Going Native in the Mountains of Japan
Japan is full of tourists. When their buses drop them off, they crowd the tiny streets of the little town of Takayama and the trails of Chubusangaku National Park in Kamikochi. They snack on ice cream cones, grilled meat and glasses of sake and rival me with how many pictures they take.
Here’s the thing – they’re all Japanese tourists. I can count the number of western tourists I saw in Takayama and Kamikochi on two hands. It’s the first time I’ve been a visitor somewhere abroad alongside so many other visitors touring their own country. It was a great surprise during our four days in the Japanese Alps area and allowed us to immerse ourselves in a few pure Japanese experiences we would have otherwise missed.
A Trip to the Countryside
We arrived in Takayama after taking the Shinkansen train (otherwise known as the bullet train) from Tokyo. The train ride was nothing short of amazing and kept even a notorious train sleeper like me awake. Shortly after leaving Tokyo, we spotted Mt. Fuji, and after changing trains in Nagoya, we watched the mountains, rivers and trees appear as we approached Takayama. After months away from the mountains, we were as giddy getting back to them as Japanese school kids on a field trip (they’re everywhere right now).
A Hostel Party
After spending time touring Takayama’s temples, parks and sake breweries, we joined a dinner party at our hostel that turned out to be one of the most fun things we’ve done in Japan. Dave and I were joined by three other tourists – from Hong Kong, France and England – and loads of locals who came by to eat with their friends who run the J-Hoppers Hostel.
The party was focused on food (like most things in Japan) and we spent the evening eating way too much takoyaki. Takoyaki is traditionally a ball shaped snack made of batter and filling and cooked in a special frying pan. The original takoyaki is filled with octopus in the middle, but our party included fixings of all kinds, including hot dogs.
Round after round of takoyaki was made along with fried noodles. Balls of goodness kept getting passed to us and eventually rounds of sake were poured again and again. We chatted with new friends who worked in local guesthouses and with a 15-year old who wanted to practice his English. His name spelled in Kanji literally translates into “Cool Man” so he quickly became my favorite of the bunch. He also helped teach me how to expertly flip the takoyaki so it cooked well on all sides. Dave’s line of questioning for him included, “do you have a girlfriend?” and he was extremely embarrassed like most kids are who get cornered by Dave. One of the highlights of the night was “Cool Man” having his first taste of sake. Let’s just say he had a tough time getting it down.
Heading to the Mountains
After two nights in sleepy Takayama, we hopped on a bus to the Japanese Alps to spend two nights in the car-less resort town of Kamikochi. The area includes nothing but inns, campgrounds and trails which all sit along the river running through the park. We arrived on a foggy and rainy day and were quickly given a pair of rain boots from our inn so we could get out and explore without getting too wet.
We tromped through puddles and became soaked after a few kilometers of hiking out to Myojin Pond. We finally reached the pond and turned back when we saw an entrance fee to go further. As luck would have it, the pond is near Kamonji-Goya, a mountain hut that was built in 1880 by Kamijo Kamonji who was a guide for Rev. Walter Weston who helped introduce the Japanese Alps to people in other countries.
The hut is now a food stall for hikers, but a sunken hearth still sits in a small wood paneled room. We saw the fire and a group of people sitting around it with beer and sake and knew it was where we were meant to be. Five Japanese hikers were already there, sharing stories and talking with the man who was stoking the fire and grilling fish around it. They quickly welcomed us into their group and we laughed, drank and shared as much as we could between our limited Japanese and their limited English. Two hours later, our pants were dry, we were a little toasty and braved the wet trail back to our inn.
On our second day, we hiked in blue skies and sunny weather through snow-packed trails. The smell of pine, the mountain views and the search for bears brought back memories of Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. It felt good to be back on the trails.
Staying in a Traditional Japanese Inn
Our home for two nights was the Nishi-Itoya Lodge, a traditional Japanese Inn similar to a ryokan. It was the major splurge of our Japan trip and everything was a new experience for us.
Our room was lined with tatami mats on the floor when we arrived and it was set up to allow us to drink tea, snack and relax. While we ate dinner, one of the staff would come to the room and move the table, laying out our futons for the night.
Rooms in traditional Japanese Inns don’t have private bathrooms. You share a toilet with others on your floor and change out of your slippers into bathroom slippers when you enter.
There is also separate bathing area that is a public bath separated by men and women. Fortunately, there weren’t many people staying with us so we had the bath areas mostly to ourselves. It goes a little something like this: enter the changing room and take off your cotton yukata. Enter the bathing area naked and first rinse yourself off. Then settle into the amazingly hot public bathtub to soak in the warm water. After that, you go back to one of the shower areas, sit down on a stool and take a shower. You can then hop back into the tub if you like. The hot tub was a blessing for my aching knees after our hikes and the experience was lots of fun since I had it to myself. Why didn’t I ever think of taking a shower while sitting down? Seriously, the Japanese have thought of everything.
At the inn our breakfast and dinner was included in the price of the room and it was another full Japanese experience. A nine course dinner and a six course breakfast awaited us each time and luckily we had written menus to help us decipher the dishes.
Our first night’s menu included:
-Assorted samplers of roasted venison, Japanese apricot rolled with bamboo grass, mugwort tofu with sesame
-Grilled sweetish with salt
-Bamboo shoot sweet bun with soy-milk skin
-Mountain vegetable tempura of bud of the Angelica tree, bud of the Deciduous tree and duo
-Beef stew with rape shoots
-Rice & vegetable pickles
-Dessert of fruit
It made for an interesting dining experience, but we were happy once we were down from the mountain to find some food that was a little less intense. We found Center4 Burgers back in Takayama and happily indulged in a cheeseburger and a few Green Flash beers, along with swapping brewery recommendations with the restaurant owner.
Our time in the mountains was one of the best decisions we made for our trip to Japan. We met interesting people, had some terrific experiences and got the nature fix we’d been lacking. I’ll happily join the mobs of Japanese tourists any day.
We’re now touring around Kyoto and Osaka before heading for more mountains in New Zealand!