Hitting Our Stride

After the disappointments of Tokyo and Kyoto, we were excited to embark on the portion of the trip that was most within our wheelhouse.  If only we could get there…

Unlike some of the other buses in the region, the Nohi bus route between Kanazawa and Takayama must be reserved in advance.  We waited until the night before departure to book our tickets, as we were watching the weather to decide if we would stop on the way in Shirakawa-go.  (Unfortunately, due to lots of wet weather from a typhoon, we opted to skip this excursion.)  When booking tickets online, you are asked to enter the number of male and female passengers, which we did.  Our reservation request was then denied with an error message that said something to the effect of not being able to book seats near a member of the opposite sex.  We then attempted to rebook two male tickets and were confirmed.  It was very strange, and while I don’t really understand what happened, we had no trouble boarding the next day.

img_2692When we reached Takayama, we proceeded to our ryokan, Futarishizuka Hakuun.  It is an older, dated property but clean and comfortable.  It’s situated on a hilltop overlooking the town, and we had a lovely view from our room.  Each room also has ensuite bath facilities with a cedar bath.  It rained heavily all afternoon, and while we were not permitted to check-in early, relaxing in the warm bath during the storm was a nice perk when we returned to the property in the afternoon.  

img_2649Given the weather, we spent most of the day inside, moving from a cozy café where we had tea and cakes; to a local curry spot where we had our best curry of the trip; and later to a sake brewery where we sampled one too many varieties.  When the rain died down, we ventured out to Hidagyu Maruaki for yakiniku.  It was here we first enjoyed hida beef on the self-cook grills.  We were lucky to be seated, as the hostess stand closed soon after our arrival and the restaurant stopped accepting patrons even though it was still open.

img_2596The next morning, we had a couple of hours to wander thru town before our departure.  My initial impression the previous day was not that positive.  While I had been hoping the old town would have an authentic, traditional feel, it oozed more of an amusement park vibe.  As I was able to more fully take in the streets and surroundings, I enjoyed it more and my opinion significantly improved.  While many of the beautiful old buildings are filled with tchotchke shops, there are also some nice cafes, restaurants and galleries.

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A Splurge to Remember

img_2705When I first began doing research for our trip and learned about onsens and the Japanese bathing culture, I knew immediately that we had to incorporate an onsen stay into our itinerary.  While I’m comfortable with the idea of the shared public facilities (and used them on two occasions), I really wanted to experience a luxury ryokan with private baths.

img_2697I should mention that seeking out high-end lodging accommodations is not something we typically do.  We usually eschew hotels in favor of apartments or houses booked via Airbnb or VRBO.  It’s unusual for us to pay more than $150/night for lodging, and we frequently pay much less.  As we don’t care about the traditional hotel amenities, such as concierge, room service, dry cleaning and the like, we aren’t keen to pay for them.  In this case, however, it was more about the experience than just finding a place to lay our heads.

We selected Kakurean Hidaji, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Everything about our stay was perfect.  Each room has two private onsens – one indoor cedar bath and an outdoor rock bath.  img_2728As it was raining during our stay, a day of relaxing, soaking in the bath and reading was the ideal way to pass our time. 

Both dinner and breakfast were delicious and extravagant, nearly overwhelming in the amount and variety of food served.

We were the only Western guests during our stay, and the service we received felt more personal than commercial.  This was truly a unique and memorable experience.

The Great Outdoors

We often incorporate multi-day hikes into our travels, and Japan was no different.  We love the freedom hiking gives to explore the beauties of an area you would otherwise never see.  For our trekking excursion, we headed to the famed Kamikochi.

img_2809We only had two days, and our initial plan was to hike to the summit of Mount Yarigatake, overnight at the Yarigatake Sanso lodge and return to Kamikochi for our final night’s stay.  With the forecast of continued rain and the early departure required to reach Mount Yari in one day, we determined that an adjustment was in order.  Reservations are not required for the mountain lodges, so we were free to change our minds.

We arrived in Kamikochi and deposited our luggage at Nishi-itoya Mountain Lodge, where we would spend the next night.  We left Kamikochi with the idea that we would hike to Kanazawa Lodge, but we changed our minds again and ended up going to Yarisawa Lodge.  The accommodations were nicer than expected, as the lodge has bathing facilities, including an onsen, whereas many of the other lodges do not.  It was here that I had my first shared bathing experience.  Letting go of my American modesty, I didn’t find it awkward or uncomfortable at all, and I enjoyed a pleasant chat with an older Japanese woman.  The lodge was also more expensive than expected.  We opted for a private room, having decided on our last overnight hiking trip that it was time to graduate from dorm lodging, making our total stay, including meals, $300.

Mornings begin very early in Japanese mountain lodges, with breakfast served at 5:30 a.m.  Soon thereafter, most of the hikers were along their way, whereas we returned to bed for a couple more hours of rest.  When we departed around 8 a.m., we saw that we weren’t the only ones who didn’t favor rising before the sun, as a handful of Japanese hikers were also just preparing to head out.

img_2855It rained for the entirety of our first day’s journey.  On the plus side, the trail was practically deserted.  We only encountered a few other hikers along the way.  On the trip back, the weather was much better, if still damp and overcast.  Despite the weather, we found Kamikochi and the surrounding mountain areas to be stunning.

We reached Kamikochi by lunchtime and spent most of the day lounging at our ryokan.  We set off for an afternoon walk to enjoy the final hours of our vacation.  To our delight, we soon encountered a troop of snow monkeys wandering along the same path!  While we had enjoyed visiting the monkey park in Kyoto, seeing them truly in the wild was a special treat.