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Archive for May 25th, 2008

Takaoka and Kaminashi

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Takaoka 高岡

Asa-gohan was served in a separate tatami room at the appointed 8 o'clock hour. Traditional fare: fish, tsukemono, miso, rice, nori, ocha. Ample quantity to fuel the body for the day.

We had time to explore Takaoka before our late morning bus departure. Our first walking course was an attempt to locate the twice-a-month flea market held early on Sunday mornings, but there was no trace of it; were we in the wrong place, or had we arrived too late (9 AM), or was it just not happening because of the rain? Being Sunday morning, everything was closed; together with the light rain, streets without buses and cars, walkways lacking people with intention and direction, and the typical din of an urban core: the city slumbered. Nevertheless, we did see a few more interesting bronze statues—one of them a time portal with a super-sized rabbit. Had we passed through the warp-zone ourselves this morning?

Our second walking course, after packing up and checking out, was really just a way to pass the time before departure; but it turned out to be the redemption of the city's experience for us: we went to see the site of the former Takaoka castle in Takaoka Kojo Park 高岡古城公園. This place had enticements at each turn drawing us deeper in to the center: the red-painted bridge over the still waters of the moat, the music of taiko and koto players rehearsing for an anniversary celebration, the smooth-as-polished-iron trunk of a zelkova, the outdoor sumo ring, the temple and the chance to throw a few coins in the offering box with our prayers, the interior lawn whose perimeter was lined with statues, the young archers wearing hakamas cheering in unison, “yoh,” as each arrow pierced the target, and the deep woods in the back of the park leading to the wide pond with mature overhanging trees. Yes, this was the place to be this morning. Hiro had to hurry me along so that I didn't over extend my explorations on the far side.

On our return from the park we walked past the Daibutsu 高岡大仏 yet again. This great Buddha is the tourist attraction that everyone has to see: a giant bronze figure of the Buddha sitting in repose, notable not just for its great size but also for the presence of a halo surmounting his head. We had passed it at least four times already and I had steadfastly ignored it, not having been in the mood for a closer inspection. But flush from our inspirational walk in Kojo Park, I finally felt ready to pause and take in the significance of the place. I don't have Buddhist leanings so my appreciation was more founded on the engineering and artistry of the statue, and the aesthetics of the entrance and grounds. There was something odd about such a large statue in such a small park—a corner pocket really; there was no buildup of expectation as you approached the figure, no anticipation, it was just there. Still, it leaves the kind of impression that time will surely improve.

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Takaoka deserves a longer stay than we gave it; a full day of shopping and sightseeing for bronze works would be my preference, but the day's first bus for Shirakawago was expected at noon and no others were scheduled today that could get us to the ryokan by dinnertime.

The bus ride was going to be more than two hours and would cut across meals, so Hiro and I went foraging—separately—for take-away bento, each of us taking turns sitting with our luggage at the bus stop. My eight-minute foray netted a better catch than Hiro's: a quick dive down the subterranean steps past the train station shops that last night failed to provide anything; over to the fish market that had given us hope last night when it was closed, but which turned out to have two vendors selling only frozen packaged products; then down another long semi-deserted underground market where I quickly chose a couple of homemade salads, cello-wrapped, priced at ¥150 each; then popped up into the train station itself where there was finally the bustle and activity that was so absent everywhere else in the city; over to the pastry shop to grab a deep fried curry bun and a sweet pastry (passing up the ever popular sandwiches of sliced cucumber, ham, and egg on white bread); then a quick reverse trip and into a convenience shop to get o-nigiri and a canned drink. Pretty good haul for eight minutes.

The Takaoka bus center, situated next to the train station, gave us a view of the city center revealing a decrepit, '50s style layout that was so far from the new millennium's modern sleek city centers found in other cities of this size, that we felt certain that a complete new make-over had to be in the plans. Just a hunch, but we'll see.

The bus's arrival was a surprise: it showed up promptly at the appointed time, but it wasn't the kosoku highway bus that I had envisioned—it was just another city bus with the familiar double accordion doors and seiri-ken ticket dispenser at the rear. We piled in with the other five or six passengers, three of whom were also carrying luggage, so at least we didn't feel self conscious lugging our bags inside and taking up two seats each. We were soon opening our crinkly packages and eating on board—another cultural taboo that we felt relaxed enough to break.

The bus crawled along. Every two or three stops the electric fare board at the front chimed a new set of prices, adding ¥40 or ¥50 to the fare. Our seiri-ken was reference number 0, so after 38 fare changes (probably 75 bus stops), we were up to around ¥1800 after finally climbing out of the plain, past the Johanna station, through the Gokayama tunnel and into the mountains.

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Takaoka to Kaminashi, about two and a half hours by bus.

Kaminashi 上梨

Our destination, Kaminashi—a village deep in the mountains and inaccessible for centuries—our first introduction to the gassho-zukuri styled architecture that we had planned our trip around. As a village, Kaminashi is little more than a wide spot in the road for most visitors, a place where tour buses chance to stop for 30 minutes to see the Murakami family residence, a farmhouse built in 1578 and occupied continuously ever since.

For a small entrance fee we were allowed to walk through the interior of the Murakami house 村上家—designated as a National Important Cultural Property—the first floor housing a few old artifacts, the second story under the eaves housing even more museum pieces. The current owner—now in her 60's—briefly explained the slow pace of change occurring in this remote valley, about her own remembrances and those of her mother before her, growing up in this very house. In the time of secrets and closed travel, this region was coerced into producing saltpeter—an essential ingredient of gunpowder—using native plant materials stored under the floorboards, periodically stirred, and transformed by the agent of bacteria. This village too was a place of banishment, where political exiles were sent for imprisonment. In the corner of the house, a small counter selling omiyage was set up, the only part of the house that had any modernity to it, but even it looked dusty and aged.

The steeped pitched roofs of gassho structures like the Murakami house are designed to withstand the immense weight of the deep snows that bury the Gokayama region each winter. The angle of the roof's pitch leaves enough room under the eaves to construct two or three additional floors for storage of off season supplies. These upper stories are not suitable for living though, because the smoke from the first floor's irori 囲炉裏 (open pit hearth) is trapped under the thatch roof, blackening everything with its soot. In fact, it's this very smoke that has preserved the houses for so many centuries: the smoke-dried wooden beams are no enticement to either insects or bacteria, so the process of decay is effectively halted. Only the ropes holding the beams together need replacement when the thatch is removed every twenty years or so; the beams themselves have been standing in place since their original construction.

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We are staying in Yajibe 弥次兵衛, a modern gassho style house, now serving as a minshuku 民宿. Our hosts were most welcoming, and were able to weave our short stay into their daily routine without either of us feeling encumbered.

Yajibe does not have an ofuro; instead, we were given complimentary tickets to the onsen in the nearby kokumin shukusha (a nationally subsidized “People's Lodge”) situated across the gorge. It was a short pleasant evening walk across the bridge that a few others were taking for the same purpose, and they looked ever so comfortable in their light blue yukata. The Gokayama Shukusha 五箇山荘 was up the hill just enough to provide a visually pleasing view from its open air baths.

Dinner was served around the irori —two freshwater fish taken from the Shokawa river skewered and thrust vertically into the ashes of the pit, cooking slowly from the heat of a few coals—providing authentic ambiance. Dinner itself came in abundance and variety, our first home cooked dinner of the trip, excellently prepared and served, with all the traditional elements. We ordered the local brew with dinner, which was a large stoneware bowl of warm sake steeped with a whole broiled fish imbuing its smoky flavor. It was too hot at first, and too fishy towards the end, but at the right temperature and flavor-point, it had the potential to be great—not the kind of drink I'd choose every night, but certainly worth treating myself to again.

Before clearing the dishes, our host engaged us in conversation about the local folk music. This was particularly interesting to Hiro who was soaking it all up, looking for pieces that she can incorporate into her own taiko performances. The annual kokiriko matsuri こきりこ味まつり, a festival hosted by the small town each September, is a source of local pride. Here is an authentic cultural folk tradition being kept alive by the townspeople, teaching their children to dance and sing and play the unique musical instruments of their heritage.

Our host brought out kokiriko-take, small bamboo sticks, used as musical instruments by striking them together in an continuous and artful hand-over-hand baton motion that suggested both grace and simplicity. The bon-sasara was also demonstrated to us, and I was given a chance to practice it for a few minutes to my delight: it's a lightly curved hickory stick deeply notched with grooves that are stroked with a whisker-like split bamboo striker, making a sound that I imagined to be a field of summertime crickets. Finally he brought out the pride of the town, the sasara, a wooden clapper with 108 equally spaced shingles woven together by rope and attached to handles on either end. The accordion motion of the shingles is snapped by a movement of the wrists into an abrupt but brief clapping sound. The sasara is played more for its entrancing snaps than for its music, and when done at the festival it's accompanied by a fancy costume and by the song of the performer's voice.

We enjoyed more than an hour of after dinner entertainment learning first-hand how the folk instruments are played, and watching videotapes of our host's son perform the kokiriko-uta in full kimono regalia. They have something indeed to be proud of.

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Yajibe 弥次兵衛民宿, ¥7000 per person.
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