Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Today was an “away day”. We always knew that with our JR Rail passes we would want to use them to explore places we had not previously visited and being here in Kyoto there are a number of places within easy travel that seemed to fit the bill.

A few months ago I had watched on “NHK International” (television) an article about this interesting place called “Takayama” that has a large number of old residences and temples as well as an interesting history of religious festivals. When picking up the JR Rail coupons in London I had noticed in the travel agent a brochure on “Takayama” that I picked up. We had our destination.

Takayama is actually quite a distance away and fairly close to where we will be skiing in Nagano. We had to get up at 7:00 am and by 7:30 we were on the subway to Kyoto station to catch our train (after a brief transfer). We were in plenty of time for our 9:00 train so first checked to see if we could get some money from the post office (we have been told that all post offices have bank machines that accept international bank cards) but this was closed so we headed into the main Kyoto station to see if we could find something to eat.

What's With the Character on the Top...?

I do not remember much of the station from our previous visit but it is very impressive - A large open area five or six stories high that is open to the elements on either end.

Kyoto Station

Very modern but not huge.

Inside Kyoto Station

We found a small newsagent on the main floor that was open selling snacks and drinks so picked up a few things including a bit of sushi that looked fairly good. Looking for something a bit more substantial we headed into the basement where we found a cafe that was serving breakfast. One step inside and I was immediately dizzy by the smoke. After some confusion over the ordering (I kept asking for “atsui” drinks but she kept thinking this meant “cold” despite “atsui” being the Japanese for hot and VERY different than the word for cold “samui” - I think it was (a) her confusion at a foreigner speaking a few words of Japanese and (b) my using a mixture of English and Japanese) I quickly left mother to wait for the items as I left the restaurant having trouble breathing. My asthma did not like it in there and I could not stay another minute.

All set to go we passed through the ticket barriers we are learning that even though we have tickets because they are issued with the JR Rail pass we have to go through the gates where there is an attendant who can check both the pass and the tickets (in reality they only briefly glance at the passes as we go by). A bit more confusion then we were up the steps to cross over to where the Shinkansen operated.

From looking at the train schedule before our holiday I knew that there was only one direct train to Nakayama each day and this was not that train so we had a short 20 minute trip first to Nagoya (not anywhere of any particular note though I understand they have a nice train museum close to the station) where we transferred from the Shinkansen onto a very nice train for the leisurely trip to Takayama. There are four seats, two on each side of the sunken aisle with massive windows allowing a great view of the beautiful scenery - Though not at first.

The Nagoya area is quite industrial and very flat (those alluvial plains again I think). It took quite some time before we left this area and started heading into the mountains. We travelled along a valley following a fresh pale green coloured river - a sign that it is likely clean water coming down from the mountains or glaciers - for most of the way, passing through tunnels and over the river on occasion. Some amazing gorges with jagged rock faces and the river churning away below.

River Gorge

We ate our breakfast, and enjoyed the view. It was interesting to see the small villages (at least one had a name of “spa” leading us to believe the whole town had been built around the natural hot springs that appear to be everywhere here) and the small stations we stopped at.

Small Towns

It really is quite different than anything we had seen before in Japan. So much more peaceful yet still extraordinarily beautiful. Mother and I took turns sitting on the other side of the carriage in an empty seat to see out those windows as well. Lots to look at.

Mother's Turn on the Left

As we drew closer to Takayama we could tell it was getting colder outside with snow now visible on the ground.

Another Gorge

We arrived at the small station at Takayama and passed through the old wooden (!) gates.

Wooden Ticket Gates

It was interesting to see a tourism office right in the car park with large coaches parked behind which made us believe this was quite the tourist destination though, I would suspect, not Western tourists (though plenty of the tourism information was in English).

Tourist Information

We did not have a particular agenda to meet other than to just wander around so we headed across the car park then the street where we had a quick look into a few souvenir shops (again offering the local specialties and trinkets).

Souvenir Shop Opposite the Train Station

It had really cooled off with quite a wind and snow in the air. I wish I had brought my ski jacket but all I had was my light winter fleece!

Takayama is an interesting place. It is quite small and, at least today, fairly peaceful with little traffic to speak of. The streets are lined with covered sidewalks (bringing to mind movies of the “wild west”) and all of the shops seem to be local - Not a lot of big chains here.

Covered Sidewalks

Walking up the main street, “Kokubunji”, we visited a small temple “Hidakokubun-ji” just off of the road. It was cold and snow flurries blew around us as we walked around the temple. A number of the local good luck dolls decorating a shrine near the entrance - These are bright red square figures with pointy arms and legs.


We had seen some of these for sale in the shop earlier. We entered the temple grounds through the small gate then a tower housing a bell with the main temple building and a large ancient Ginkgo tree beyond. To the right was a tall pagoda. After Kyoto it was a bit of a disappointment but we have been spoiled…

Kokubunji Temple

Ginko and Pagoda

Continuing down the street we stopped just before crossing the river to have something to eat and, to be honest, to warm up a bit. The restaurant, “Hida Beef BBQ”, served fairly simple but very good food.

I had the donburi - Rice with (of course) Hida Beef and a raw egg (sigh) on top along with a bowl of miso soup. Mother had a rather large bowl of soba noodle soup.


The interior was quite cool in more than just temperature - It was painted entirely black and the furnishings were hard wood so it was not really encouraging visitors to linger…


Outside was another of the good luck figures, this time carved in stone. The restaurant had an exterior grill where you could purchase meat skewers so they must have nice weather in the summer…

Restaurant Exterior

We had agreed that our destination would on the other side of the river (the east side of the city) where we had noticed that there appeared to be a number of museums and sights. Crossing the river we immediately noticed that the buildings down the tiny side streets were all made of darker wood and looked very old.

It was cold. We quickly ducked into a small tea shop to have something warm where they were playing some American jazz on vinyl. Other that a young man playing on his phone we were the only patrons.

Empty Cafe

We went in search of some of the museums that were on our map and found that as it was a public holiday (news to us) many of them were closed. We walked along the tiny roads (there was not enough room for a sidewalk) to see that often the dark wood houses would have a tree out the front with it’s branches bound up in ropes - This, we later learned, was to protect it from heavy snow breaking the tree apart.

Tree Protection

Other buildings were built right to the road with the classic sliding doors allowing entry.

Side Streets

There were several larger canals running through this area down the river which reminded me of similar canals in the Gion district of Kyoto.


We visited the “Shokuji Temple” that is built on the side of the hill bordering the town on the east.

Temple Entrance

The dark wooden structures look new and here were accentuated by highlights of gold - This was even more striking with the snow that covers the ground right now.

Temple Grounds

We had a good view of the city through the pine trees that seem to be everywhere here.

View of Takayama Through the Trees

A small pavilion is where worshipers can wash their hands but I noticed looking up that the ceiling had small paintings all around the outside. They were of various styles and quality - A dragon in a traditional Japanese setting here, a picture depicting angry gods, etc.


Running low on cash (which seems to be what everyone wants to use here) we were able to find the local post office which turned out to be very small with a few older ladies chatting away to the staff and sitting at a table in the middle of the space. I noticed they had some stamps for collectors on a carousel on the counter so found a few I liked and made a purchase. We were also able to use the bank machine in the corner to get some money - The ATMs here are very different than we are used to with it asking all sorts of questions and being a lot more polite! It was nice that we did not now have to worry about money. On our previous visit we did not remember having so much problem with it but this time we have noticed that generally shops take cash rather than credit cards so we have been running low for quite some time. It is very odd but reassuring that when we do use credit cards they require us to enter a PIN…

One museum we did find open was the “Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall” (we thought it was quite expensive at 820 yen). These are the same floats I had seen on NHK television so I knew a bit of what to expect. A number of shrines around the town have these floats that are normally housed in tall buildings (“Yatai-gura”) with equally tall doors near to the shrines. During the “Takayama Matsuri” (festival) the floats, decorated with thousands of lights, are pulled through the town in the early evening. The festivals are held in spring and autumn and attract a large number of visitors to Takayama. We were told that in the case of bad weather they will leave the floats in their “Yatai-gura” with the doors open and parade instead a small “surrogate” float that is not much more than a small chariot with a banner on top…So if you try to visit the festival don’t be disappointed at what you see if it is raining! Four of the floats in the museum are from the autumn festival and are changed three times a year.

Float Museum

In this museum they have a number of these massive floats often more than 10 m high (we had been given a tape cassette player (!) with a tour in English when we entered). They are very old as well some dating from the 17th century. One of the floats had no wheels and had to be carried but due to their immense weight this one is no longer used. On the bottom they are generally a box with a temple-like structure on top. They are elaborately decorated with sculptures, art and gold.

Elaborately Decorated

Some even have wooden marionettes that are animated during the parades. It was surprising to learn that none of the floats are made with nails - All are held together by simple wooden joinery. The people that maintain these floats carefully make sure to preserve as much of the original structure as possible and carve out only the parts of the wood that are to be replaced.

Another Float...

The museum have the floats displayed in a large three-story high glass room that you walk around. A small room shows a video explaining the festival and the floats which we found very interesting.

Detail of Some Art on a Float

More pictures from the float museum…


Even here there was a small shrine (“Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine”) that we took a quick look at but as we walked away I remember being told that our ticket to the float museum included entrance into the hall next door. I did not catch what was in there but we decided to visit anyway. It turned out to be a miniature replica (1/10th scale) of the “Nikko-Toshogu” temple in Tochigi prefecture near Tokyo.

Temple Miniature

The miniature copies of the buildings are incredibly detailed - 28 buildings in all. We walked around and admired this wonderful piece of art thinking that it might be a good place to visit at some point…The lighting in the building was set to reproduce the sunrise and sunset of the real site. One of the buildings has the familiar “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” statue of the monkeys above it’s entrance (surprisingly it is quite a small piece).

Incredibly Detailed

There was also a side exhibit of some wonderful pottery and fabrics.

Before leaving the miniature building we visited the toilets which we had visited early - They are free to use but unheated so were quite exciting to visit. I waited for mother in a small public area (again, more drink machines…) that had picnic tables set up as well as local newspapers. It must be quite busy in the warmer weather…

It was getting later in the day now so we started heading, roughly, back towards the main road to return to the train station but following a route that took us along the base of the hillside. This allowed us to visit a number of temples along the way one almost literally on top of another.

Another Temple

One particular temple (“Higashiyama Shimmei-jinja Shrine”) was at the top of a rather steep set of steps that were covered in ice - The only reason we were able to get up to it and, more critically, walk back down was because the evergreens had dropped various bits onto the path so it gave us some grit.

Icy Paths...

Though we saw few people at the temples they seemed very much alive with the ever-present papers tied to a tree here, fresh fruit at a shrine there, flowers somewhere else…Obviously religion is very much a part of the life here. Each temple had a sign to the next so we just continued walking along…Taking loads of pictures along the way.

Another Temple...

There were no zen gardens that we could see here but plenty of statues and beautifully trimmed trees.

temple Guardian

Mother has also been fascinated by the drainspouts we have been seeing - Instead of a simple pipe taking the water down from the roof the corners of many roofs actually have chains often with small buckets that let the water drip down to the ground elegantly…


So, we figure we visited (deep breath): “Daioji Temple”, “Eikyoin Temple”, “Higashiyama Hakusan-jinja Shrine”, “Higashiyama Shimmei-jinja Shrine”, “Hokkeji Temple”, “Kyushoji Temple”, “Sogenji Temple”, “Tenshoji Temple”, “Tounin Temple”, and “Unryuji Temple”. Ok, perhaps we did not linger too long in each…but we did pass through and peer inside when we could…

Temple Bell

More pictures of the temples in Takayama…


It was beginning to get dark was we left the last of the temples behind (“Hokkeji”) and walked along a side street towards the river. There are a large number of small saki breweries we are told here but since neither of us drink it was not much of an attraction but the old buildings were all over place here as well. We passed by the modern looking “Takayama Museum of History and Art” that is free to visit but we were out of time…

More Views from the City

Heading Back Towards the River

Back on the main road after crossing the river we found a small place that looked like it had a good dinner menu. We were the only ones as we were seated at a small table (noting a traditional Japanese eating area - that is, tatami mats that you sat on with a low table - was off to the side) and ordered our food. Mother had a meal of three chicken skewers with rice and miso soup on the side. I had the Hida Beef which was served with an assortment of vegetables and cooked at the table in a small bowl over a candle.


It was very good but a bit a bit pricy.

Restaurant Interior

We arrived early for our train at the train station so went into the station building where there were a number of people waiting. I was still a bit hungry so visited a stall selling some local food and ordered some “soy sauce flavoured rice balls” - These are small balls of (solid) rice that are on skewers and flavoured, in this case (though they have other flavours too), soy sauce. I ordered three but was given five as the ladies serving me thought I was funny! If only that worked in the UK…We picked up a few other things to eat on the train as well. It was going to be a long trip back and no where near as interesting.

Eventually the train was announced and we made our way to the platform (through the wooden gates again!) to see the train pull in and go past…then return. It was early for our 6:45 departure so we sat on board and tried to warm up a bit. It has been a very cold day. The trip to Nagoya was, as expected, quite boring with only the occasional glimpses outside of the window of anything interesting. The train did seem to be me to be traveling a bit faster this time too. I am sure the train into Takayama is meant for enjoying.

Train for Nagoya

During the trip we did have time to digest a bit of what we had seen today. A really interesting place that must be absolutely beautiful in the summer but we also suspect very busy with tourists. It was quite a good idea we made the effort to visit as this is not something I think the average Western visitor would see when they visit Japan. It is just all so neat looking and interesting…The history, the buildings, the scenery…Did not meet many local people but those we met were very friendly.

We arrived at Nagoya just a bit earlier than our scheduled 9:00 so we had a few more minutes to catch our train back to Kyoto at 9:20. We arrived in Kyoto at about 10:15 and made our way back to the hotel on the subway.

Another very busy day indeed. I am not sure we can keep this up. I am definitely going to try to slow down over the next few days…

>> Next: Day 8

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