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Sunday, Feb. 14, 2010

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Picture-perfect: An old bridge in the snow makes a super photo-op. CHRIS BAMFORTH PHOTOS

A winter's tale of time-warp Takayama


Special to The Japan Times

After a while you tire of the easy destinations — the usual spots with their inevitable touristic clutter. So you decide on somewhere different — somewhere that's far from the madding crowds and far, too, from the yet more madding megaphone-toting tour guides.

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High point: Among the many delights of Takayama at any time of year is the three- tiered pagoda of Hida Kokubunji temple.

And so you may decide the trip just has to be to Takayama — in the middle of the mountains in the middle of winter.

Located in the Hida range of the Japan Alps in Gifu Prefecture, Takayama is the most unaffectedly charming of all Japan's historical towns. The former remoteness of this spot played a big role in preserving its old character, and it lacks the contrived come-hither-tourist reconstructed air of such spots as Tsumago and Magome on the other side of the Hida Mountains.

The journey into real winter began with the train from Nagoya. There was no snow in the Aichi capital, but the carriage roofs of the train that had returned from Takayama all wore thick crusts of snow.

Isolating they may be, but the dramatic Hida Mountains, rising over 3,000 meters, provide Takayama with a setting of remarkable beauty. The winter landscape was one of stark loveliness, with the cryptomeria-covered mountainsides mottled in black and white, bamboo trees doubled over under the weight of snow. The train skirted deep ravines in which dark- turquoise rivers glittered in the sunlight.

Upon arrival, there was the pleasant reminder that checking in at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) is one of life's sweet joys — the more so when the elements are going out of their way to drive existence well beyond the comfort zone.

Ryokan often seem to be run by the nicest people. I politely refused to let the diminutive woman owner of Takayama's Sumiyoshi Inn take my hefty rucksack. And so she practically wrenched the thing off my back. Guests did not carry their own bags, she informed me in a manner that admitted no gainsaying, not in her inn.

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Entrance ball: A traditional sakabayashi globe of Cryptomeria (Japanese cedar) needles hangs outside a sake store.

As one not particularly dainty of foot, I long ago discovered that there is nothing more pointless than trying to worm myself into a pair of Japanese slippers. But the hospitality of this inn extended to addressing the big-footed gaijin (foreigner) contingency by stocking up on monster-size footwear.

I was there the week before Christmas, the inn's only guest. The owner told me I would receive especially attentive service so I wouldn't get lonely. After a meal of Hida beef, simply but succulently broiled with mushrooms and onions, I slept to the sound of the river gurgling nearby; I woke the next morning to the sight of long icicles hanging from the eaves like gray fangs.

Elsewhere, snow and ice dominate Takayama's winter landscape. Dating from the middle Edo Period (1603-1867), Sanmachi is the handsomest part of town — a district of old merchants' houses that are all lattice windows, white beams and amber walls. My previous visit had been in May, and it was impossible trying to picture December's monochrome line of townhouses bedecked in the purple wisteria of spring.

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Cold and comforts: Thanks to its location high in the Hida Mountains of the Japan Alps, winter in Takayama is not the best time of year for business in the souvenir shops of its Sanmachi district?

Winter, though, does lend its own particular majesty as it lies deep on the tiered roofs of the pagoda in Hida Kokubunji temple or on the provincially palatial Takayama Jinya, the former administrative center that gave the ruling Edo Period shogunate direct control of this region because of its important timber resources.

Since timber was pretty much the only natural resource here, the locals became notably adept at working the stuff. Hida's prestigious carpenters helped build the great temples and palaces in faraway Nara and Kyoto. The most conspicuous wooden work in Takayama today, though, is on a smaller scale. The lacquerware known as shunkei-nuri is unusual in Japan in that the grain is visible under the lacquered surface. And the fine deep-cherry and warm-honey colors also set it apart from the mirrored sheen of other forms.

The coldest season may not lend itself to felling trees, but it is perfect for another industry. As evident from the sour tang that hangs over parts of Takayama, the place is very much involved in making sake, and the town has eight such breweries. Sake is traditionally made in winter — of which commodity Takayama certainly suffers no lack.

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nor for its rickshaw-haulers

One fine Takayama building formerly connected with the sake trade is Yoshijima House. Built in 1905, this was the home and brewery of a former sake merchant and it is, along with the neighboring Kusakabe House, one of the country's most magnificent traditional homes.

In Edo times, strict laws limited the extravagance with which ordinary houses could be made, but, postdating that period, the two buildings were free of such curbs. Constructed in an expansive style, these are wonderfully spacious, rambling wooden houses that have been exquisitely preserved. Yoshijima House has 8-meter-high ceilings, and the soft light peers in from among its soaring rafters. However, visitors in December were scant. And so was the heating. The slippers were strictly regulation size, and 20 minutes of padding around in stockinged feet on numbing-cold floorboards practically made my eyes water.

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However, it's just the season to tuck into hearty local fare featuring famed Hida beef.

But of course nothing counters the cold like the sublime depths of a piping-hot Japanese bath. And after having warmed myself to the core back at Sumiyoshi, I could head out again toward the end of day with the western sky sinking into colors of violet.

The air was not so much crisp as downright brittle as the street lamps twinkled into life and their light sparkled on the snow. One lamp hung above over a sake maker, and I just had to stop for a cup or two of their freshest brew. I took a seat next to the only other customer, and we both huddled over the meek heat delivered by the hibachi brazier. For once, somehow, talking about the weather didn't seem the slightest bit boring.

I tried hard, but I couldn't recall sake ever having tasted quite so good — nor a snack quite so fishily delicious. A breeze scattered a small flurry of snowflakes in through the open doorway, and I was so, so glad I had come.

Getting there: Takayama can be reached in about 2 hours and 20 minutes by special express train from Nagoya.


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