I have already talked about our time in Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara a good while back. Now, let me tell you about our little excursions in the amazing Japanese countryside.
We then made our way to Shinjuku station, the busiest in the world and guess what... it was rush hour! If you want to see people really close up, that would be the perfect time. If you suffer with claustrophobia, just don't. We eventually made it to a major train station so we could catch the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya. Trains are a wonderful way to travel and you get to see a lot of landscape. The shinkansen was really fast but we managed to see Mount Fuji for a few short minutes (it was covered in fog on our way back).
In Nagoya, we caught a smaller train headed to Nakatsugawa. There, we had to wait for a little bus to take us to Magome where we would start our 8kms hike to Tsumago (this is a small part of the Nakasendo Trail located in the Kiso Valley). While we were waiting, I spotted a shop filled with local food specialties. One of them was the really delicious seasonal kuri kinton, a sweet chestnut dumpling. If you are visiting this area at the moment, it is probably back in season, give it a try!
At one stage, I thought I spotted a hummingbird and took a few photos but it turned out to be some particular type of moth: hummingbird hawk-moth. Nature was really surprising at every corner of the trail.
We then reached Tsumago after walking down the valley, this time in the refreshing shade!
The first thing we did once there was checking out the onsen and take a hot bath. An onsen is a hot spring and really a wonderful relaxing experience. But be prepared to have to remove ALL of what you are wearing and wash yourself in front of others before going in the water! Public baths don't mix women and men so at least, that's that! I actually had the whole women onsen for myself. After a day walking in the heat up and down a valley, it was divine!
Afterwards, we went for dinner and had our first kaiseki experience. Kaiseki is a traditional seasonal Japanese dinner consisting of many courses. I counted 9 courses that night! A lovely lady pointed at the menu so we could know what we were eating. It was all in Japanese so to this day, I still am not sure about some of the things we ate. Each plate was presented beautifully with very intricate details. We had some gorgeous sashimi that definitely won my heart. The raw octopus tough pieces though... not so much!
Let's say that after the hike, the hot bath and a lot of food, I fell asleep really fast.
We had a bit of time before catching the bus for our next stop so we had a little wander around the castle to admire the red and white koi (carps) in the big pond. We also fit in a lunch of delicious gyoza (Japanese pan-fried dumplings) and I had room to grab a cute taiyaki, a waffle shaped like a fish (filled with thick custard for mine and they also had options of sweet azuki bean paste or chocolate).
We then jumped on the coach that would drive us through the Japanese Alps towards Takayama. The drive took two and half hours but the mountainous landscape was so spectacular that I could have spent any amount of time on that bus with my face glued to the window. Imagine all the red and yellow trees dispersed through the mountains among rocks and dense forests and all the beautiful clear rivers we crossed. If I could, I would go back there in a heartbeat!
The next day, we woke up early to go and visit the town. First, we went to the dining room and had the weirdest breakfast ever: raw octopus slices, rice and sweet vegetable, pickled mountain vegetables, miso soup and some type of fermented something (yep, not soy beans... something!). I could really not have that everyday and was reassured when our Kyoto guide Keiko told us she only has cereal and milk for breakfast.
The morning was really freezing in the mountains but it quickly warmed up. We went straight to the Miyagawa morning food market to have a look at the local produce. We saw some rather enormous apples and strange looking mountain vegetables. We were still a bit hungry after our weird Japanese breakfast and luckily the market had some amazing stalls with cooked food. My favourite was the hida-gyu-man, a steamed rice bun filled with some type of wonderful Hida beef stew. I could have eaten a lot of those, they were so comforting and flavoursome. Hida gyu (Hida beef) has a really good reputation and I can confirm it was really delicious (we tried it in other meals afterwards). We also grabbed a couple of skewers of rice balls cooked with sticky soy sauce before a little trip to Hida no Sato (Hida folk village) to visit the open air museum of traditional houses.
Takayama is a very pretty town, I would love to visit it in Winter when it is covered in snow. We also found the strangest little shops and museums while wandering in the back streets (see that photo with the many little decorative birds below? It was a shop selling mostly those and there were hundreds and hundreds on the walls). It is worth being curious and exploring to make the most of it.
That second day in Takayama, we were served once again a kaiseki dinner in our room. This time, we had wonderful dishes with hida beef, including a thick steak to cook by ourselves on a mini table grill. It barely needed any seasoning at all, it was incredible by itself.
The next day, we skipped breakfast ( and were not too sad about it) and went to the station so a train could take us to our next adventures in Kyoto and Nara.