I was self-conscious of being an intruder.

The eastern exit from the park leads through a residential neighborhood and on to the beginning of the Higashiyama walking course. This proved to be another disappointment as the course was not the tree-lined walking path I had envisioned, but was merely a walk through the neighborhood, with signs pointing to the entrance of each temple. Furthermore, each entrance was at the bottom of a long series of steps climbing up the hill. Since I didn't relish the thought of climbing up and down stairs for each of the twelve temples, I abandoned the prescribed course and struck westward.

As I paced my progress towards the train station, I had the chance luck to pass the city library, a building of unique architecture, looking like it had been transplanted from the Philippines: two stories high; long in one dimension and short in the other; closely spaced windows of double-hung sash appearance; striking color contrasts of soft melon-green accents against a creamy white base. It was so uncharacteristic for Japan that I stopped for several minutes to take it in.

The the walk along Kokubunji Street from the library to the station was pseudo-modern 70's-style Japan, a bit aged, but well populated with shops: stationary, hardware, omiyage, snacks, etc. I grabbed a late on-the-go lunch, first stopping to eat one of the famous Hida-beef buns—fresh, light, sweet-glazed bread enveloping a salty, beef-and-gravy center; well deserved fame—then picking up koroke, yaki-tori, and dongo at separate street vendors: the transactions were half the fun; standing in the crowds eating, the other half. My pacing was perfect, and I arrived back at the train station/bus center promptly at 2 PM to meet Hiro.

Okuhida 奥飛騨

Our destination today is Okuhida, a one hour bus ride from Takayama up to the mountain village that serves as a mini-gateway to the Norikura Skyline and Japan Alps recreation area. Our overnight: Hirayu-no-mori, an onsen spa and hotel. Our room is laid out in traditional western style with two beds, a small table, a desk chair (the first chair I've sat in this week), carpet flooring, modern accessories, etc. Basic. Boring. But we didn't come for the room, we came for the onsen; and we arrived early enough in the afternoon to enjoy our first bath before dinner.

The onsen 温泉 is composed of five separate pools: variously shaped in circular, oblong and dog-boned forms; carefully interspersed with boulders sized from three- to six-feet in diameter. Each pool is a bit lower than the previous one, allowing bathers to take in the whole scene while soaking in the first bath. The water itself was infused with small white globs of an unknown mineral, presumably something healthful to the skin, but just unfamiliar enough to make Hiro remark that the water was “too dirty” for her. This is harsh criticism in Japan, where bathers have to be scrupulously clean before entering the water. I took it in stride and assumed that since everyone else was enjoying themselves without complaint, I should too.

After the afternoon onsen, I was treated to a twenty-minute massage on the latest miracle circulation couch being touted by a traveling salesman: my fully outstretched body was strapped into supine position by vibrating calf-wraps, while hard rollers—that felt like pairs of billiard balls—moved up and down the couch surface applying shiatsu-like pressure along both sides of my spine. The overall effect was a marvel to Hiro, but torture to me: was it because I was too tall for the couch?

Miracle circulation chairs are all the rage these days: they can be found in the lobby of every onsen, right next to the coin-operated foot massagers, the drink machines, and the always-on television. Electronics and appliance stores have a wide range of very expensive chair to choose from; these massagers—which apply squeezing, vibrating, rolling pressure to the torso, extremities and neck—seem to be this year's “must-have” device. But I don't get it: why not just go for a walk?

Dinner was a casual affair at the family-style cafe here in the hotel complex: self service ocha and water; push-button waitress style service (where no one bothers you with the courtesy “is everything alright so far” euphemism.) Pleasant enough, and inexpensive.

There was time for one more late-night soak in the water before bed. This time a light rain had begun, chilling the air while making the atmosphere smell somehow cleaner than it already was. Darkness was the canopy; no moon or stars; indirect lighting outlined the path, while accent spotlights behind boulders and bamboo intensified the feeling of coolness. The baths themselves were amply hot, even hot enough in one case to make boulder top air-bathing desirable. I was alone in the baths this time around: there was no feeling of camaraderie, perhaps even a tinge of loneliness—not that I'm a talker or a looker, but being alone in a public onsen is like sitting on a park bench when there's no one else in the park.

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One hour bus from Takayama to Okuhida.
Hirayu-no-mori ひらゆの森 ¥10,800 for two, with breakfast but no dinner.
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