Snow, sarubobos and cherry blossoms

When I first planned this trip the idea was to go from Nagoya to Kanazawa via Matsumoto, catching the stretch of the Oito Line scheduled to close once the Hokuriku Shinkansen services begin. But I struggled with that decision. Though Matsumoto’s Castle is one of the best I knew that Mum would probably prefer the old streets and craft of Takayama, the scenery along the railway line. Also, remembering our 2006 trip there, the snow.

Knowing too that she would love Gujo Hachiman, I changed our plans. To get from Hachiman to Kanazawa without backtracking along the Nagaragawa Railway requires a stretch of road travel. Surprisingly there are no buses across the gap of the Nagaragawa and Etsumi-Nan railways, so the other option was to Takayama. Indeed it’s possible to catch a bus all the way to Matsumoto, which should be a very scenic journey, but then we would reach Kanazawa too late in the evening.

There was the bonus too of filling in another gap on the train line. Back in 2006 part of the Takayama main line between Tsunogawa at Inotani had been cut due to rainfall from a typhoon. I had long wanted to fill in that gap on this very scenic line.

Bus seats from Gujo Hachiman to Takayama must reserved in advance, which we had done the previous day through the tourist office in Hachiman. After a breakfast at the quaint little cafe across the road the ryokan owner drove us to the tiny isolated bus stop, nothing more than a small shelter.

It was a comfortable coach ride along a wide motorway between the cities. For much of the time we rode high in the mountains along the elevated freeway or through long tunnels. There were spectacular views of the mountains and valleys and we saw snow. Dirty, older snowdrifts most of them, but snow nonetheless. In these cold areas the hillsides were bleak. Yellowed flattened grass, bare grey trees. Small cabins hiding in the leafless forests.

The bus pulled up adjacent to Takayama station, where we left Mum’s back in a locker. Takayama is one of B and I’s favourite places in Japan and it’s very popular with many Western tourists. It has a well preserved historic centre, is famous for a number of crafts, including woodwork. But most of all it has great food.

We had a few hours to spare wandering the city. I stopped to buy rice crackers in one shop, Mum purchased a wooden carving in another where we had once bought a wooden Daruma. Then we spotted a morning market and emerged with a couple of big apples for later.

Tourists crowded along the old streets of Takayama, lined with dark brown wooden buildings in which were sold tourist trinkets, crackers, pickles, sake, stitched dolls, bags and many other things. A popular item, symbol of the area, is the sarubobo doll. These faceless “monkey” dolls are supposed to bring luck. Mostly they come in red, but the orange dolls are supposed to bring luck in travel. When I bought one last time we were in Takayama the poor doll didn’t have much luck and quickly disappeared. Hopefully the latest purchase won’t try travelling without me again.

There was not enough time to enjoy all that Takayama has to offer, but there had to be enough time to appreciate on thing: food.

A mitarishi dango (sweet and sticky rice balls on a skewer) from one stall. A bun of beef and onion. A skewer of fatty marbled local Hida beef from another tiny shopfront outlet. Then a lunch at a restaurant.

This time I had no headache. This time I was going to enjoy my hoba miso, cooked on a proper charcoal grill. And I stole a couple of slices of Mum’s grilled Hida beef. It is so sweet, so succulent, so tender. No other beef at home can compare to the flavours of this top quality meat from Japan. No steak ever tastes worthy.

Then it was time to return to the station, where our Wide View Hida service to Toyama soon arrived. This is an express train, fast and comfortable. Not like our last trip to Kanazawa in a hot, small diesel railcar. But I like the slow rattly railcars!

Under clear blue skies I could soon tell that there was less snow left than that, slightly later in the month, trip in 2006. Perhaps that was just a cold year, perhaps it’s climate change, but now there were only dirty patches than thick snow.

Once past where we had stopped last time, at Tsunogawa, the scenery became spectacular as we wound along through the river valley. The hillsides looked bleak, devastated, still in winter hibernation, with only the odd pine tree offering any greenery, the snow melt river running over grey stones, fed by waterfalls that appeared in folds in the hills. We passed through numerous tunnels and open sided snow and rock shelters, always emerging into another impressive view.

As another, disused, line, the Kamioka Railway, appeared to our right we pulled into the station of Inotani where we had rejoined the railway from the bus. No waiting in the cold on the platform this time, we just continued on, though the sight of a local service diesel railcar waiting brought back memories of the stuffy journey.

The land soon became flatter, rice paddies rather than the mountain range which receded into the distance. There was one more point of excitement for me at Etchu-Yatsuo when I spotted a Kiha 120 diesel railcar set in Takayama Line livery at the platform. Now I know that virtually nobody but me would get excited about this, but that train, those colours hold a special place in my heart as the first Japanese model railway train that I purchased so long ago. Purchased due to the experience on the Takayama Line, yet I had not travelled in it, had not seen it at Takayama itself. I suppose that they do the local runs along the Toyama section.

We had about half an hour to transit at Toyama, an industrial city that was heavily bombed in the Second World War. The station was being rebuilt to support the Hokuriku Shinkansen, thankfully not due until 2015, giving me time I hope to travel the full length of the Oito Line. Mum tried a can of hot coffee from a vending machine, I bought a bakery snack. Then we wound our way back through the long corridors of construction to catch our next train, the Thunderbird to Kanazawa.

Many Japanese trains are named for birds, but this dramatic sounding limited express is actually named for the sedentary rock ptarmigan, which is written in Japanese using kanji which separately also mean thunder and bird. Anyway, I made sure I listened to some of the Thunderbirds movie soundtrack during the ride (the live action version, not the far better puppet series).

Once out of the city the landscape was mostly flat agricultural lands against a distant backdrop of snow capped ranges.

Kanazawa was one of the highlights of my 2006 trip to Japan. As the home of probably the best strolling garden in Japan, an atmospheric samurai district and some high quality arts and crafts I knew that I had to bring Mum there.

Stepping out of the main station one can see the huge wooden torii like entrance that makes an entry into Kanazawa so impressive. Our hotel, a Dormy Inn, was nearby and we dumped our luggage there and let Mum have a short rest while I crossed over to the adjacent shopping centre to look for a Japanese cable for my laptop. No luck!

Just as in 2006, when a hungry and wet B and I had chanced upon a night hanami the Korakuen gardens were open for cherry blossom viewing that evening. We hopped on board the Korakuen bus and joined the crowds walking up the slope to the gardens. Many were lining up to purchase white, pink and green dango (sticky rice balls) to eat under the flowers.

As cars and coaches were directed slowly across the intersection by a guard with a red lightsabre like baton crowds milled around for photos in from of the pink puffy sakura blossoms in front of the Kanazawa castle gate, the Sun setting behind them.

At the entrance to Kenrokuen were colourful stalls selling the usual snacks: grilled corn, yakisoba, takoyaki. Entrance is free for hanami and the park is open at night, attracting many locals and tourists. But in typically Japanese fashion the crowds are well behaved and everyone gets their turn to take photos and pass by.

Kenrokuen isn’t just about cherry blossoms and in fact they seem to be in the minority when it comes to trees. There are so many beautiful aspects of the gardens. Most famous is probably the Kotojitoro lantern, standing by a single tree into the lake with a tea house in the background. There are ancient trees held up by wooden poles, shallow streams running through irises.

Darkness fell and trees were lit from below by floodlights, highlighting the pink and white cherry blossoms against the dark green of other vegetation, reflected like clouds in the streams. Tea houses and shops were surrounded by pink and red balls of lanterns. It was like walking through a fantasy world.

The memory card on my camera filled up and I had to buy another from a small shop decorated with pink lanterns. We were hungry and it was tempting to seek sustenance in one of the little tea houses that looked both inviting but culturally forbidding at the same time.

After walking through much of the park we emerged out to a row of souvenir shops and restaurants lined with cherry blossoms and lanterns. The food was limited and expensive, great for the cold and wet night of 2006, but unattractive to Mum now. So we returned to the first entrance and ate yakisoba, fried noodles, from a stall, Mum finishing with a soft serve ice cream.

Across the other side of the bridge was the rebuilt Kanazawa castle surrounded by cherry trees and their admirers, also open late for hanami. We walked around the moat beneath the Moon and a canopy of pink blossoms. Despite the darkness as we tried to find our way to a bus stop there was no fear, not that threat of the night that you feel in so many other places.

We found a bus, but it was going the wrong way and we ended up at the lively Katamachi area by the river, lined with shops, pachinko parlours and other forms of entertainment. This was where we were based back in 2006, but it was late, the shops were closed and we were tired.

With the loop buses stopped for the night we decided to catch a taxi back to the hotel. The driver may have looked of retirement age but he drove like a teenage hoon. I was glad to be out of the vehicle.

Mum went straight up to bed, but I took advantage of the Dormy Inn’s free ramen meal before dumping a load of washing in the free machines (dryers cost 100Y for 20 minutes) and took a bath in their “spa” onsen rather than use the ensuite facilities in my room.

I thought the baths not a nice as those in their Takasaki hotel. The outdoor bath, which I used, was surrounded by grey stone and no garden. Plus there was piped muzak played continuously. But it still had the wonderful feeling of letting my tired arms, legs and back soak in the hot water. What better way to end a long day?

Except that I had to wait for the washing to finish.


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