After three days in Shibuya, Tokyo, all be it with two trips to Yokohama for the rugby, our road trip or more accurately our train trip truly got underway. All room check outs in Japan are early and so we headed out very early doors to Tokyo main station to catch our Shinkansen via Akasaka Mitsuke on the Metro.
The Tokyo Metro is a really easy and cheap way to get around. It’s also scrupulously clean, so clean you could probably eat your dinner off the floor, if you were fast enough to eat up before the cleaners got to it first! There are also staff everywhere running offices, barriers, cleaning and generally being on hand to help. Given the Japanese propensity to adopt technology early, it is noticeable that plenty of people are employed to make the transport infrastructure work efficiently. And all of the people working on the railway seem to be highly motivated, extremely pleasant and crucially very proud of their jobs and what they do.
When the Shinkansen arrived at our platform all in good time to ensure we departed on time, all of us passengers were queuing in an orderly and pre defined fashion which is another great thing about Japan.
Before we were allowed to alight the Bullet Train, a team of smartly dressed uniformed cleaners got aboard and ensured that all the carriages were clean and ready for us. It was a sight to behold. Imagine this happening in the UK? Not only is the attitude of the workers different, but equally important, indeed maybe more important is the attitude of the customers. You get the distinct impression that Japanese are not looking down on fellow citizens for doing ‘ordinary manual jobs’, quite the reverse. Again, we could all learn some lessons here. People are important and they must have pride and purpose in their jobs, otherwise society falls to pieces.
The Shinkansen is brilliant, I may have mentioned this before, but coming from a country where we have an old, decrepit and underinvested railway system, it does not cease to amaze me how things could be. Anyway, we are where we are, and things can only get better….
We got off the Shinkansen at Toyama and changed onto a more conventional train which was slower and less sophisticated. The windows were huge which was fabulous given the scenery of the Gifu Prefecture, which is stunning. Think Austria and Switzerland. Breathtaking in every way.
We arrived at Takayama mid afternoon, walked to our apartment and dumped off our bags, bags which had so far not been unpacked since we left London. Takayama is a wonderful place. It’s the gateway to Japan’s walking and hiking area and is home to an old part of the city, the Sanmachi Suji district which dates back to the early 1600’s. The streets of old merchant houses are constructed of wood and all single storey, another distinct feature of older Japanese houses. Kirsty declared ‘this is the Japan I was hoping to see’ and I smiled. If you’ve ever read Shogun or watched any Akira Kurosawa films like ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Ran’ or indeed watched ‘Monkey’ or ‘The Water Margjn’ like I did when I was a kid, you can picture the scene. But boy were we in for a treat, even if we didn’t know it.
The merchant’s houses are now mainly shops and eateries, although some are still private residencies. Kirsty bought her own set of engraved chopsticks, with her name on one in English and in Japanese on the other. She also bought some Japanese socks to wear with flip flops and got involved in a Sake tasting, for which she is now an expert. I simply sampled Matcha ice cream. Given my love of ice cream (I thank my Italian mother for that) I am very choosy about what is good and what is not good ice cream. I had nothing to fear, this Japanese ice cream was top notch.
As the sun began to go down In Takayama we decided to stay out and find somewhere to eat. Takayama is an incredibly beautiful place but also a quiet place. It was as if no one spoke and the sense of tranquility was palpable. This has a wonderful effect on oneself and given the busy time we had had thus far, it was really welcomed.
What a wonderful window
I said to Kirsty, ‘can you hear that drum?’ and of course Kirsty thought I was winding her up, and then the drum sound went again. We followed the sound and found a group of people of all ages dressed in traditional costume performing a ceremony with a huge drum on wheels accompanied by pipers. In the dusk, this was both intriguing and spectacular in equal measure. We think this was a rehearsal for the forthcoming Takayama Festival which celebrated spring and autumn each year with ornate floats, puppetry and more, but we weren’t quite sure!
When this finished, we walked on and heard some chanting and saw some fire. This ceremony was outside a huge temple. Shinto temples are everywhere in Japan, very much like our churches, and like some of our churches they are all ornate and incredibly well maintained.
There were some men who looked like Shinto monks who were throwing small, flat pieces of engraved wood onto a fire. These chanting monks were flanked by women dressed in ceremonial clothing and two men with long fire poles who ensured all the sticks were burnt. There were other men dressed in conventional suits who looked like they were prominent members of the community standing by, plus others and us. From what I can gather, these ceremonies are performed daily as a way to connect the ways of the past with the modern day. That spiritual approach is everywhere in Japan and is the thread that seems to hold this society together, whilst allowing progress. Progressive conservatism if you like.
We ended the evening with some wonderful Sushi in a little restaurant run by another husband and wife team. We were joined in the restaurant by a Dutch couple with their 6 month old daughter. A Japanese couple offered to take care and amuse the baby so that her parents could eat. The Japanese love children and this little child really seemed to enjoy herself . The meal, as usual, was excellent. So much love and care goes into food in Japan and it shows and tastes.
We walked back to our lovely apartment and enjoyed a great night’s sleep. Another early start awaited. Next stop Kanazawa.