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jugatsu 31 (oct)
It was a long ride to Takayama: a couple of hours west to Nagoya by Shinkansen or bullet train, then a couple more on an express. The train heading north into Gifu prefecture to what is known as the Japanese Alps, following the Hida river in a spectacular stretch, at first along a rock canyon. Deep and narrow, the pale beige rock along its sides reflected in the dark slow moving current, creating the illusion of even deeper walls. The winding river was spanned at intervals with small, gracefully arched bridges and some plain metal ones - one red, now white, then blue, red or white again. Tunnel after tunnel covered the road; you never knew what side the river would be on when you emerged from the darkness.

I love morning markets! There's a sense of local life in the air. I walked to a different one each morning I was there. Among the vegetable stalls were bagged cut veggies, some pickled, others processed by hand in some way, and the vendors provided small bowls or cups with tasters. Handcrafted goods included odd stuffed red dolls with no face (a mascot of the area), balls of twisted wood which I discovered were cat toys, and pretty little bags containing six little beanbag balls each. I pointed to the beanbag kit and asked two women, 'Nan da ke?' (What is it?) They said something in Japanese and I'm sure I gave them a blank look. Then one grabbed a couple and started juggling them, shouting 'Child toy!'

The old wooden houses and shops in Takayama's historic section came alive in early morning as the shop owners came out to set up their displays. The area is known for its small sake breweries that offer free tasters and bottles for sale. In the evening, I had a few drinks wandering the streets and bought a bottle to bring back to Tokyo. The quiet streets were poignant at night, especially if you imagine the electric lights replaced by gas or flame, and dirt or gravel instead of asphalt on the streets. You could be transported back centuries.

A day bus trip to Shirakawa-ko brought me to the Unesco World Heritage village of dark brown wood cottages topped by steeply angled, thick thatch roofs, well preserved probably because it was so isolated in years past. Gassho-zukuri, the architectural style, means 'praying hands'. You may have seen the mysterious looking photos of the houses covered in deep snow, lit up and glowing at night. A photo at the site shows about a hundred people all over one roof replacing the thatch. It was a delight to walk around, especially since it's still lived-in with laundry hanging, garden plots in yards, cloth scarecrows loitering around the rows, late season vegetables ripening.

My last morning there, I visited the small country houses at the Takayama Folk Village - not as well known as Shirakawa-go, but with its own rural beauty. Yellow, orange and red trees were mixed with green ones around a lake. And craftspeople worked weaving, dyeing, carving and making pottery.

I stayed at a temple, still functioning, but now also in use as a hostel with simple tatami rooms. A former American Buddhist monk there, surprisingly a transplant from Colorado, recommended a local style restaurant in one of the old houses for dinner. I had an assortment of delicious, wild mountain plants one night with a warm bottle of local sake. It was so good, I went back the next and had meat, vegetables and tofu on a leaf with miso bean paste over a little grill set up at my table for me to tend.

A few weeks ago, I took a day trip to Kawagoe, another closer town with historic wooden buildings preserved on its main street. The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the street food. I sampled yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick) and various sweets; my favorite was a chestnut paste spread between pancakes shaped like fish. At 3:00pm, the landmark bell tower rang out and all the Japanese tourists looked up and snapped photos.


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