MANILA, Philippines – Japan is the kind of place that will easily drain your camera battery because you will want to take photos of every single corner of it — from the actual sights, down to the artful little trinkets, the view from the parking lot, the canals running with clear water, and even the delicate, fan-shaped algae in the streams.
For this trip, we skipped familiar Tokyo and headed to Chubu in the central area of Japan. We made it just in time for the last hurrah of autumn, so everywhere we looked was splashed with a gradient of reds, oranges and yellows.
Food and Faux food
Our fist stop after landing in the Centrair airport of Nagoya was lunch at Ryukyu no sato in the riverside town of Gujo Hachiman. The town is known for producing plastic food for restaurant displays. I’m used to seeing food replicas in all their unappetizing, waxy glory, but the ones produced here really did look succulent and inviting. They captured even the difference in gleam between sweet bread and freshly cooked meat. The restaurant also wins for best appetizer. We opened a lacquered wooden box to reveal an assortment of flavors, from sweet fish, to pickled vegetables, soft tofu, and even spicy bits that suddenly cleared up your nostrils. My lunch mates and I agreed that it upstaged even the main course of marinated chicken.
A friend wanted to kill me for not eating sushi while there. Being up in a mountainous region, we were served generous amounts of beef and chicken instead, most of it shabu-shabu style.
When in Japan, do as the Japanese do
When traveling, it’s best to leave as much of your comfort zone behind as you will be coming home to it anyway. Trying out the Japanese public bath was one of those things I had sworn I’d never ever do. Seriously, the things other cultures come up with. And yet, when I learned that the Hotel Associa Takayama Resort, our lodging for the night, was nestled in the Japanese Alps and had a spa wing where you could soak in the onsen(hot springs), I found myself lured by the idea of trying it out. It is also said to be very good for the skin. (See, the best way to convince girls from another country to get naked in public is to make it sound like a glamorous experience.)
I almost didn’t leave my room that night, having gone on tour immediately after an early morning flight. I also made the mistake of working out the day before, forgetting that I’d have no time for bed in the next 48 hours. But the moment I had eased my aching body into the steaming water, I felt all the tension gracefully melt away from my bones. Let me tell you, it was so much better than sleep.
As for the being naked part, aside from the initial hesitation when it’s time to strip, you easily get over it. The prevailing nonchalant attitude of the regular bathers catches on, and you realize it’s not like you didn’t already know that you all had boobs. Yes, men and women are separated. Co-ed hot springs do exist, but those are usually attended by grandmas who enjoy scaring the all-too-eager foreigner.
Artisan merchandise, Traditional farmhouses, and snow
We headed to the Miyagawa Morning Market in Takayama City the next day. You could think of it as similar to our tiangges with white, makeshift tarpaulin shelters set up by the river — except that this was Japan, so it was all quality, artisan stuff. I also like how it’s impossible to get tired of browsing due to the sheer variety and creativity exhibited by each stall, whether it’s food, wood carvings, incense, kimono, bejeweled chopsticks, or whatnot. Free tastes also abound.
We then drove to the Shogawa river valley to see the outdoor museum of Shirakawa-go. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it showcases traditional, thatched-roof gasso-zukuri farmhouses, some being over 250 years old. It was no doubt well-preserved, but you didn’t get the feeling that you were looking at something distant and calcified. The place just takes you in without you even noticing it, and while taking in the golden autumn scenery, I actually forgot that I was in a museum.
We could see the snowcapped Japanese Alps at a distance, and awesomely enough, that was where we were headed next. We had been told the previous night to dress for sub-zero temperatures. Upon arriving at the Shinhotaka Ropeway, we took two cable car rides up to an altitude of 2,156 m. The final stop was the observation deck on the roof of Nishihotakaguchi Station, where we got a clear panoramic view of the Alps. Normally they say mornings are the best time to show up as it tends to get dusky in the afternoon, but the skies were blue and there was not a cloud in sight.
Shops and restaurants to warm up in are available at each gondola station, along with natural hot springs and footbaths in the snow. They also have a hotel, Hotel Hotaka, where one can opt to lodge. As for us, being jeje Pinoys, we eagerly took as many snow photos of ourselves as we could before packing back into our bus.
For the remainder of the trip, we lodged at Matsumoto City’s Tokyu Inn. The city, just like the view deck of Shinhotaka, also boasted a panoramic view of the mountains, albeit at a much greater distance.
On buddhism, chestnuts, and cooked locusts
As someone who likes to dabble in Buddhism, I was really excited to visit the Zenko-ji Temple in Nagano, which is also a national treasure. I don’t actually believe in the literal power of rituals, but when you’re standing in the middle of a Zen-inspired courtyard so many miles from home, you ask yourself, why not?
And so I basked in the incense that was meant to cure. I walked up into the grand main hall of the temple, quietly tossed a coin into a railed box, and said a silent prayer of gratitude for the opportunity to see this part of the world. And on the way out, there was this fortune-telling vending machine that chucked out readings for 100 yen. How quaint, right? Except that the readings were in Japanese. Fortunately for us, we had our tour guide, Yoshi, to translate. Mine strangely hit really close to home, speaking of my current life, dreams and issues. It also came with advice which, I must say, was grounded and profoundly wise and liberating at the same time. Although it got awkward because as Yoshi got to the more personal parts, more of our group gathered around to listen, including the representative from the government prefecture of Nagano, who was showing us around.
The next stop was the small but pretty town of Obuse. We didn’t have much time to go around, but we followed a path made of chestnut wood and came upon a gorgeous little garden, with yellow and red leaves both strewn on the ground and cast overhead on the trees. There was also a string of souvenir shops where you could try their chestnut ice cream, among other things. There I met an old man who wanted me to try his cooked locusts. “It tastes just like shrimp!” Deciding to get naked at the hot springs was easier. But after having two Pinoy guys from our group try it first, I finally mustered the courage to put one in my mouth. It wasn’t bad! It tasted like those dilis snacks we have here. It was also delicate and disintegrated easily — no insect-y texture.
Another must-try is the marron or chestnut-flavored rice at the Obuse Highway Oasis along the expressway. It’s as plain and unassuming as rice should be, but the understated flavor is so good that it can actually stand on its own.
Wasabi, War, and Christianity in Japan
Later on that day we also got to visit the Daio Wasabi Farm, where we got to sample freshly ground wasabi. Unless you’re a connoisseur, I don’t recommend putting pure wasabi with nothing else in your mouth, but it won’t kill you. They also sold wasabi ice cream, wasabi jellies, wasabi mayonnaise, wasabi teddy bears, and whatnot.
Next on the itinerary was Matsumoto Castle, an elegant, six-story black structure which they also call the “Crow Castle.” It served as defense and a stronghold during the Eisho Era in the civil war period, and what looked like windows through which one could enjoy the view of the grounds were actually openings to fire at approaching enemies. Today it is filled with war memorabilia, such as samurai armor and guns. Although the stressful 55 to 61-degree incline of the stairs inside made it hard for me to imagine anyone hurrying up or down to engage in battle.
A Catholic church stood a few blocks away from the castle, and the Christians among us were given a few moments to pray. A very small percentage of Japanese are Christian, although I saw Japanese hymnbooks wrapped in decorative blue cloth, as well as chocolate and yen offerings to a figurine of Mother Mary — a Shinto-inspired gesture, no doubt.
And then it was our last day in Japan — the last chance to take advantage of all the cheap UCC coffee in the vending machines. We started out with apple picking at Shiojiri. We got to pick as much as we could eat on the spot, which in my case was one.
The most poignant and unforgettable location for me, though, was Magome, an old Samurai town where people used to roam on horseback. We walked up a paved path that wound up indefinitely along a hill, set against the sky. There were old Japanese houses, as well as countless stores to get sidetracked in with their assortment of knickknacks. Many of the shops I walked into were unattended (they trust people here, apparently), but you could feel the presence of the shopkeeper through the craftsmanship of his wares. There were manicured plants and gardens, as well as shrubbery allowed to have its way on the slopes. Every now and then you’d get a glimpse of the surrounding mountains above the roofs. I tried going off the path a few times where the chiseled pavement gave way to a vacant road, and you could see firewood stacked along the less-picturesque back of a house, the mountains sitting in full view just beyond. It was plainer and suddenly more hushed, but it had its own poetry. If surreal picture-perfect moments could be extended into a moving hour or so, that’s what walking up the path of Magome felt like.
And then all too soon, it was time to head back to Nagoya. Pinoys are crazy about shopping, so we were released to wreck our own havoc on Meitetsu Department Store. It’s also conveniently connected to the express train, which took us straight to the airport (the staff was kind enough to keep our luggage safe ‘til then).
I spent my last hours in Japan back at the Centrair airport, freaking out over how cheap Muji and Shu Uemura were, and figuring out how to bring home the correct Japanese manga series to a friend (It turns out many Japanese can read English text, so I just had to show them the titles my friend tweeted in English). And then I was back in Manila, immediately being pulled in several directions by school and work.
I’m aware that I was sent there as part of Japan’s increased efforts to promote tourism, but I really did fall in love with the place. I may not have had any sushi while I was there, but I’ve been making the smallest excuses to eat it nostalgically with friends who, for as long as I can remember, have been obsessing to me about Japan. Now I get (and can obsess with) them.
To learn more about Japan, visit the websites of the Japan Tourism Agency and the Japan National Tourism Organization
Originally published in The Philippine Star’s Travel and Tourism section (22 December 2013)