Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sept. 9: Takayama

Certainly getting to Takayama wasn’t too difficult. I jumped on a train to Gifu, was there in 15 minutes, and had a 40-minute layover there in a lovely covered, air-conditioned garden space, surely the most luxurious train station waiting room I’ve ever seen, before the big-windowed train into the scenic mountains left. However, ten minutes before it did leave, I noticed that all the cars were reserved, the man at the station in Ogaki notwithstanding. In a flash, though, I had not only a reservation, but one in first class, which went unchallenged.

The journey itself was plenty nice. The mountains started almost immediately, although I suspect these weren’t the Japanese Alps, as such. They were all below the tree-line and there was no snow, for one thing. But there was lots of agriculture, mainly rice, and soon we joined a river which produced some fine gorges with weathered rocks. The main problem was it was 90 degrees out there. Oh, and I’d run out of money. With luck, there’d be a cash-machine in Takayama, and the dire predictions I’d heard about the lack of them wouldn’t be true.

So the first thing I did when I checked in at the Best Western was ask about a cash machine. There was one across the street. I went over there and...the bank was closed, but the machines in the part that was open sure didn’t look useable. I asked again and received a map, on which the desk clerk indicated a couple which she thought would work.

I walked down to the first one, several blocks away, and it didn’t seem to work at all. I tried two cards and nothing. This was bad: I had only ¥1000 and some change in my pocket, and time was ticking away. I consulted my map and found to my delight that the Takayama Jinja was quite near, and after much circumnavigating the thing, I finally found my way to the entrance. It cost ¥400 to get in, but I was sure I’d find a machine soon, so I paid. The Jinja was where the regional administrator lived and worked during the Edo period, under incredible pressure from the capitol to produce revenue from the local agriculture and mining, something which kept the entire region poor, and led to the occasional riot, which usually cost the administrator his head, particularly if, as some of them had, they’d sided with the rioters. It had sumptuous rooms with tatamis on the floor (I had to remove my shoes and carry them with me as I toured the place), and a torture chamber for extracting those last tiny coins from the populace.

Back outside, I noticed a ricksha with a guy dressed as a samurai waiting. This is a tour service (only in Japanese) that’s run here for the tourists. But I was panicking now: I had to find some dough. I followed the map to where the bank should have been, but found nothing, so I crossed over the bridge to Sannomachi, the described in the tourist literature as “old private houses.” This is picturesque, sure, but lined from one end to the other with tourist shops -- and tourists. I was starving by now -- I hadn’t had breakfast because I’d slept too long the night before, hadn’t bought a bento in Gifu because it was so hot I wasn’t hungry, and it was now catching up to me. Just outside the Jinja, I’d bought some mochi balls dipped in shoyu and grilled on a stick (mitarashi-dango), which helped fuel me up, and then on the samurai street, I’d bought a similar thing, only Popsicle-shaped. I also found a place where big discs of rice cracker were dipped in shoyu, grilled, and served with a big pice of nori, which was fantastic, but now I was dying of thirst. I did at least have presence of mind enough to snap a few photos, including one of a wonderful little doll of a guy with a box in his hands, who, powered by a water-wheel driven by what I guess was once an open sewer that runs down both sides of the street, raises and lowers it, revealing a different plastic food model every time. Very ingenious.


The little box guy

Things tend to close at 5, and it was getting to that point, so I wandered up a street to find a huge temple complex with a stage with a giant bell in the middle of it (not explained in the book, for some reason), and, finally, a vending machine with ...Water Salad! I walked down the hill, to the place where the bank was supposed to be and discovered that, approaching it from this direction, a small kiosk with an ATM was, indeed, visible. I went in and got my dough, and, feeling better, walked back along the street it was on and found a sake shop which also featured a number of hand-crafted beers from the Hida Takayama Brewing Agricultural Corporation, Ltd. (since 1996), of which I bought their dark ale. (Carl told me later that the stuff in a blue bottle with a bird on it, which was also on sale there, is like Christmas ale, brewed with spices). A man in the shop rushed out to ask me what I was going to do with it, and I told him I was headed back to the hotel to drop it into the refrigerator, which soothed him. Microbrewers take their craft seriously.

And that’s what I did, too. It was nearing 6, and time for some down-time. Nick’s book seemed to indicate that restaurants closed at 7, which was hard to believe, but at least now I had money to get some grub. Around 7:15, that’s what I decided to do, so I walked out of the hotel, turned the corner and saw a bunch of dark restaurants. There was one, however, which looked open, and it had an Engrish menu -- lots of “flied” things -- outside, so I went in. A bunch of locals sat at a bar, drinking sake and choshu and eating various pickles and side-dishes displayed in front of them in huge bowls, but there was also a tatami area where one couple was eating, so I took off my shoes and sat down there and ordered a local specialty, miso grilled on a “big leaf” with sliced beef (hoha-miso). This came accompanied by some pickles, miso soup, rice, iced tea (!), and a raw egg in the middle. The bartender looked at me and said “You scramble,” so I did. It was lovely, although it was something of a race to cook the beef and fern stems before the leaf started to burn. I’d ordered a beer, and as I was finishing it, an old guy at the bar turned around and smiled at me.

He then ordered a bottle of beer and weaved over to my table. The waitress came over and started translating. “He says he doesn’t speak your language, but he sees you have good eyes and maybe you can talk with the heart.” So I poured him some beer, he poured me some, and the place turned into a circus of serial translations. He was a tourist, too, who’d driven from somewhere I didn’t catch, “far away,” according to the waitress, and the next day he was getting up at 6 and driving to the Noto Peninsula. The restaurant folks thought he was crazy to take such a long drive, but he was going to do it anyway. I had noticed a data-port at the hotel, and was kind of chafing at the bit to get back and see if I could get my e-mail to work, something I’d been unable to do so far. But manners dictated that I stay, and I finally pried myself away at about 9. The waitress walked outside with me and we noted how hot it was. And, at that hour, it still was.

Frustration back at the hotel: my goddam software still wouldn’t detect a dial-tone due to the busy-signal-like tone the hotel phone generated. So I got a Kirin from the vending machine, my ale was waiting in the fridge, and I read until 11, when I turned in, determined to get to the Morning Market the next day, and forge onward to Kanazawa.

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