HIGHLIGHT RECAP—DAY FOUR: Matsumoto and Hida Takayama
– We woke to a glorious, sunshiny day in the mountains. Many took advantage of our early rising and headed up the funicular, which really is just fun to say, to the outdoor hot springs. I can’t think of many better ways to start the day.
– The ritual of entering the hot springs is somewhat elaborate. First, you must dress in the yukata in your room folding the right side over first and then the left (it’s only worn the other way at funerals—if you’re the one being mourned). You tie the kimono with a sash going from front to back then tying in the front. Then there is an “overcoat” of sorts that you can wear on top to keep warm. House slippers are to be worn, not shoes, but only to the end of the carpet in the bath house. Once you step up onto the wood, you must be barefoot or in socks. Then, you must undress, completely (bathing suits are VERY much not allowed) and sit on a little wooden stool in front of a hand shower. Then you must wash yourself completely from head to toe using soap, scrubbing briskly with the hand towel you are given, and even shampoo and conditioner if you want, though Mimi explained that hair should not touch or fall into the water. So, long hair should be tied up and short hair should be kept above the waterline. After washing, you must wash off the stool and the bucket there for drenching before getting into the hot springs. Then, its just you and your hand towel, moving from the hot hot pool to the warm pool and back again until you feel adequately relaxed and cleansed. But don’t let the hand towel touch the water. It was used to clean you and therefore shouldn’t go in the springs, so Mimi showed us how to tie it around our heads, resulting in a somewhat Minnie Mouse effect. The springs we visited were both down below in the main hotel building and up the funicular to a wooden building on the hill with baths inside and out. My favorite was a little one-person bucket filled with very hot water. When else do you get to bathe in a bucket?
– Breakfast at the hotel was typical Japanese fare, a combination of sweet egg cakes, salads, and yogurt with cereals. A typical local breakfast dish that Kuma had been looking forward to was a bowl of rice that they mix a braised egg and some soy sauce into.
– After breakfast we realized we had some extra time, so the wife of the innkeeper took us across the street to see her beautiful traditional tea house. Again the ritual of the shoe removal, which confounds us Americans, made for some funny moments, but once we were inside we admired the simple beauty of the structure and the gardens surrounding the building. It couldn’t have been any more idyllic with the waterfall cascading into a pond filled with carp and ducks. The transition from Tokyo to this quiet mountain retreat was quite a contrast and a nice way to unwind from the hustle.
– Next up, Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto, Nagano. Completed in 1594 with some later additions and reconstructions, it’s an impressive historical structure and we climbed up through all its six floors. The stairs were very steep, very tall, and very narrow. Our tallest trip member was definitely at a disadvantage trying to navigate his way through the maze of dark wood stairs and beams. The castle has holes in the walls designed for shooting enemies with arrows (and later guns brought over by the Portuguese missionaries) and slots designed for dropping rocks down on their heads. Passages were made extra wide for the era to accommodate samurai warriors running back and forth wearing their full armor. Since we were shoeless again, it was a sensory treat to feel the smooth timeworn wood floors under our feet.
– Lunch had us feeling a little tentative when we heard the restaurant had decided we would be eating “hashed beef” though they originally told Mimi and Kuma that we would have our choice of entrees. But, as usual, the restaurant knew best since “hashed beef” turned out to be a delicious beef-stew cooked with delicate, tiny shiitake mushrooms served with rice, bonito cooked with leeks, and miso soup.
-Then it was back on the bus for the winding beautiful drive up to Hida Takayama. We drove on exceedingly narrow roads, each of us holding our breaths as we passed trucks and buses in the many tunnels and tight curves.
– First stop in Takayama was the Yoshijima House. Built in 1907 by the master carpenter Nishida Isaburo according to the traditional town house architecture of Takayama, it originally housed the sake manufacturing and sales of the Yoshijima family as well as their money lending business. The wooden beams are impressive and beautiful, criss-crossing the upper space. The rest of the expansive space is broken up into smaller rooms with tatami mats covering all the floors. These rooms could be used for whatever purpose and were flexible to accommodate changing needs. Furniture is moved in and out to help determine the function at any given time and so storehouses were needed to house the furnishings (as well as their treasures) in large Japanese homes. Nature was incorporated into the living spaces of the house with pocket gardens and open roof areas, providing both beauty and ventilation.
– The highlight of our trip may well have been our time with owner (and also an architect) Tadao Yoshijima, a descendent of the Yoshijima family. He apologized for his “simple explanation” of the house’s architecture then dove into a lengthy description of truss systems and the differences and similarities between his family house and the neighboring house. They then treated us to soft ice cream and sake before Yoshijima invited us into his studio in the back of the house complex—his inner sanctum—where he treated us to more sake, some local spirits and some very loud jazz. It felt like we had been invited to the coolest swinging cocktail party in town.
– This region is known for its beef (though we’ve noticed we haven’t seen any cows) so we walked to a lovely restaurant tonight where you cook your own meat and vegetables on a roof tile over a flame. They call it kawara-yaki. It was delicious. Young Dezmond was especially happy because he had never cooked his own food like that before.