Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Japan, April 3rd - Takayama and Hirayu no Mori Onsen

Today we set off for Takayama, an inland city renowned for its Edo-period shops and old-fashioned atmosphere. The scenic train ride followed a glacial stream through the mountains, and when we arrived we were shocked at how cold it was. The shops of the Sanmachi-Suju area were pleasant, if overly touristy. There were countless handkerchiefs, wax paper umbrellas, and Hello Kitty keychains. I tasted some sweet sake at a brewer's, and he served it in the traditional way, in a little wooden box overflowing onto a saucer.

We also visited Takayama Jinja, a historic local government building with dozens of traditional tatami rooms, storerooms, and even a torture room. The garden had scattered snowdrifts covering some of its scenery.

A snack of hot grilled dango kept us warm for a while, but we were so frustrated with the cold that we decided to take a bus to stay at a hot spring for the night. Little did we know where we were going -- the one-hour bus ride took us farther into the mountains, past ski resorts and into subzero temperatures. But the hot spring hotel was well-heated, and even had an indoor hallway linking all of the buildings scattered across the property.

We weren't sure exactly what to expect of the private bath. We found a very steamy weathered wood room with a sulfuric smell and milky turquoise water. After getting in the tub, we found a sliding wooden door in the wall, and realized that half of the tub was outdoors, overlooking a rock wall piled high with snow. With our bodies immersed in warm water, the cold air was finally refreshing instead of unpleasant.

Dinner was a very traditional Japanese meal. The most interesting one of about ten different dishes was served on individual tabletop barbecues. We also had tempura, soup, oden, a whole fish on a stick, beans, tofu, pickled vegetables, fish cakes, and ice cream. Most guests just wore their yukatas to the dining room.

The inn, called Hirayu-no-Mori, also has 13 public baths, most of which are outdoors. I braved the women's baths, and found it incredibly relaxing to sit on rocks and gaze up at the stars. My sense of privacy was a little shaken when another woman in the bath suddenly said, "So, I hear you're from Texas." Apparently the staff had gossiped about us.