Takayama: in which we escape Tokyo for historic mountain town

We recently escaped the office for a few extra days to make a long weekend getaway to the west.  There are a couple of older mountain towns up there famous for their preserved streets and thatched roofs. So last Friday, we tucked ourselves into a long-distance bus and five hours later we were way out of Tokyo.

Sadly, the castle was destroyed by the central government in the 1600s. (I know you share my disappointment…) The samurai all left with the castle so Takayama calls itself a historic civilian town, dotted by massive merchant houses all carefully built to code, just centimeters shorter than the roof of the tax-collecting, government building that replaced the castle…

Kusakabe house front

Both houses were two storied monsters, with intricate flying cedar beams crisscrossing the entryways and dining areas. Both houses we went in belonged to private money-lenders, and although the pamphlets said they were a respected pillar of the community, I’m sure opinions at the time were more mixed….

Yoshijima family hearth, but one imagines little heat stayed nearby with ceilings that high…

Kusakabe business front (on the left) and two hearths for family and maids behind the wall

Upstairs is a warren of tatami-floored family rooms with the occasional business room for really special guests. It was chilly enough that pattering around the houses in our socks got chilly, but as always the plastic slippers on offer less warmth than nuisance.

It’s hard to get a real feeling for these houses walking through– the tatami rooms had no fixed furniture so unlike western houses, you can’t say clearly, here was the library, here was the sitting room. The furniture, art, and even the sliding walls would have been moved and rearranged to suit the purpose and create a feeling of space or privacy.

Finally, we stumbled on a (slightly less impressive) ninja house. According to the curator, the ninjas in Takayama did bear arms (and there was an impressive display of hooked weapons on display…) but were mostly employed as information gatherers.  So spies or gossips, depending on how much mystery you want to leave them.  As doctors, they had the best opportunities to talk to all the townsfolk and visitors, trading in rare medical items like narwhal horns.

You can just make out the white narwhal horn horizontally on the wall

Wandering out of the merchant district, we went across the river to the government building, Takayama Jinya.  We lucked out and wandered by just as an English-speaking guide was heading out and good thing too– there were very few signs in either language but the building was amazing.

Takayama Jinya– the only old government office of its kind left in Japan

Underneath the subtle purple tribute to the central government (as it would have looked when the building was running), are two of the 12 different entrances based on rank. They had different entrances (and in some cases entire hallways) for criminals, villagers, local officials, officials sent from Tokyo, the head official from Tokyo, the head official’s family (his wife and kids had to enter separately from him), and one doorway that was only used when the head official returned to Tokyo and a new one took his place. Phew.

The head official from Tokyo had the fanciest room with the best heaters, etc, which is good because most of them were not so thrilled about being posted in this frosty backwater and the archives show they wrote home frequently complaining about the cold, long, dark winters and begging their relatives to get them another assignment as soon as possible.

A big theme in the building, secondary to the obsession with rank, was fire-prevention.  The beams across the hallway were shaped like bridges to invoke water, pulleys over the hearths shaped like fish, and the nail heads were covered by rabbits. Rabbits, we now know, are good luck because they sense fire ahead of other animals and run fast enough to get away from it.

Run, run, run

After several hours of house tours– and gradually losing feeling in our toes padding around in socks on the cold tatami mats– we finished off the day with local sake tastings in the breweries at the east end of the historic town.

The cedar balls under the eaves mean sake breweries

Local beef and sake… mmm…

Next up, an thatched roofs and leaf peeping…

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