Takayama’s Rustic Charm

Takayama, a city of about 60,000, lies on the side of Japan’s Central Alps in the Hida region.  It’s a town that has maintained its traditional touch with a beautifully preserved old town dating from the Edo period, which spanned the 17th & 18th centuries.

(By the way, I need to inject a brief apology here.  Halfway through our time in Japan I discovered that my primary camera lens is not working correctly, and the exposure is off on many of my pictures.)

Honjin Hiranoya Bekka, our home for three days, is a traditional ryokan next to the Miya-Gowa river that flows through town.

This was the most traditional ryokan of our entire trip. Our space consists of one room made up of 10 or 12 Tatami mats.  We sleep on futons on the floor, which, during the day are replaced with a low table where, at dinner-time, we eat our traditional kaiseke multi-course dinner.

Directly across the river from Honjin Hiranoya Bekka, old town Takayama has narrow streets and wood lattice buildings that are hundreds of years old, but perfectly maintained—homes, small shops, restaurants and saki breweries.

Even though the area is ancient by our standards, and a busy tourist destination, everything is neat, clean and cared for with loving attention.

Saki breweries are always marked with a large ball of cedar leaves above the door.

Another thing we learned is that the strips of fabric hanging in a doorway—called noren—are more than decorative…

…businesses hang their noren out as a welcome mat.  The hangings shows they are open for business.

And even in the back of the smallest shop, you’ll often discover a  lovely garden area.

There are two things noticeably absent from the streets of Takayama and many other Japanese towns and cities—litter, as well as any place to throw litter away.  Apparently they used to have a litter problem.  Their solution was literally to eliminate any place to throw trash out, and make it clear that littering was a serious infraction. I’m sure it says something about the Japanese culture that this was successful—or, more importantly, something about our own culture that we can’t imagine it working in the U.S.

One of our favorite discoveries in Takayama was the Kusakabe Heritage House, unmentioned in either of our guidebooks, and a significant oversight in our estimation.

The Kusakabe family members were merchants who thrived during the reign of the Tokugawa clan which began in 1692.  When the Tokugawa shogunate governed here, the samurai left.  So this is the home of wealthy “commoners.”  The original store and house burned down in 1875 and was rebuilt in 1879 by Jisuke Kawajiri, the most skilled architect and craftsman of his time.  Rockefeller reportedly wanted to purchase the home, but was turned down.  In 1966, the Kusakabe home was designated a “national important cultural asset.”

This “common house” of the edo period is constructed of Japanese cypress.  The beam and pillar construction is especially sturdy.  The dark brown paint is made from soot.

The open hearth in the center of the home was for both heating and cooking.

The home is built around an interior garden.

And as is common in traditional homes, rooms can be reconfigured with sliding shoji screens as larger public gathering spaces, or smaller intimate private areas—all with a view of the garden.

The Kusakabe family crest.

The Kusakabe Heritage House houses a folk art museum or Mingei Kan.  In 1966, the 11th head of the Kusakabe family supported the goals of the Mingei folk art movement of the time, which, much like the arts and crafts movement in the U.S., focused on beautiful objects created to be used by common people.

These hibachis were used to keep warm during the severe cold of Takayama’s winters.

Women would use this metal “pillow” to perfume their hair by burning incense while they slept.

The traditional methods of making pottery perfected long ago with these unique glazing techniques are still used by ten potteries still operating in Takayama today.

This is a prototype of the “butterfly stool” designed in 1954 by Sori Yanagi, a leading product designer in postwar Japan.  It has been exhibited at the Louvre and New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

This ancient palanquin seems impossibly small given it’s designed to carry a passenger from place to place.

When we arrived at Kusakabe, they had just opened, and ours were the first pairs of shoes left near the entrance.  By the time we’d left, the place was packed.

We also discovered this wonderful shop where the owner wove wall hangings using the silk from antique kimonos.

Each morning, merchants set up their kiosks at the outdoor market, which borders the river for two blocks.

This vendor offered calligraphy.

This woman was baking fresh fish-shaped gluten cakes.

This store offered various types of miso, fermenting in barrels at the front of the store.

There were lots of vegetables.

This is wild daichon–what we know as radish.

Giant stone slabs placed along the river offer a convenient place to rest and snack.

And large carp windsocks strung across the river create a festive air.

In the center of town, adjacent to our ryokan, is Takayama Jinya, a branch office of the shogunate government from the late 1600s to 1868, when the shogun returned power to the emperor.

The shogun sent his people here to collect taxes, sit as judges, act as police, and, most importantly, manage the surrounding forests, since timber in the mountains around Takayama was highly prized and formed the base of the economy.  These were the government’s administrative offices.

It was also the living quarters for the administrators, and for the shogun when he came to visit. Here, our wonderful guide Tomi shows us how to adjust the height of the cooking pot.

The buildings center around the garden.

Tax payments to the shogun were made in the form of rice—each bag of rice weighed about 130 lbs. The oldest building in the complex, seen here on the far side of the garden, is the rice storage building, which dates from 1600.  

In the late 1700s, the area peasants rioted over the increased tax burden—twice unsuccessfully. The local administrators used this room to elicit confessions.  Prisoners were forced to kneel on the wood planks in the center, while stacks of heavy flat stones were placed on their legs.

On a more civilized note, there was also a room for the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.  You can tell this is a tea ceremony room by the design of the tatami mats with the half tatami in the center.

Nearby, the main gate to Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine makes an imposing statement…

…and a somewhat less imposing, but no less impressive, inner gate welcomes visitors to the shrine.

This Shinto shrine is said to date from the 4th century, although there’s no way to know for sure since Japan’s written history only dates back to the 7th century.

This purification font is carved from a single rock.

Before praying at the shrine, worshippers drink the purifying water.

In the Japanese Shinto tradition, prayer requests are written and then neatly tied throughout the shrine complex.

Takayama was a delight and, for me, one of the highlights of our time in Japan.

Loquat Flower of the Secret Melody (Hikyoku no biwa no hana): (Actor Ichikawa Ebizô V as) Matsunami Kengyô, actually Akushichibyôe, from the series Popular Matches for Thirty-six Selected Flowers (Tôsei mitate sanjûroku kasen)

「当盛見立三十六花撰(とうせいみたてさんじふろくくわせん) 秘曲の枇杷の花 松浪検校実ハ悪七兵ヱ」 五代目市川海老蔵
Edo period
1863 (Bunkyû 3), 4th month
Artist Utagawa Kunisada I (Toyokuni III) (Japanese, 1786–1864), Publisher Hiranoya Shinzô (Aikindô), Blockcutter Ôta Komakichi (Hori Koma, Hori Tashichi) (Japanese)

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