So after two weeks in Tokyo, we took our Japan Rail Passes and our backpacks and hopped on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Two trains and 4 hours later we were transported back in time to 18th century Japan in a town called Takayama.
Takayama is one of Japan’s many hot springs towns and a popular tourist destination for Japanese and Gaijin alike as it is known for having some of the most well-preserved Edo-period streets and buildings in Japan. The whole point of coming however was to go to a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese hotel.
At first I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to a ryokan. Nice ones are incredibly expensive and, per usual in Japan, the language barrier is pretty intense. Further, we’d heard that those that do cater to tourists are often overpriced and not particularly nice. But we eventually decided that sometimes budgets are meant to be tossed out the window and, besides, it happened to be our second wedding anniversary so why not?!
Takayama turned out to be a charming, lovely place. Making it even better was that we got lucky and accidentally found ourselves there on one of their two annual festival days! There are dozens of giant floats that parade around on festival day on creaking wooden wheels, dragged by men in traditional dress. School children sit on top of the floats playing drums or recorders and occasionally chanting. The floats are hundreds of years old and they only come out twice a year for festivals. All other times they live in these giant warehouses that are located all throughout the town.
So we had a lovely day of walking around the festival, but the true main event was to be our ryokan experience complete with its own onsen (hot spring bath). When we entered the ryokan, we were greeted by the owner, an extremely kind older lady named Mrs. Tanabe who, surprisingly, spoke a decent amount of English.
We removed our shoes and were shown to our room, which in traditional style was simply a room with tatami mats on the floor and no furniture other than a low table. This room is your bedroom, living room and dining room. You are served dinner in the room, following dinner your maids come (in traditional dress of course) and clean up and move the table away. They then take your beds out of the closet (which are, like, thick cushions that roll up) and set those up in the middle of the room. In the morning, they reverse the procedure and set up your table for breakfast. While in the ryokan, you wear your traditional Yakata robe — not just in the room, but everywhere. It feels a bit odd to be walking around in public in what is essentially a cotton bathrobe, but everyone else is doing it too. Kat was able to choose the color of her yakata, but I was given just the standard one given to all men. Bummer.
So, what exactly do you DO while you’re waiting around for your in-room dinner and breakfast? Obviously, you go to the onsen downstairs, which is the hot spring bath.
We had to do a bit of research before going to figure out how the onsen works. First, they are separated by sex, so Kat and I had to go to separate onsens. You go to the changing room just outside and take off your yakata. You then take a (very, very small) towel and that’s sort of a washcloth/genital covering (though most people don’t bother with that). You first take a little stool and sit on it (why you have to sit on this stool, I have no idea) and you wash yourself at one of the little stations which you see at the left of the photo. This is critical — you MUST fully bathe before you get in the pool, as that pool water is shared by everyone. No one wants to sit in someone else’s dirty bathwater. After that bathing is done, you go and either sit in this pool OR (and this was my choice) you go sit in one of the cauldrons outside which is constantly being filled with running fresh hot spring water (you can see the blue tub in the background). The tub was a bit tight for my western butt, but it was still really nice. We relaxed in our separate onsens for about an hour. Kat had a nice chat with an australian lady, while I had a hilarious cultural exchange with three Japanese dudes. They were REALLY surprised to see a white guy in there and they kept stealing glances at me. Finally one had the courage to ask where I was from and they were surprised to hear America. Thankfully, while the Japanese are super uptight, even they seem to recognize the ridiculousness of everyone just hanging around naked chatting as if you’re not.
So we came back to our room, clean and relaxed and feeling great. Little did we know that the true fun was about to begin. The maids came at 7 pm to serve dinner. Dinner was in the Kaiseki Ryori style — basically oldey timey haute cuisine, with over a dozen courses (click the link if you want a more detailed explanation of the food). This dinner was one of the most amazing of my life and I’ll remember it forever. The food was delicious and so unlike any thing else I’ve ever eaten.
Then it was time for sleep. Sleeping on the mats on the floor wasn’t bad, though I could have done without the buckwheat pillow. It was ok, but I think I’ll stick to a standard bed.
We had to be up at 7 am for breakfast. Breakfast was a less ornate affair and was traditional japanese breakfast, which was interesting but, to be honest, pickled fish at 7 am is a bit much even for me.
After breakfast there was only time for a quick shower before we had to check-out of the ryokan and head to the train station for an epic long day of shinkansen train travel that would take us 1000 kilometers away aaall the way to Fukuoka in the south of Japan. Takayama was a cute town and the ryokan was an amazing experience that I recommend everyone do if they’re visiting japan, but one day and one night was enough. Time to get back to modern Japan and all the weird, wacky stuff that comes with that. More to come!