The sun rises over Nagoya.
I did not sleep very well during the night, perhaps too much on the mind over today’s challenges – getting to Yatsusan-kan. How full is the train? Even though I booked for reserved seats less people is preferable. And what do I do once we get to Furukawa? I should call the ryokan to ask for a ride, but what if my mobile roaming doesn’t work? Do I walk the 10 min there? Or maybe look for a payphone? Too much possibilities to consider.
Thankfully the first thing in the morning is simple. Breakfast.
I’ve booked breakfast with our reservation, so at least I need not think about what to do for breakfast.
Montblanc has its own western styled restaurant Mongiamo on the ground floor (or Japanese style if you so choose on the second, but I’d never go for Japanese breakfast at a hotel), it has has a public facing door, but for breakfast we enter from the hotel lobby.
There’s breads, grapefruits, eggs and sausages, quite a bit of salad and yoghurt, and hot drinks. Unlike buffets elsewhere where you’d b expected to toast your own bread and buns, here the staff would happily do it for you and bring it to your table.
Overall variety is lacking for the price (900Y), the taste nothing to report on. The only noteworthy item is red beans on toast, which is a pretty good fit.
Our Hida express leaves at 12:40, so we have a morning to do some sightseeing. Not quite enough to go very far, maybe just enough for one place. We decide on Nagoya Castle.
We get off at Hisaya Odori and walks toward the castle.
It’s about 20 min walk from Hisaya Odori through the government district.
Most of Japan’s castles were destroyed during WW2, Nagoya Castle and its palace was one of them. Though the castle keep was rebuilt not long after the war, the palace remained barren ground until recent years, when efforts are made to rebuild it. Mostly through donations, the first part of the restoration project is open to the public.
Like many rebuilt castles, Nagoya Castle only resembles the original in outward appearance, the inside is anything but what you’d expect a medieval Japanese keep to be. Each level is now museum with displays of swords and tools from the day, and there’s an elevator that goes right up to the 2nd highest level. At the very top is an observation level with souvenir shops.
All decidedly unhistorical. I think back to my visit to the Matsue Castle, one of the few remaining castles untouched by war and retained its original form. Dim interiors lit only by what light that finds through the arrow slits, crude unpolished black wooden struts of menace, narrow steep stairs. Primitive, utilitarian, a castle with a purpose, its face steeped in history.
We walk back to Sakae and its underground mall.
The stores here are a motley bunch, pharmacies, clothings, takeaway foods, cake shops, bakeries and sweets shops. Non-expensive items which might entice people going to and from work.
As noon nears we return to Montblanc, picks up our luggage and heads to the station.
The plan is to buy ekibens and have lunch on the train. However I’ve probably searched in the wrong place, unlike Tokyo or Okayama, we didn’t find many ekiben stalls. There’s a few, but selection feels a little limited. I regret not having researched for ekibens beforehand.
We picked our choices and headed up to the platform.
The familiar orange decor of the Hida Express greets me.
The train is unbelievably full. I thought this would be a lull period for visiting Takayama. Maybe friday afternoons are always this crowded? Can’t remember which day of the week I visited Takayama last time was.
My parents are initially confused by the train going “backwards”, as in the opposite direction the seats are facing. I quickly explained that the train will soon reverse at Gifu. Before Gifu station the Tokaido Main Line split off into the Takayama Main Line in a Y intersection, with Gifu at the bottom end. So the train “backs” into Gifu then goes “forward” onto Takayama Main Line for the rest of its journey.
The scenery has changed much from my last visit. The mountains are not the vibrant green it had been in the Spring, the hills are a dull brown, the evergreen forest broken with leafless barren branches.
As the train climbed, snow began to jot about the landscape. Initially only in the shady sides of the mountain and houses, then everywhere by a thin layer.
As we crossed into the Takayama valley, the fields became thick with snow. I became both excited and worried. How cold is it going to be? Inside the train where the heater is on full, the snowy landscape felt surreal.
Almost all of the passengers left at Takayama. We will be visiting Takayama as well, but not today. We will be getting off at the next stop, Hida-Furukawa, a few kilometres further to the north.
The express continued on with half its carriages.
If my mind wasn’t quite made up on calling Yatsusan-kan before, it certainly is now. The snow only got thicker. There is no way we will be able to walk to Yatsusan-kan, even if the roads are plowed it is certain to be wet and muddy.
I rehearsed in the mind about what to say.
As the train pulled into Furukawa, my eyes lit up at the sight of a white van. The heart races as I searched for any names on its side.
There, in blue letters, was the words 八ツ三館 (Yatsusan-kan).
I breathes with relief. Even though I had emailed them previously about my expected arrival time, they didn’t reply whether they understood and would be waiting.
Outside the station, a man in kimono approaches and inquires if I am who I am.
More than glad to see him, I took his and greeted him warmly.
Now things get a little more interesting… I’m not sure how etiquette is regarding taking photos, so I kept it sparingly while any of their staff is with us. Some photos of places aren’t taken on the spot, but rather taken later.
The van rounded around the ryokan and stops at the front door. We are welcomed by the okami (女将, owner of the ryokan) and several nakai (仲居).
Yatsusan-kan was founded around the end of the Edo period around 1850s. Founded by Sangoro (三五郎) who came from the Etchuyatsuo (越中八尾) area, taking a number from the founder’s name and his place of birth, so named Yatsusan. A place that’s now being run by the 8th generation owner, it has witnessed history through the ages.
In the Meiji period textile and fabrics industry was booming in the neighbouring Shinjuu (now Nagano) area. Many young girls from the poor farming areas of Hida were forced to leave their homes and go to work long hours in the factories. In order to get to Shinjuu, they had to make long and arduous journey across snow capped alps which many lives were lost. Yatsusan-kan was one of the gathering points for the young girls before and after their journeys, gathering before departing together and the place from which they disperse after returning.
Its halls echoes with footsteps from the past, Yatsusan-kan is now recognized as a cultural heritage.
Btw at ryokans and many other traditional Japanese houses, upon entering one is supposed to remove one’s shoes.
We are brought to a nearby waiting room. At the centre is a fantastic wooden firepit table carved of ancient wood. The charcoal embering in the middle warmed the room with a comfortable heat.
Warm matcha tea and desserts is served as a sign of welcome.
After some rest, I’m given a form to fill in regarding our preferred times for dinner and breakfast as well as any additional requests we would like to make.
One of the nakai, a young woman, then gave us a tour of the place and tried her best to explain the various rules. We are led to our room, it’s on the second level and surprisingly there’s an elevator for it. Here the okami takes over. It became clear later she has pretty decent English and for most of our stay we would be attended by her instead of one of the nakai.
Our room is called shiwasu (師走), the traditional Japanese name for December, the okami explains.
We sit down at the table and the okami welcomes us again, with some light conversation about whether it’s our first time in Japan. If I knew more Japanese I’m sure some interesting conversation could be had, okami is very nice and friendly. Soon she brings out the yukatas stored in the drawers and shows them to us.
After confirming dinner time again, she leaves us to enjoy our stay.
Before heading to the onsen, I decide to take a quick stroll outside, just to see how cold it is. Perhaps the excitement, I thought it is warmer than Nagoya.
We did not go very far. The ground is a little slippery but otherwise I’m assured that my new boots will be up to the job when we get to Shirakawa.
Upon return we head to the onsen. My parents are impressed by the service thus far and seeing the rooms are mostly empty as I planned, are eager to give the onsen experience a try.
There are no photos, so please look them up on the Yatsusan website (http://www.823kan.com/)
The onsen is small but relaxing, we pretty much have the whole place to ourselves.
Outdoors, submerged in hot spring, watching the steam rises against snow capped trees, sipping on provided fine sake. One could float here in lasting tranquility.
After a nice bath, I go about exploring the place.
Then comes the highlight of evening – Kyoto-style fine dining.
There are several ways which ryokans usually serve dinner.
Some ryokans have a dining hall where everyone is seated, some serve dinner in the guests’ own rooms. Some have individual dining rooms for guests (個室料亭). Yatsusan have its own dining wing with individual rooms, ensuring each guests get to dine in peace without being disturbed or concerned about disturbing others.
Some ryokans lay out the entire course on the table to reduce the number of nakai needed. Yatsusan serves them the proper, traditional way, with each course brought and served one at a time.
Yatsusan-kan prides itself on sourcing local ingredients, including its own vegetable farms, though in winter that probably matters less.
After the luxurious dinner it’s time for a night time stroll to help with digestion
When we returned to our room, our bed have been laid out and the tea table moved to the front half of the room. A new plate of onigiri (rice ball) is on the table in case we get a little nibbly and feel like some late supper.