This article series tells the story of my honeymoon in Japan in September this year. I hope you enjoy Part 3!
All photographs in this article have been taken by me and my wife. You can click on them to see them in bigger size.
The next morning, we were off to Hikone (彦根), a wonderful small town roughly the size of my hometown, Dobrich. As the local daimyo Ii Naomasa (井伊 直政) once wore a helmet with huge horns, the local mascot nowadays is an overwhelmingly cute white cat wearing such a helmet. Hikone is a town situated near the large lake Biwa, and, as we climbed a hill to see an awesome castle with nearly impenetrable defences (which no-one even dared to actually attack), we could also catch a beautiful view of the vast lake in the distance. While we saw the castle, the local guide told us about the Ii daimyo and their important role in Japanese history – Naomasa was Tokugawa Ieyasu’s most trusted ally that helped him seize power initially, while Naosuke (井伊 直弼) was again a very close man to the last Tokugawa shogun, and his assassination proved that the shogun no longer has enough power even to protect his most trusted men, eventually leading to the shogun relinquishing his power to the emperor, which started the Meiji era in Japan.
On our way back to the train station, we enjoyed a walk through an absolutely beautiful park, seeing ducks and swans swimming happily. I have a soft spot for small towns, which started with my first visit to Italy when I absolutely loved Bergamo, and Hikone was the first such town in Japan to truly resonate with me, so I was quite happy it was included in our tour program.
Then, we went back to Kyoto and quickly headed to see some more temples, and more particularly, Kiyomizu. We encountered lots of cute Japanese girls in kimonos, more than any other day, and we even reached a sacred spring everyone went to cleanse themselves from in the Shinto tradition. The line was insanely long! So we skipped doing so ourselves. There was also a cute “love stone,” or rather, a pair of them – you had to make a love wish and walk from the one to the other (some 30 metres away) with your eyes closed. If you could reach the other successfully, your wish would come true. Interestingly, as we and hundreds of other people were walking in and around the temple, repairs on the wooden pillars supporting the temple area some distance below us were going on.
Afterwards, we saw some guys pulling rickshaws – a nice attraction for the tourists. Then, we headed to the Gion district, known as the geisha district, and we learned a lot about geisha (or geiko, as they are called in Kyoto) and maiko – the apprentice geishas. We went to the Gion Corner theatre to see a show presenting 7 traditional Japanese arts – tea ceremony (茶道), koto/Japanese harp (箏), flower arrangement (華道), court music (雅楽), comic play (狂言), Kyoto-style dance (京舞) and the extremely fascinating bunraku puppet play (文楽). The first three weren’t particularly exciting, though the Japanese harp was interesting to listen to. The court music seemed rather random, I couldn’t really catch a melody… But then, the good stuff started! The comic play was really hilarious, apparently, it’s typically performed during No play interludes. It was a fun story of a master and his two servants who really liked sake. The Kyoto dancing was a visual treat, as two real maiko participated and their graceful moves easily attracted everyone’s attention. Bunraku was really fascinating – three people, all completely dressed in black (including covers on their heads) so that they were almost invisible against the dark background, moved a large puppet around and made it “act” with their combined effort.
In the evening, there was another vending machine surprise in store. I decided to try also the Dragonball cider, and inserted another 100円… After I picked up my can, my wife noticed that the vending machine was still lit for some reason, and I saw that the electronic displays for the prices were showing smiley faces now! And the 100円 drinks were lit for selection. She pressed the Dragonball cola button and another can fell out… Apparently, I’d randomly won an extra drink priced the same as the one I’d just bought! What an awesome feature. To top it all, the cola can actually had Vegeta on it this time.
On the next morning, we headed to Kanazawa (金沢), and we saw some awesome things already at the train station – a pretty awesome gate with pillars in the form of Japanese taiko drums, and a clock whose numbers were made out of little water fountains. As our sightseeing for the day began, we headed to the so-called samurai district, where we could see former samurai houses. Apparently, now they were still inhabited, by ordinary people. We entered the house of samurai clan Nomura, now tourist attraction, and marvelled at the beauty of the house and especially the garden – a typical Japanese-style garden with a lake, lots of rocks and, of course, greenery – trees, bushes, grass, flowers, moss…
Then, we went to a golden shop where they made incredibly thin gold leaves for decoration of various objects – chopsticks, owl (梟) figures – the owl brings good fortune, according to Japanese, welcoming cats, etc., etc. We saw a woman carefully cutting gold leaves into a square shape, throwing out the remains, and we got to eat some of those remains. Gold doesn’t have a taste. After a nice seafood dinner at a Japanese restaurant where we tried shrimp sashimi, crab claws and marlin fish, me and the wife went geocaching again… To meet our first and only geocaching failure in Japan – the cache was supposed to be behind one of the countless stones at the entrance of the then-closed Kanazawa park, and we couldn’t quickly find it. There were too many people around and we decided not to be too suspicious by looking further.
In the morning, after an interesting Japanese breakfast with five different kinds of rice at Toyoku Inn, where we were staying, we had a nice walk in the Kanazawa park, and went to a tea house where we had some delicious macha tea. The park is quite beautiful, though it was getting hard to be impressed, as we’d seen ones like it at several locations in Japan already. Then, we saw the fascinating Kanazawa castle, where a guide and former trade office worker explained how difficult it is to be a worker in Japan… They apparently could only really take 5-6 days off per year, despite the contracts giving them 20. Keep that in mind if you ever think of living there! Afterwards, we went to the fascinating Museum of Modern Art, where the finest attraction was a “swimming pool” that was actually just 10 cm of water on a glass window, and people below looked like they were swimming inside the pool. Then, it was time to leave Kanazawa.
We headed to the rural area called Shirakawa-go (白川郷), a World Heritage site. It’s only reachable by road, so we took a bus there. Already on the bus station, a very pleasant surprise expected me. I saw a Japanese guy there, playing his PSP… When I got closer and looked at his screen, I was incredibly delighted to find out he was actually playing Xenogears!!! Wow. That sure was unexpected… To see one of my absolute favourite games played in this remote (albeit a tourist attraction) Japanese village. Speaking of PSP, I saw several of them being played by random people in Japan. I saw even more 3DSes, probably even over 10 (and not a single Vita). On one of the final days of our trip, we even saw a couple, each playing their own 3DS and competing with each other. In a few moments, the girl pumped her fist, and the guy shook his head in disappointment. It was cute.
Back on topic, Shirakawa-go is actually the name of the region, while the village we were in is called Ogimachi (荻町). It’s a really beautiful village with very particular houses – the roofs are really steep and thick, made of many layers of rice straw. This is due to the heavy winter, and prevents too much snow from accumulating on the roof. The villagers used to make a living by growing silkworms. I imagine tourism has taken over now, but people were still living quite normally there, taking care of their gardens, etc. There were also several rice fields and a nice little stream. We bought a pink tomato from an old lady for 50円 – way cheaper than you’d find it in any store, as fruits and vegetables are quite expensive in Japan. We also ate sake-flavoured ice cream – that was quite interesting. And we dipped our feet into the almost icy cold water of the stream, bringing us much-needed refreshment from the September heat, apparently quite common for Japan.
Then, we went uphill to enjoy a marvellous view of the village, and took quite a few pictures there. There were a couple of little waterfalls on the way there, which was quite nice. After we came back down, we went to an outdoor museum that had more of these cute houses, and you could enter and see what they looked like from the inside. Silkworms were kept on the top floor, where it would be the warmest in winter. We couldn’t figure out what they fed them with, though. There sure were no mulberry trees around. There was another nice river with some bridges and stepping stones to cross it on, and there was a little playground of sorts, where you could get on a little zip line, or take pictures with Japanese villager hats. Once we had had our fun, it was time to catch the bus to Takayama.
Takayama (高山), also called Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Hida being the region it’s in, is a wonderful, relatively small town which is close to a mountain. To be honest, the evening we got there, I wasn’t thrilled with the town at all, as it didn’t seem to have much to offer. We were picked up at the bus station by a really nice employee of Murayama ryokan, where we were to stay (I suspect he was even the owner). Interestingly, while its onsen was indoors-only (a huge disappointment), it also had a “family” onsen that me and the wife took advantage of later that night. Anyway, we left our luggage at the ryokan and went to have dinner in the town centre.
Dinner was fabulous – apparently, Hida is also known for its fine beef, second best in Japan after Kobe’s. So most of the group wanted to try it. Me and the wife decided to order beef sukiyaki (すき焼き), and we were brought the raw ingredients, a little cooker and a pot to cook it into! The waitress showed us how it’s done, and I finished myself. How nice, being able to cook your own meal. Albeit we still had to pay a hefty price that had no discount to compensate our efforts. The sukiyaki was really delicious, although we didn’t quite get the message that the eggs supplied were supposed to be just used in a raw state, like sauce for the meat. Instead, we cooked them along with the rest of the ingredients and ate them happily. But, aside from that, the town seemed so boring…
The next day, though, I would see how wrong I was. Activity in the little town had died down at sunset the previous night, but the next day would reveal its wonders. As we went downtown, we saw the river and the wonderful bridge with some strange statues of mythical creatures on it. At the other side of the river, there was a lively morning market, and it was full of people. All kinds of things were sold, particularly fruits and vegetables, the small eggplants being one of the things that caught our attention, as we only have big ones in Bulgaria. There was also a guy selling tiny beef skewers, at 300円 apiece… We couldn’t resist the temptation despite the outrageous price, as they were practically three small bites, all in all. We saw a “dog buggy” on the market… Practically a stroller with dogs inside. Just walk your dogs, people… Then, we visited some rich family’s house from days long gone, and a sake brewery shop where we could taste various kinds of sake. My wife volunteered to taste unfiltered sake which amazed the salesman and our Japanese guide alike – it’s probably not a taste foreigners are fond of. But it tasted quite interesting.
Speaking of our guide, she was telling us about how she normally lives in Vancouver, and is only in Takayama temporarily, to help her father. She thought Vancouver was a much nicer city to live in, which made me shake my head with disappointment… Heaven-on-earth is apparently too little, if you live there and are used to it. Such are the fickle human minds. She also told us about the Spring and Autumn Takayama Festivals, which are apparently a sight to see, with many beautiful floats that we learned the history of. Sadly, our time frame didn’t coincide with either of the two.
Then, as we had some time to ourselves, me and the wife went geocaching, heading towards a cache that was to be in a park. Soon enough, we reached a relatively steep hill. The 300 metres in straight line remaining according to the GPS app on my wife’s phone could amount to quite a bit of walking up and around the hill. There were still houses around, growing more scarce, and we climbed up slowly. Suddenly, as we passed a grassy area at the right side of the road, a strange creature appeared out of nowhere… It was one we had seen in Studio Ghibli movies! It was quite interesting, something between a deer and a goat. I found out later it was called “Japanese serow“… We assumed it to be domesticated, as there were several houses nearby, however, as we tried to get closer and pet it, it made several quick jumps and disappeared into the forest… My wife said she thought we had seen a Japanese kami because it just materialised from nothingness. This was really one of our most memorable experiences from Japan because it was so genuine and unexpected, as we were still in a populated area. Small things like these create memories to be cherished years later…
As we struggled to find the entrance to the park where the cache was waiting for us, a helpful Japanese man around 60, who had been working in his garden and observing us quietly for a few minutes, came to help. He knew enough English to understand what we were looking for, and, by masterfully spreading around some bushes with his cane, showed us a well-hidden entrance leading to some narrow stairs. He also asked us if we had seen the nearby shrine, and gave us directions as well as he could when we said we hadn’t. Going up those narrow stairs, it was like we were in the jungle. Yes, there were the stairs, obviously tourist activity wasn’t terribly uncommon, but the forest was so wild. Cicadas, birds, the marvellous flora with more differences than what we were used to than similarities… I even almost literally stumbled upon a snake while I was filming with my camera and my wife was a bit further ahead. I quietly waited for it to clear the way and continued forward. We found the cache – it was well hidden behind some logs near a small monument at the hill’s summit.
After we made our way back from the other side, we encountered the man who’d just helped us again, and he asked us again if we saw the shrine. As we said we still hadn’t, he once again gave us directions, and it seemed it was very close. Our time until we had to meet the group was running out, but I quickly ran to check out the shrine he was so fond of. It was a nice, beautiful shrine, though nothing particularly special in the face of all the ones we had seen in Japan until that point… Then, we went down and turned our attention to a fascinating Takayama brochure we had acquired, one with a cute anime girl on it. Turns out the anime was called Hyouka (氷菓), and it was actually set in the town of Takayama! The map had over 15 points on it with real locations that could actually be seen in the anime, and even little screenshots from each of them in the anime. That was really fascinating to us, and we set off to find at least some of them. A lot were at and near the river, so it wasn’t too difficult of a task. I even took a picture balancing on a short stone pillar exactly as a character does in the Hyouka opening.
Needless to say, we resolved to see this anime once back in Bulgaria, and as we are back now, we are watching it these days. It is just a slice-of-life anime about four high-school junior kids solving mysteries, but it’s very entertaining nonetheless, and the heroine we saw on the brochure, Eru Chitanda, is absolutely adorable in terms of personality, too. Then, it was time to leave Takayama… But not before we got some absolutely delicious Hida Milk Purin from a convenience store! Unfortunately, and not unexpectedly, we never found that kind again. We should’ve stocked up on them. Next was our return to Tokyo, where we would be sleeping until the end of our vacation.