Takayama: the Sights

We also did actual sightseeing in Takayama. (In fact, we were there less than 24 hours, and I managed to take about 150 photos.)

It is a beautiful town.

After checking in and getting settled at the ryokan, everyone had about an hour or so for lunch before meeting to visit the buildings Don had brought the class here to see.

We had only gotten a few blocks from the hotel when we found a beautiful temple with a big pagoda and amazing autumn colors. Having grown up in the northeast of the US, I absolutely love autumn and all its blazing colors, and fall is one of the things I miss the most living in CA.


Of course, we’d only just started to revel in the stunning autumn colors when it started to SNOW! It was apparently the first snow of the year in this area (and definitely the first snow we encountered!) Takayama is in one of the heaviest snowfall areas in Japan, and during winter, they get snow nearly everyday, so maybe it is just surprising that Nov. 9th was the first day of snow.img_7614img_7616img_7606

Each of these Jizo statues had a small doll, all of which were different in style from each other, seated at its feet. I also liked that the Jizo statues had winter hats.img_7609

This little sarubobo doll was seated at the foot of one of the Jizo statues.


This was the temple that had the sarubobo ema (prayers) from my previous post.

We also wandered the little downtown area, and Aardvark and I took a break to make a sarubobo doll, and then we joined Don and his students to visit two Meiji era folk buildings which have been designated as National Heritage Houses: Kusakabe Folk Museum, a merchant’s house from the 1870s, and Yoshijima Heritage House, which apparently began as a sake brewery in 1908.



Obviously Don was taking loads of pictures of the inside with his fancy camera, and I was too cold to bother to do much with mine.

Except for this:


I love all things public transport, including train and subway maps, and any textiles or souvenirs featuring trains themselves, or subway maps, etc., immediately call my attention. For instance, I will not discuss just how much shinkansen-themed fabric I’ve purchased from Tokyo’s fabric district, Nippori. But I will say I’ve exercised excellent restraint in not buying ALL the shinkansen themed clothes, hashi, toys, etc. that exist in Japan. And in Japan, trains are a HUGE hobby. If there is a product, they make a train-themed version of it. Mirrors? Toothpick holders? Bento boxes? You get the picture. Train stalking, er, train-fandom, is a huge deal.

So I was THRILLED – but also not terribly surprised – to see that train textiles were a thing, even over 100 years ago, and there was a train tapestry in this house.


Also, this amused me. It is basically a Meiji-era baby walker/activity center! Complete with toy drawer.


Both buildings were very impressive, but they were COLD (obviously no heating, and many of the doors and windows were open so visitors could see into courtyards, etc., and did I mention is was SNOWING?) And we were there on Nov. 9th, and while it was the middle of election night in the US, and most Americans went to bed while the race was still too close to call, it was happening very much in real time for all of us.  Yoshijima (or Kusakabe? I was VERY distracted and don’t even remember which was which) had a courtyard and at the end, they handed out cups of green tea (it was so cold they even gave Aardvark a cup, and *I* even let her drink a little of it, though mostly it helped her just to hold the warm pottery) while we sat in the snowy courtyard, huddled around a heat lamp, frantically checking our phones for updates. While we were in Yoshijima (or whichever place we went to first, where we huddled up and drank tea out in the snow), it became increasingly inevitable that Trump was going to win the electoral college. We were heartbroken. We felt embarrassed to be Americans, to be part of a country that chose xenophobia and incredibly questionable foreign policy promises (because of course at the time we did not yet know that nope, the American people did not choose Trump, that millions more chose Clinton and that the vast majority of voters – one of the biggest voter turnouts ever – voted for Anyone-But-Trump, and that if he becomes president it will be the doing of the electoral college and NOT the American people; instead, at the time, we just felt deep sorrow and shame to be associated with Americans). We apologized to the European tourists next to us, as well as the Japanese staff at the museums, and they apologized back to us for what was happening in the US. (The next day, we would go to an incredibly isolated town of about 80 residents – that’s 80, not 8,000 or even 800 – and there too, everyone would shake their heads sadly at us and say, “Sorry about Trump,” or, more than once, I kid you not, “Sorry about the Orange-faced man.”)

I was seated around this fire next to college students who all voted against Trump and were worried about the consequences of his election. (I have NEVER had a class of students from this university in which they were all so united in a political opinion; it is overall a very conservative student body and students in my classes have always had very diverse political stances. I think Architecture and other creative fields tend to draw more liberal-minded students than in, for instance, Religious Studies, but still, this was surprising. I think some of the students would typically lean more conservatively or identify as Republican, but obviously this year’s election was a wild exception to more standard Republican values.) Anyway, the students were scared. Some worried for their own families or their friends and loved ones. They were mostly in shock, as was I. For many, this was their first opportunity to vote in a presidential election (and voting as an overseas voter involved a LOT of forethought, planning, applying for special ballots before leaving the US, mailing them from Japan, etc. ) so they had put a lot of time  and effort into their votes. Which would turn out to count as less than a third of a vote, compared to Americans elsewhere in the country, thanks to the continued systemic racism of the electoral college.

While we were at the next museum, which was next door, the students took some quick glances around but eventually huddled together in the one room on the top of the house that had both seating AND no open doors or windows and just talked. They were all too distracted and despondent to appreciate the architecture. And as we left the building, the news became official: Trump had won the necessary electoral college votes to become president-elect.

It was hard. There were tears. (Some were mine.) Don and I did not know how to help the students in this time of pain (especially as it was not connected to Don’s subject, but teachers often must guide students through more than just the expected material.) So we walked them to the famous sake breweries in another historic part of town, had some sake with them, and then left them to nurse their sorrows so we could get Aardvark some dinner.

The following few weeks were a hard time to be in Japan.

I had come to feel so comfortable in Japan these last few months, and suddenly I felt horrible being here. As glad as I was to be a bit removed from the chaos of the US in the election aftermath, it was hard to walk around as a guest in a country when my people had just elected a president who had threatened, with insistence, great ignorance and a clear lack of historical context, to dramatically alter the relationship between the US and Japan. To have a president-elect who had spoken so cavalierly about nuclear weapons while living in the only country to be devastated by nuclear attacks – attacks perpetrated by my country, no less – felt horrible.

So as beautiful and amazing as Takayama is, unfortunately I think my strongest memory of the place will not be the onsen and ryokan experience, nor the sarubobos or historical districts, but sitting in that courtyard with snow falling around us, feeling so displaced from all that felt safe and familiar before.

But, there were some other great things about the place, which I unfortunately did not get to photograph. For instance, they have a fantastic asaichi, a morning market, alongside the river that runs through town. It starts at 7 am once the snow has fallen, so I got up and went out to the market before breakfast (we had a 9 am breakfast reservation for our whole group at the ryokan and a 10 am bus to catch to our next destination), which was cold but fun, and it was a beautiful clear day. There were vendors selling local crafts, fruit, veg, and fish. I ran into about ten of the students also doing some early morning market-touring. I tried a cup of black soybean tea from one of the shopkeepers and fell in love with it (I’m drinking some as I write this). I bought a hand carved Kannon statue (the area is also known for its wood crafts, and I realized I did not have a Kannon statue, so although I’d set out that morning in hopes of finding a cute-Jizo statue, I didn’t like any of the ones I saw but really liked this statue). Takayama is a wonderful place and I hope to spend more time there someday – and maybe replace my dominant memory of the town with something more cheerful and neutral.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s