Takayama: Ryokan & A’s 1st Onsen

After we left Naoshima & Teshima, we traveled to Takayama in the so-called “Japan Alps” (with an overnight stop in Nagoya to get us at least halfway there – it was a long trip, time and distance-wise. We went from islands in the Inland Sea in western Honshu – Japan’s main, biggest island – to these so-called Japan Alps in central Honshu, and would eventually travel to the Japan Sea on the northern shore before the week was over. We made full use of our JR Rail Passes that week!)

Takayama was beautiful, and very different from Naoshima and Teshima. For starters, it was a fairly remote, small town (or so I thought until our next stop!) in the mountains, rather than a small island in Japan’s allegedly sunniest area. We went from mid-length sleeves weather to full on bundled-up with flurries weather literally overnight.

(And none of us were properly prepared. I definitely made a 7-11 run to pick up hats, gloves and hand warmers! Thankfully Aardvark had a horrible vomiting-all-over-us-in-a-famous-temple-then-all-over-the-train-home incident in Kamakura two days before we left for the trip, so we had made an emergency exit at whichever-station-was-next, found a Uniqlo [of course there was a Uniqlo nearby – I think there is a zoning law that requires at least 3 in every town or neighborhood] and bought entirely new clothes for her, since we’d left her vomit-soaked clothes in the train-station bathroom garbage can and carried her dressed in only my jacket to the Uniqlo. We also picked up some of their famous Heat Tech long underwear while we were there, so she was all set. And there you go! While the Vomit Storm 2016 was occurring, neither I nor, I would bet, the other, very disgusted people on the train sitting around us and her projectile puke fountains, would have ever guessed I would have started a sentence with “Thankfully…” while recounting that tale. Little victories.)

(Incidentally, she was totally fine the next day. I feel like I should throw that in there, lest you think we are awful parents for taking her on the trip two days later. She’d shown absolutely no signs of being sick earlier in the day on Vomit Storm 2016 Friday, except for being unusually tired, which we chalked up to not-enough-sleep the night before, and then she took an early nap the day after Vomit Storm and was her usual self by the afternoon. We did have an Aardvark-and-I-join-everyone-else-on-the-trip-a-day-or-so-later plan in place if she did NOT recover in time, of course.)

Anyway, back to Takayama. It is an absolutely charming town with many districts just as they were hundreds of years ago, and walking through the little streets is like walking through a time capsule. More on that in the next post, though.

This post is just to show you our amazing digs! We were all staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Now, you’ve seen in photos, we’ve stayed in fantastic tatami room hotels before, in Miyajima and even in Naoshima. But this was more than that. It was a proper ryokan, including traditional meals (I’ve actually shied away from ryokan before because traditional meals are not typically vegetarian-friendly, but this place had alternatives for Aardvark, me and the others in our group who are vegetarian), and, upon arrival at the hotel, shoes were left at the main entrance, and indoor slippers were worn all around the hotel (in the other places we’ve stayed, outside shoes come off in the designated entryway in your own set of rooms, but are worn around the rest of the hotel/inn). As we were given our room key, we also got to pick out our own yukata for use during the stay (well, most of the group got to pick. Some of the very tall men – and me, since I am a Very Tall Woman in Japan, which still surprises me since I am the shortest in my family – were simply assigned the “extra long” yukatas. But the one I was assigned was still lovely).

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Our futons, or sleeping mats, were all laid out for us when we arrived. We also had a back room with more Western-style seating – a couch! – than we were used to with these low tables, which typically just have chairs without legs (we have that in our Takadanobaba home too, since our main room is a tatami room). But it also had something new to me: a fireplace in the floor! The main lobby (or room? “Lobby” seems too formal for this hotel’s main gathering room, since it just feels like a big-yet-cozy living room, with western and Japanese style seating) has a huge tatami section with a massive floor fireplace to one side, and this was the first time I’d seen one of these in-floor fireplaces (I would come to find out shortly they are totally typical in older style homes in places with harsh winters).fullsizerender-20img_7603

We could have made our tea over this fire! (We just used the electric kettle, since we weren’t about to start a coal fire right before bed, but hey! The possibility was there – it was explicitly for use, not just show.)

The hotel ALSO had an onsen, a Japanese hot spring bath. Ever since arriving in Japan in 2011, I’ve heard from all our friends/family in Japan that going to an onsen is a “totally Japanese experience” I had to have. But I never tried – the idea of sharing a public bathtub, no matter how therapeutic, was just too gross/creepy – and, if I’m being honest, ignited all kinds of body-self-consciousness stuff I just couldn’t get over – for me to try. And although Don loves going to the public baths, and all the Japanese-style bathing stuff, he didn’t think I would so by the time I decided I wanted to try a hotel with a private, in-bedroom onsen, the time for reservations had come and gone and nothing was available prior to my departure date. (Seriously, it is a very different bathing culture here. Even showers in home bathrooms in Japan are VERY different from the US. And in 2011, I just refused. I stood in the shower, even though you are supposed to sit on a stool – the stools weirded me out, even in our apartment, because who knew who lived in the apartment before us, etc. And sharing bathwater, even with your own family, seemed gross to me too. Ah, it’s funny to think of how hard I resisted then, because I’m totally addicted to onsens now.)

Anyway, I tried my first “public” bath during my stay at a Buddhist temple a few days before this trip began (I will totally fill you in on that sometime! It was incredible). Not so brave of me, because there was only one other visitor staying at the temple, and she asked if she could use the shower while I was like, I showered/washed my hair this morning and it is WAY too cold for me to shower here at this temple in the mountains with zero heat, have at it. Plus it was her birthday! But then we were shown the bath, and I realized it was a huge tub room that was warm and steamy and the water was probably delightful and I was like, oh wait, this seems AMAZING! I just won’t get my hair wet 😉 So once Yokoko was done, I took a turn. And it WAS amazing. And it was great that I got to try it out – and the customs of sitting at the stool, scrubbing yourself down thoroughly, etc. before entering the bath – all by myself. And while sitting in the amazingly relaxing bath, I realized that it wasn’t really all that different from a public pool, just without the protective layer of bathing suit, and how protective was that, really? And it since you have to scrub yourself down with soap and rinse it off before entering the bath, you are actually way cleaner in a Japanese bath than a swimming pool (I know, but there are chemicals in pools, etc. But work with me!) – most public pools require people to rinse off before getting in and I have never seen anyone actually do that. And it was truly NO different than at the hot springs near us in CA, which I do go into naked because I can’t stand the smell of sulphur all over my swim suits. Except, again, everyone is way cleaner when they enter a Japanese bath.

Plus I knew how clean the bath was because Yokoko and I were required to drain the bath and scrub it down the next morning as part of our morning temple chores.

So anyway, totally addicted now. The very next day, after I left the temple, I stopped at an onsen located at the same mountain as the temple and tried out my first hot-spring water bath in public – and that was quite an experience, which, while great overall, did have its gaffes. More when I finally get to the Temple Stay post!

So here we are, faced with another onsen bathing experience – Hida Takayama apparently has amazing waters – and I was torn. It would be great to go in – but we were also staying with 20+ other people we actually knew! Did I want to get naked with a bunch of my husband’s college students? Not a chance in hell.

But we were there on November 9th, what turned out to be a very crappy day for all of us, and we’d left most of the students drowning their sorrows at a historical sake brewery, so we figured if we hit the onsen WITH Aardvark BEFORE bedtime (instead of putting her to bed and taking turns going), we’d lessen the chances of running into the college students.

So Aardvark had her first onsen experience too! We got dressed in our yukata (we also had the haori, the heavy coats to put over your yukata in cold weather, and boy did we need them! I even slept in mine).

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She insisted on posing with this laminated sheet about how to tie yukata.

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She also insisted I take videos of her dancing around in it. I’ll spare you, but they are cute. Just maybe the kind of cute only one’s parent can look at over and over again…

Obviously cameras are not allowed inside the bath areas. So no pics. But I will say, Aardvark did great! She loved the whole washing-at-the-stool part, especially playing with her bucket of soapy water (of course, splashing around with your wash water is not quite part of the official custom), and although the bath/onsen water was way too hot for her to get in, she seemed to enjoy sitting on the edge and dipping toes and fingers…and then feet…etc. She eventually worked her way up to standing on the inside ledge so both legs were in up to her shins, and leaning over to put her arms in while she did that. We’ve been to a few more onsens since this one, and that is about her comfort level, but she loves hanging around near the bath, often wanting to stay much longer than I can handle the heat of the water, so it’s fine with me!

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