A day of mountain passes, hot springs, black castles and raw horse meat.
Evening folks! Welcome to Day 15 of our adventures. We started our day with coffee and breakfast in the morning at Takayama’s “Coffee Don”; this tiny cafe is run by a Japanese gentleman in his 60’s who models his establishment on a typical Italian coffee bar. He even looks like a Coffee Don! The coffee wasn’t bad (for Japan – the coffee here is generally pretty weak; espresso machines are rare, most of the time its the percolated stuff), and the “breakfast sando” ((i.e. ham, egg and salad sandwich) made for a great start to the day.
After breaky we packed our bags, checked out of the extravagant Takayama Green Hotel (it’s more like a big family resort than a hotel – at 4.5 stars its definitely the fanciest place we’ve stayed in so far!), and headed to the Takayama bus stop to catch our bus to Matsumoto. We had to do this leg of the trip by bus because there is no train line between Takayama and Matsumoto; we would have had to get a train all way from Takayama back to Nagoya (2.5 hours), and then from Nagoya back up to Matsumoto (another 2.5 hours). Rather than go the long way, we decided to take the bus and enjoy the scenery instead.
Nohi is the bus company that services this part of the alps and they have the cutest little buses; they would seat 20 people at most. We just thought the size of the buses was another example of “Japanese Life in Miniature”, but once we got on the road, we understood why the buses are all so tiny: the roads through the Central Japanese alps are very narrow, steep and winding, clinging to the sides of mountains. And the tunnels through the mountains are so tiny that two regular sized buses couldn’t fit through side-by-side. There were a few times when the bus driver had to stop at the enterance of a tunnel because there was a truck or bus coming through from the other side and we couldn’t enter the tunnel until they had exited. Not a journey for the faint-hearted, but worth it for the views.
The road between Takayama and Matsumoto goes through farmland and then cuts through the Kamikochi National Park. As soon as you are out of town (not hard – Takayama only has a population of about 90,000 people), you’re in farmland.These were easily the biggest farms we’ve seen in so far in Japan too; some farms would have been a whole acre of land! Like many things Japanese, all the farms we’ve seen are miniature. The Japanese have a knack for turning any scrap of land into something useful, or beautiful, or both. We’ve seen the narrowest strips of land converted into flower beds, or neatly sown with vegetables. They cultivate their plots right up to the road – often within centimetres of the actual tarmac (which doesn’t bode well for the amount of pollution and heavy metals those vegetables would contain, but I guess when flat, farmable land is scarce, you take what you can). We took a few photos of the farms as we drove through – as you can see below.
Note: Today was actually quite wet and stormy, so you’ll notice our photos look rather dark. Those ominous storm clouds did eventually crack and we’ve had some great summer rain – thank goodness! Hopefully things will cool down a wee bit now.
The road then wound its way upwards, around hairpin bends and through densely forested mountains. We were travelling at a snail’s pace because the road is so treacherous; Matsumoto is only 100 kms from Takayama, but the trip took us about 2.5 hours. We eventually drove through the main mountain pass and then descended down into a valley towards the town of Oku-Hida. This is a renown “spa town” with more than 30 natural hot springs in and around the village; the town is surrounded by active volcanoes and has that eggy-sulphorous smell characteristic of geothermally active places. Unfortunately we didn’t get to stop for long, just dropped off a couple of passengers, picked up a couple more and continued on.
From Oku-Hida we climbed back up through the next mountain pass and across into Nagano Prefecture. All-in-all we drove over a heap of bridges and through 13 tunnels, some of them as much as 5 kms long! Once we were over the second mountain pass, the road followed beside the Metoba-gawa (Metoba River). This deep, wide river was controlled by numerous dams, each harvesting energy from all the water as it flows downstream via hydroelectric power stations. It was an awesome drive with enough epic scenery to leave us tourists well satiated. After exactly 142 minutes (the Japanese are VERY precise with their timetables – be a minute late and you’ll miss your train/bus!), we made it all the way back down to 800 m, into the Matsumoto Valley, where our next adventure awaited us.
We’re only in Matsumoto for tonight, just as a stop-over between Takayama and Nagano City really. But while we’re here we thought we’d check out the local sights and NOT try the local speciality of this region: horse. Matsumoto is a small city (population 200,000), but has a reputation as a great centre for classical music in Japan. Dr Suzuki Shin’ichi, an internationally renown music teacher, was from Matsumoto and his legacy lives on in his home town in the form of a popular music school and an annual classic music festival that attracts visitors form around the world. The music festival (Saito Kinen Festival) is held in August every year so we missed out on enjoying that. What we did get to enjoy, however, was Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto-jo).
Matsumoto Castle is one of four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and the oldest castle donjon (i.e. fortified, central tower of a castle), remaining in Japan. The elegant black and white structure, with its three turrets, was built in 1592 and is definitely not designed for comfort – this is one castle built for defensability and war. Inside the castle the stairs between floors are very steep, the ceilings are low and the only light that filters through is from narrow slits designed to allow archers to rain arrows on the enemy below. Each floor contained displays showing various examples of weaponry from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, which was all a bit gruesome.
After such an exciting day, we thought we’d treat ourselves to dinner out somewhere nice. We were very cautious though as the speciality here in horse meat, either grilled or served raw as basashi (i.e.wafer thin slices of raw horse meat, served with ginger and/or garlic). Not really a delicacy I’m keen to try, thank you Japan. So we avoided all basashi restaurants and opted for some simple vegetarian ramen noodles in miso soup instead. Much better! More from Japan tomorrow…