ROAD TRIP!!! One car, six girls, bags of snacks, cups of coffee, even a homemade carrot cake – we were on our way to Takayama and Shirakawa-go, a 4+ hour drive from Tokyo to a land of thatched roof houses and magnificent fall foliage. We had 36 hours to see and do as much as possible and even though the car navi said it would take 5 1/2 hours to get to Takayama, we put the proverbial pedal to the medal and made it in
4 – an hour before our lunch reservation at the hundred year old soba shop. This gave us time to scope out the town of Takayama, a foothold of the Tokugawa Shogunate; a feudal regime of shoguns. We visited the Takayama Jinya, an historical asset that was built as a villa originally but then taken over as an administrative office. It was beautifully restored. The kitchen, with current appliances would have been right at home in a ski lodge in Aspen. Here is a photo.
Lunch at the hundred year old soba shop did not disappoint. The bowl was almost too beautiful to eat, but it didn’t stop us from diving in.
After lunch, we spent an hour walking up and down the edo style streets, walking in and out of the small shops, buying more snacks and fun Japanese crafts. The streets were fairly crowded for a Monday and many Japanese were dressed in Kimono. Around 4pm, we made our way to the ryokan, the Japanese inn where we would spend the night. Although it was located on a main street, next to a gas station, as soon as you entered through the torii gate, past the iron gas lamps, you left the modern street behind. Actually, as soon as we pulled in to the parking lot across the street, a man ran towards us as though he was waiting in the window, watching for our arrival. He grabbed every bag he could possibly manage (even though many of us were taller than him) and led us inside. We were immediately welcomed and invited to sit by the fire for a welcome cup of tea and Japanese sweets. Our room had two floors, a living area downstairs with a private deck with our own onsen outside and a sleeping room upstairs. We cocktailed in our living area, snacking on wasabi rice crackers and vacuum packed chestnuts and played “would you rather” which got pretty survivor-like quickly. Before dinner, we went in the onsen and soaked in the hot water outside in the pitch dark. Warm and a bit fuzzy, we dressed in our custom chosen yukata and went to dinner in the inn. I’ve included a photo down below of our table waiting for us in our private dining room. Like most ryokan, dinner was completely Japanese and we had fun seeing who would eat what. The two most adventurous in our group, Katherine and Efrot seemed to have no problem eating almost anything on their plate but the rest of us needed input before taking a stab at some of it. The main course was Hida beef which we cooked ourselves on hot stones over a grill in the middle of the table. The five small bits we were all served were delicious and left us wanting more. And so, when the final course of the main meal was served: beef to be eaten raw, we waited until our server left the room and Libby threw her raw beef on the stone and cooked it too. We all followed her lead. After dinner we were invited to the main room of the lodge to do tin art with the sensei. He had cut beer cans into squares and framed them and showed us how to turn them into something beautiful. I made a replica of one of the thatched roof houses we would see the next day. Here is a photo:
After we finished our works of art, we returned to our sleeping room to find 6 futons laid side by side. We tucked in and fell fast asleep; well the rest of the girls did and after an ambien, I joined them.
Our plan was to wake up early and go to the morning market by the river but when the alarm went off at 7, it was raining and so we went back to bed and decided to skip the market. We did manage to get back on the road by 10 and we expected a 50 minute drive to Shirakawa-go using the new road and tunnel but 30 minutes later, after driving through one of the longest tunnel i’ve ever been in, we were there. And the magic began. Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site and as soon as you drive down the road and spot the first of many of these very special houses you immediately know why. Shirakawa-go has some of the densest snowfall on Earth and it is believed to be the reason why these homes were built with these roofs. Here are a few of the houses but they are literally scattered everywhere. We pretty much ran through fields, amazed by each one we would find – there were at least fifty of them spread out in the small village. Each one unique and yet the same. Many of them have been turned into small shops and minshuku (inns that are more basic then ryokan). It started to rain while we were there but we soldiered on, not stopping until we had seen the last house and shopped in the last shop. We were hungry but there was no room anywhere as the bus loads of Japanese tourists had arrived and so back in the car we went to Takayama for a tasty lunch of more Hida beef cooked on our own individual grills. After lunch, we quickly got back on the road, knowing it would be a long drive back to Tokyo. What we hadn’t figured on was SNOW! An actual blizzard. We came through the end of a very long tunnel and found ourselves at the top of a snow covered mountain road where the traffic had come to a complete stop. Two cars had already crashed into the side of the mountain and every other car bus and truck stopped in their tracks while their drivers put chains on their tires. After years of driving to Windham in the snow on dark Friday nights, I felt confident to serpentine through the parked cars and buses and continue slowly down the mountain. We drove for about 1/2 hour in the snow and then popped out of another long tunnel into Fall weather. With a huge sigh of relief, we continued on towards home. It was only 36 hours but it was plenty. We came, we saw, we ate a lot of food.