Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hida Takayama

In Takayama since yesterday around 1 pm.

Yesterday was a funny/weird day kind of (or at least it started out that way). A beautiful 4.5 hour train ride from Tokyo to here (about 2 hours to Nagoya, and 2.5 hours to Takayama). It was painless, not long and beautiful scenery. My damn camera ran out of battery (from all the “filming” the day before at the soba class), so I took as many pictures as I could with my camera phone, however, any pictures from a fast moving train are going to be sort of compromised.

The mountainous region I traveled through was amazing as it reminded me of childhood trips with my friend tracy woods up to her parent’s cabin near lake arrowhead. Small towns you could tell had snow just a month ago. Of course, there are no rice fields near lake arrowhead, nor are their stands of cypress and other trees that are definitely coniferous forest mixed with annual flowering trees, lots of greenery and a rapidly flowing river (when I say rapidly, I mean nice rapids!)

Takayama (my destination) is a town known for its sake breweries, eel, a sanyo miso (dark miso paste spread on a magnolia leaf) haven’t had a chance to try this yet…there are also beer breweries and last but definitely not least, this whole area is known for its traditional woodworking, something that attracted me here in the first place.

So, I digress; the train arrived around 1:05 pm to slightly spitting rain. I gathered my things and made it out to the taxi stand “takayama green hotel” I said to the driver (I may have even said Hote-ru). He basically denied me a ride, saying “no money” which gave me the impression the hotel was closer to the train station than I had anticipated. So, a bit disgruntled, (plus, had somewhat woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, heightened by the fact that my alarm mode was on silent and so I awoke a half hour after my intended time. ) Oh, and to get things off even more on the wrong foot, in my eagerness to jump on my train back in Tokyo, I got on the train that arrived 2 minutes before my train, and instead of looking at my watch and checking the name of the train, I jumped right on. It wasn’t until we were pulling out of the station, when the conductor was announcing we were on the express to “shin Osaka” that I got a little panicky. “oh fuck,’ I thought. Then my survival mode kicked in and I quickly made friends with a Japanese business man who talked to the ticket taker. I was able to change trains in yokohama, a short trip away. Whew, that was close (as trains to takayama aren’t super frequent, plus, it was Sunday).

Okay, back to takayama and the rude taxi stand. I set off down the street with my giant suitcase (on wheels, thank god) and within 2 minutes it was spitting rain, you know, not pouring, not misting, but just kind of spitting; the kind of rain that if you were walking it in for ½ hour you might get soaked. Instead, very inconvenient and also, I was still cursing the mean taxi driver. I had to ask for directions and found out my hotel was another 10 minute walk. Fuck that fucking taxi driver. Motherfucker! Not the best impression of takayama so far!!!

Anyhoo, got to the hotel before checkin. They were kind enough to hold my bags for a few hours, and I was paranoid about my laptop for the first time on the trip. I was untrustworthy for the first time on this trip! Weird. This was caused by the busloads of Chinese? Tourists that were entering the lobby. Why the fuck did I choose this place? The pictures of the onsen there lured me in. the hotel had clearly been renovated, in 1979! The staff was wearing polyester circa 1975! Eeks. Anyhoo, I dropped my luggage and then did a reconnasance mission downtown and around (dutifully stopping at the ryokan I was staying at the next night, to make sure they had my reservation and have something to look) forward to. I got yelled at on a loud speaker from a police office because I jay walked unknowingly right in front of him (and I think I scared him, perhaps he almost hit me?) (still getting used to looking for cars on the right instead of the left) (thanks dad for pointing that out!) he reprimanded me (in Japanese of course) from his roof mounted speaker, still spouting shit at me as he rolled down the street. Geez’ not off to a good start here!

The “downtown” area is super cute in takayama. Rows of traditional merchant houses with the businesses in front, houses in the next room behind the business and above. I walked around for a few hours.

I know some of you have seen the japanese movie “water under red bridge”. It is a great movie with a definite sexual undertone (or overtone, as it isn’t subtle at all), about a guy who goes to visit a town where his recently deceased boss or sensei or something told him to go; to a print shop to visit an old lady who the boss used to know. Well, he gets to the town in pouring rain (a little precursor) and finds the shop (on the river next to the red bridge) and is greeted by a young woman. They end up hooking up and I don’t want to give away the good part, let’s just say, I can’t wait to rent it when I get back home, because I am sure this bridge and setting is where it was filmed!!!!

Anyhoo, I went back to the hotel at checkin time and I think insulted them (my third faux pas?) by telling them I wouldn’t be using the dinner that was included in my room (as they handed me the coupons). I had to explain I wanted to go into town and sample the local fare since I would be eating at the ryokan the following night and…

Anyhoo, decided to relax in the onsen at the hotel. The onsen was awesome! It had 4 tubs (and there was another onsen in another area I didn’t make it to). But again, number 4 faux pas. I removed my shoes when I got into the spa area (as required) and there were shoe racks. Over by the area with no shoes were slippers lined up, all ready to wear, so I slipped a pair on and wore them into the hot tub area (unbeknownst to me, they were a guests slipper’s). oops. Of course the Hitler like spa lady was trying to explain to me in Japanese that I shouldn’t have the slippers in the spa area (and she was also trying to explain to me that she didn’t know why I should have those slippers anyway???))) I figured it out when I exited the spa…okay, let’s just call this whole experience a learning curve with absolutely no English speaker whatsoever!!! It was sort of funny and this was a time when I could just say, I’m a fucking dumb American and proud of it, motherfucker!!! Ha ha ha ha just kidding.

I figured out later that the room I was staying in (smoking room, yuckola) and very outdate d)had all the accoutrements for taking a tub. They were in the closed dresser drawers of the room, the yukuta (robe) etc. but I didn’t know and used some (extra) from the end of the hall. (I don’t think I have ever opened a dresser drawer in a hotel room, do people actually put their clothes in there?) There was no obi (belt) so I just held it together. There is a jacket like thing that goes over the robe for when it is cold. I used one that was too small (maybe a child size) and I just know that the lobby people were snickering behind my back (as I would have been too, but I just had to get back to the awesome tubs after dinner, so I had no shame).
Reflecting back on this I am laughing my head off to tears right now because of how lame-o and retarded I was. Oh well, can you just see me having to navigate through the lobby, no tie on my robe, with a jacket that was 8 sizes too small! Must have been such a sight (and I haven’t mentioned anyting about the fact that everyone else seemed to have all the supplies at their fingertips and were wearing it well!!!

Anyhoo, all worry was gone when I entered the tubs, I even liked their shampoo.

I went into town for dinner. I had my heart (no pun intended) set on Hida beef, a local specialty which looked amazing, very kobe like if not more marbled. (perhaps that was what I was viewing in Tokyo?) there were only a few places open on a Sunday night (and sort of set widely apart, on alleyways etc). I selected one that looked more down to earth, not gimmicky. I was the only diner. I chose the $36 dinner set. The steak was the best I’ve had. I’m not kidding. It was seared to rare (although I chose medium rare but at this point who cares). The interesting this is that the chef had a technique for dipping the steak in teriyaki sauce every 30 seconds or so (to just kind of barely caramelize the surface, bringing the flames to the sugar and fat of course). This is how it turned out so yummy and rare. Melt in your mouth. I want to say it was sirloin as most places around town were serving that and fillet. The owners didn’t speak a lick of English, but I still managed to “chat it up” with them over a few glasses (vats) of local, Takayama cold sake. In S.F., you get maybe 4 oz. top of sake when you order a cold sake. In Japan, you get a large tea cup size (maybe 8 oz). It is very shocking at first (I’m not complaining). After I rolled out of there, I happened upon a french style café named Café’ Flore and stopped in for a beer (there was no one on the streets and spent a major amount of time taking cool pictures (we’ll see how cool they really are when I download them). I ended up talking with Masai and Chi, a boyfriend/girlfriend duo that were very nice (well, Masai was doing all the talking, Chi was tolerating him). Anyhoo, he took me down the street to see his bar that is now closed (not enough business) but that he will reopen. It looked very cool design. It is called Aru. He was really into san Francisco, Janis Joplin (and shocked at my name) and also height ashbury and the carpenters. Yes, the carpenters (which were playing the whole time I was in there). It was very funny. But the shop owner, Hiroshi Alice, had lived in Paris for a year and did a very nice job reproducing that feel there in Takayama. Not the only French place in town by the way. I had a couple of beers with them and Masai (please call me “Masa”) drew me a map to a Yakitori-ya where he would be working the following day.

I meandered back to the hotel, back to the Onsen (which is when I made the fashion faux pas). I couldn’t wait to get out of that hotel but took advantage of the bath in the morning also (as it was quite nice) (nicer than kabuki springs or on par at least). Okay, 3 baths in less than 12 hours, let’s just say I’m squeaky clean.

I walked around town the next day, dropping my luggage at the hotel, foregoing the touristy places, and instead, finding nice handmade shops etc. The reputed furniture museum turned out to be a high end designer showroom (sort of weird). I went to a place for lunch with a large sculpted eel out front (to take in the local specialty, unagi kabayaki (bbq/teriyaki eel). Delicious and had some Korikori beer (local Takayama brew). It is unfortunate that I don’t think I will be bringing any Takayama sake or beer with me back to SF, as it is becoming cumbersome to travel with so much stuff (which is accumulating). After lunch, more walking around the back streets which are the best shops (away from the touristas). Lacquerware is also a local specialty. I made my way to masa’s Yakitori-ya via very backalley route, where a local lady pointed to a path straight up the side of a hill, meandering between people’s backyards. (oops, I guess it really was inside that giant park on the hill). There I was (not in tennis shoes) hiking as if I were in the Marin Headlands or something, in my Paolo sandals. Ha ha ha ha. I did shortly thereafter find Masa and his mother’s shop. He sat me down and proceeded to place five different dishes in front of me: grilled squid (v. fresh and soft), simmered daikon, mugwort mochi all with a thick miso sauce. Also some mochi balls grilled with soy and sake brushed on. Then the crowning glory, chicken yakitori, the best I have ever had. I was not even hungry as I had just eaten the eel about 1.5 hours before. Shoot, I can’t be impolite. I ate it anyway (and it was tasty, so not hard). Masai was cleaning the mats they use for people to have picnics on (too hard to explain here). His mother’s shop is on the grounds of a temple so a lot of tourists come there). Anyhoo, he said he had a present for me, and presented me with 3 cooking magazine from a few years back. How nice!!! I was immediately bummed I didn’t have anything for him (but may drop something by his friends bar tomorrow on my way out of town). I politely made my way out of there, as I still needed to check into my ryokan, and shop for more local treasures, as I may not make it back here for a long while.

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