The hustle and bustle of the Tokyo Quilt Festival was overwhelming after a while. Two days wandering Takayama with my friend Keiko seemed like a good way to settle down a bit and catch my breath.
Except for the trains. Oh boy, the trains. There aren’t a lot of direct trains to Takayama, and my trip up included an assortment of very nice, very local, and very-filled-with-foreign-tourists.
I didn’t buy the Japan Rail Pass this trip as it looked like I wouldn’t be on the trains as much as I had been over the summer. That meant buying tickets at full price (YIKES!), but in the end it worked out to me spending about the same or less as if I had bought the Rail Pass and used it for three weeks, when I only needed it for a few days at either end of my trip.
Buying train tickets at the major city stations means finding the office where all the foreigners are standing, waiting in line until someone who speaks English (thank you!) looks at the schedule on a computer and hands you a ticket. Or in my case, several tickets.
I started on the plush and cozy Hakutaka Super Express out of Tokyo. Bright sunshine and clear skies gradually gave way to patchy clouds, then a soft white sky. Snow fell like rain. I watched my neighbors eating their ekiben (train station bento meals) and wished I had not been in such a hurry to catch the train. My stomach rumbled. A train conductor walked silently through the car, counted passengers but did not check tickets. Sunlight bounced off the snow, and passengers lowered their window shades to block the glare. I napped.
At Toyama station I transferred to a small, local train right after school got out. Trading the luxury of the Shinkansen for a local meant sitting in a cramped, old car filled with students wearing similar school uniforms to their Tokyo peers, but with more sensible winter shoes. We were edging deeper into snow country, and the under seat heaters kept my boots warm the whole long, slow, grinding way.
At Inotani station we traded up to a newer two-car train, this one mostly filled with tourists heading to Takayama. Some were families from Southeast Asia and had never experienced snow before, some were young Europeans (they brought skis), and a few were Americans. In all, about 20 of us oooh-ed and ahhh-ed our way up through the mountains and into deeper snow, phone cameras snapping away. Few locals came on this part of the route, and those who did were only on for one or two stops.
We arrived at the newly renovated Takayama train station in late afternoon to waning sunlight and brisk, fat flakes of blowing snow. Keiko was there to greet me, pile my suitcases into her car, and haul me off to someplace warm: her kitchen.
We removed our shoes at the door and slipped into her tiny kitchen where a small, old floor heater was humming. The table in the center of the kitchen had a traditional kotatsu, or heater hidden in the floor under the table. A thick quilt drapes over the table and one sits with feet below floor level, legs kept warm by the rising heat and quilt. Dinner was a simple soup with cabbage, tofu, and pork that tasted like the best comfort food ever after a day on the trains. We drank sake and talked about the quilt show until the heaters overloaded a circuit breaker and the kitchen went dark. A hurried conversation over the phone helped her find the switch, reset the breaker, and save the day. Not long after that we called it a night. I crawled into a cozy futon on the tatami floor in her spare room and slept like the dead.
Breakfast the next morning consisted of bacon, eggs, rice, broccoli, miso, and tea. A feast. At 9:00 we went out to view the Takayama annual Winter Festival, with vendors hawking hot food, hand crafts, and bargains from local shops.
One of the local sake breweries was open for tours, something they only do a one week a year, and I was fortunate to get a guide who spoke English as she had studied at Mills College in Oakland, near my home.
The bright morning dipped into a cold, blustery afternoon and the snow fell with much abandon. Some vendors packed up and called it a day, but most persevered.
Shops kept doors and windows open, ignoring the cold, enticing tourists in with the smells of savory food and fresh sweets. I dodged fast-moving locals with umbrellas and slow-moving clusters of tourists as I ducked in and out of shops in the old part of town.
Everywhere you go in Takayama you’ll find sarubobo (さるぼぼ) dolls, which are typically human shaped, but sometimes not. This shop was filled with rabbits large and small, including sarubobo.
Side note as a person who did not grow up in snow country:
My fashionable leather boots were waterproof and had good snow traction, but they did have an embarrassing drawback. Every time I removed my boots at the door of a home or restaurant, I would leave them on a cold landing. Then I would sit with my feet heated by a kotatsu or even just a blanket, and my feet would swell. Pulling my cold boots back on would devolve from a simple act to a comedy of errors. More times than I care to admit on this trip, I ended up apologizing for holding up friends who would look away and pretend they didn’t know this clumsy American who couldn’t even put her shoes on.
Even last summer I struggled to get my sandals off and on in Japan’s crazy humid heat. Back home in temperate California this was never a problem. I’m sure some of you are probably laughing at me right now.
Later in the afternoon it was time for me to catch my next train. Keiko packed my gear back into her car and we drove through the snow to the station. Takayama is famous for ornate yatai, or festival floats, and this beauty was on display inside the station gates. I was early for my train, so I had time to admire the craftsmanship involved in the many stages of building, carving, lacquering, and gilding a yatai.
No ekiben for me again, but Keiko had made sure I had snacks in my bag before we left her house. As the sun set, I left Takayama on the Hida Limited Express heading for my next destination, Osaka.