Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Japan's 'Little Kyoto'

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Traditional Takayama is Japan's 'Little Kyoto'
- David Armstrong, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

Takayama, Japan -- We catch the soft scuffle of cloth slippers in the morning stillness as we walk the narrow pedestrian lane, its sides etched by rainwater gutters and fronted by delicately made, two-story wooden buildings. We pause before a large, round bundle of cedar leaves hung above an otherwise unmarked doorway. We step inside.

We are in a family-owned, house-sized sake brewery. The cedar leaves over the doorway signify that this year's sake is now available. A large number of opaque bottles is arrayed inside, along with a barrel of fermenting sake, or rice wine. A worker dips a paper cup in the barrel so I can sample the sake. The milky liquid is sweet and viscous, flecked with grains of rice: next year's vintage.

This is a characteristic Takayama moment: gracious, direct and local. Takayama, a historic town of 70,000 in the Japan Alps, seems to exist on another planet from the next-world futurism of Tokyo, which we recently departed aboard an aerodynamic shinkansen, or bullet train. To travel here is to book passage to an older, slower Japan.

Takayama is also known as Little Kyoto, for its antiquity and refined wooden buildings, some of them built by the same artisans who helped build old Kyoto. And while Takayama is much less prepossessing and prosperous than Kyoto, the splendid former imperial capital, it offers a winningly low-key way to sample living Japanese history. It is Kyoto with fewer people and lower prices.

At a reconstructed mountain village on the edge of town, the Hida Folk Village, guides dress in traditional costumes and demonstrate time-honored crafts. But I like to engage tradition in a real-world setting, so I haunted the downtown Sanmachi Suji district, which has been continuously inhabited for centuries. Essentially three long pedestrian lanes lined with vintage buildings that house specialty gift shops, art galleries, food stores and hole-in-the-wall places to eat, Sanmachi Suji is also home to some of Takayama's eight sake breweries.

My wife, Georgina, and I settled into a ryokan, a traditional inn with blond wood panels in the guest rooms, a marvelous plunge pool and steam bath, and hearty breakfasts. We slept on a floor covered with rice-straw tatami mats and were swaddled in well-padded futons. Breakfast was served with a soft knock, the swoosh of a sliding door, and many bows from the kimono-clad server.

I am a major fan of Tokyo and have enjoyed modern hotels in the metropolis, but our three-night stay in the 10-room Tanabe Ryokan provided a crash-course in traditional Japanese culture. I had no trouble adapting to sleeping on the floor, and found the service much more personal than that offered by most large hotels. The co-owner, Akiko Tanabe, was so solicitous of our welfare that she walked us, unbidden, to dinner at nearby restaurants two nights in a row, taking quick, short steps in her binding kimono, just so we wouldn't get lost.

A beginning student of English, Tanabe practiced her new skill with us. This helped us as well as her, since Takayama utterly lacks the bilingual signage common in Tokyo, and very few people speak English. Indeed, Takayama is relatively isolated in its 4,700-foot-high redoubt in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture, and while it is popular with Japanese tourists, during our three-day visit we saw perhaps a dozen foreigners. This makes Takayama both challenging -- you use the smile-and-point method a lot -- and attractive, since you've journeyed a long way to get here and now you're in a place that's truly different.

On our first morning in town, we walked across a stone bridge that spans the Miyagawa River, the swift, clear mountain waterway that runs through the heart of town. We browsed in the Miyagawa morning market, held in the open air just above river banks lined with stone and graced with willows and benches, as a blue heron perched on a rock, all dignity and beauty. On our right as we walked downstream were modest shops. In one establishment, women were buying miso. On our left were folding chairs and tables piled with locally grown vegetables, wood-carvings, lacquerware and sarubobo -- amulets traditionally given by grandmothers to granddaughters. Now, anyone can buy them, and they have become a symbol of the town.

We saw another morning market outside Takayama Jinya, a 17th century complex of
impressive wooden buildings. The complex, once a government center, is now a history museum. We threaded through a series of rooms -- tiny spaces for the scullery maids, big ones for the senior clerks -- and clambered up and down staircases in wooden slippers provided for the tour. The caws of crows broke the silence that enshrouded the old buildings.

Stillness is one of the defining features of the town. Lively enough during the day, Takayama barely stirs after 10 at night. Late-night clubbers must go through disco withdrawal here. We took care to dine early. One evening we occupied the counter of a tempura restaurant, watching the chef as he created golden morsels. The next night, we feasted on shabu-shabu: savory, fatty, thin-sliced Hida beef, picked up with chopsticks and flash-cooked in boiling water. Emerging from dinner after shouted farewells, we entered the kingdom of night as it must have been generations ago: very deep, very still, all-enveloping.

Twice a year, Takayama's reserve gives way to raucous crowds and colorful processions led by elaborate floats. Hand-made and hand-pulled, topped by marionettes depicting mythical characters, the floats highlight the annual fall festival (Oct. 9-10 each year) and spring festival (April 14-15), popular seasonal celebrations that go back to the 16th century. At such times, the population more than triples to 250,000. We weren't there at festival time, but we took long, unobstructed looks at the floats -- motionless, alas -- through huge picture windows at the Yatai Kaikun Museum.

For us, though, the best part of visiting Takayama was exploring the little lanes in the historic core, admiring the carefully maintained buildings, trying unfamiliar street food, dropping in on local merchants. I tasted salty, unfinished miso paste in a miso shop at the invitation of the shopkeeper. We tried a snack of grilled rice balls brushed with tamari sauce and eaten warm on skewers -- sold everywhere from carts and street-side counters, and very popular.

We ended our visit in a micro-eatery in Sanmachi Suji. It did not have a sign. We sat at the counter, near a hot pot. The place sat maybe seven people, who were visibly surprised to see foreigners. We pointed to the pot, and were served soup with red beans and a small green heap of something in the broth. We had no idea what it was. The cook mimed how to eat it. The green stuff turned out to be a sweetened dough that expanded in the soup and became pleasingly chewy. I ate it all. It was delicious, mysterious and sweet, like Takayama.

If you go

Getting there

Takayama is two hours by Japan Rail trains from Nagoya, about four hours from either Osaka or Tokyo, and three hours from Kyoto.

Where to stay

Tanabe Ryokan, 58 Aioi, Takayama. 011-81-577-32-0529 (for online information in English, search for "Tanabe Ryokan" and use your browser's translation function). Japanese-style inn. $150 per night, including breakfast for two.

Where to eat

Sazuya restaurant, 24 Hanakawamachi St., in Takayama's old quarter. Try the Hida beef and mountain vegetables, Dinner for two with beer, $50.

For more information

Japan National Tourist Organization, (415) 292-5686,

Chronicle staff writer David Armstrong last wrote for Sunday Travel about London's Battersea district. To comment, e-mail

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