From Kyoto, we headed northeast and up into the mountains to Takayama. We got a bit of dreary and damp weather during our four days in Takayama, but it was a welcome break from the warmth in Kyoto. We also had the largest apartment of our whole time in Japan and relished in a little extra space! It was especially nice to have more than a tiny efficiency kitchen and we had fun riding bikes to the grocery store and cooking actual meals again. And for the second year in a row we had our own little ex-pat Cinco de Mayo celebration and made carnitas. Our apartment was located a little ways outside of the town and it was a nice change of pace to experience the more rural side of Japanese life.
Takayama is an old merchant town known for its well-preserved historic district that dates back to the Edo period, as well as for its spring and fall festivals that involve elaborate floats, and for sake! Like Kyoto, Takayama attracts a lot of domestic tourism and since we were there at the tail end of Golden Week we still had some large groups to contend with. But then everything cleared out and the town was very quiet at the end of our stay.
Our time in Takayama was spent mostly just wandering the streets of the historic merchant district, and through the old temples and shrines. We did a self-guided walking tour of the temples which were nestled in the hillside among giant conifers.
Several homes in the old town are open to the public and we took the opportunity to wander back in time through a traditional merchant’s home. I really enjoyed seeing the wooden storefronts and structures that are hundreds of years old and incredibly well-preserved; the temples are always so peaceful, perfectly manicured grounds. We also found plenty of time for street foods and treats, of course. Since the area is known for its sake production we made sure to do some tasting and found a shop that did nearly unlimited tastings for 300¥ (~ $3), including a cup! Not knowing much about the different styles and qualities of sake, I had fun getting to try them side by side.
We continued further up into the mountains to the onsen (hot spring) town of Hirayu, a very small town whose main draw is the naturally hot water that courses under the ground. (It was so small that we had dinner at the same ramen shop both nights since it was the only restaurant not associated with a hotel!) It was very cute but there wasn’t much to do other than soak in the hot springs and go on some nature walks. It was a good way to force ourselves to relax and slow down a bit, especially before the hecticness of Tokyo that awaited us.
In Hirayu, we stayed at our first and last ryokan (traditional hotel) of our whole time in Japan. I quite enjoyed it! We opted not to do our meals there as it was very expensive so we didn’t get the whole ryokan experience, but we did sleep on tatami mats and sat at the low table while we sipped our green tea. Our ryokan had its own hotsprings so we would slip on our traditional robes and go relax in the hot water. The hotel even provided instructions for westerners on how to wear the robes and properly use the onsen, which I appreciated!
There were plenty of onsen to check out in Hirayu but we opted to use the one in our hotel. Most onsen are segregated by gender as you are meant to be completely nude and we were more interested in sharing the experience together. So, luckily our ryokan had two small private onsen that were available for us to use. We especially liked being able to soak in the hot water while out under the stars, with a few flakes of snow falling around us. One thing I especially liked about the town was the little public onsen for soaking your feet! And we noticed that the there were vents along the side of the streets with hot spring water coursing underneath––they use the naturally hot water to heat the roads and keep them from icing over! Unfortunately all of that steam from the hot springs makes the town smell a little bit like sulphur…
We also got to do a little bit of outdoor exploring and went on a beautiful hike just outside of town. It was a bit chilly and a little damp, but that was bearable since we knew we had a nice hot onsen waiting for us! We hiked to a beautiful waterfall and then kept going through the forest and got some beautiful scenery. And even just walking around the quiet town we got some incredible views of the surrounding mountains.
After the crowds in Osaka, Kyoto, and Takayama, Hirayu felt a little bit off the beaten and we enjoyed getting to experience a different aspect of Japanese life.
Check out some more photos of our time in the mountains here.
Up next: TOKYO! And the end of our adventures. 😦