Journeying into Hida-Takayama takes one deep into the woods of your last Studio Ghibli film. When I’m stressed, I typically drift off into mindless scenery viewed from the vantage point of a moving train. But on this day, I visited my day dream in real life. It’s a no-brainer as to why these parallels run. I’m reminded of my youth, of Chinese New Years spent returning to Ipoh, my mother’s hometown. Somewhere lost in the Japanese countryside, I felt my true life slip away and my Miyazaki life begin.
To get to Hida-Takayama from Tokyo, there are several ways. The path I chose began at Tokyo station, catching a shinkansen (bullet train) to Toyama, which was roughly two and a half hours. From there, a local train will take you from Toyama to Hida-Takayama, roughly an additional hour and a half. It was as comfortable as the first and afforded me views of rice fields and the cloudless weather of the day. For better or worse, everything in Japan feels like a ritual, perhaps because of the methodical way the Japanese operate. Purchasing these train tickets was a mission that hinged on both my ability to speak Japanese and my confidence in my ability to speak Japanese. At the beginning of my trip, I arrived at Tokyo station an hour early, also confident in my ability to get lost.
Hida-Takayama is known as the second Kyoto of Japan. Its most popular attraction, Sanmachi Suji, are three historic streets, lined with traditional merchant shops, preserving the way Japanese used to live in Hida-Takayama. Traditional sweets made from starch syrup, roasted soy bean powder and matcha are the backbone of many gift shops. Beef, the Hida-Takayama specialty, is also available in the form of gyu-nigiri served atop a senbei disc, hot skewers featuring meat from different parts of a cow and niku-man, a steaming hot bun with meat fillings. There is a specialty store that sells only cat-themed memorabilia, and a gift shop with a giant Hello Kitty dressed like sarubobo, baby monkey, the official mascot of Hida-Takayama. On the Sunday that we returned to Sanmachi, we saw several Japanese donning kimonos, snacking on various kushiage. They framed the scene softly, much in the same way that a gentle breeze that blows, does.
A 10 minute bus ride, or, a 40 or so long walk away is Hida no Sato, a kind of outdoor museum, exhibiting traditional homes and the old way of life of the Hida region. Journey by foot and expect the unexpected, like a museum of teddy bears (with a private room for chakra examination) and a Mahikari temple so majestic, it looked like it was floating loftily on clouds, from the distance we saw it. A personal standout for me at Hida no Sato was the hearth within one of the houses, that had a fire roaring steadily, next to an old man making shoes from straw. A trail up to the mountains looked longingly at us, we waved back, promising to come back on our next adventure.
Guesthouse & cafe SOY in Hida-Takayama, where I stayed, is one of the most charming bed and breakfast type places, so much that I sincerely felt like the pleasure is all mine for having done so. Owned and operated by Tai and his parents, there are just three rooms available, two Japanese style rooms and one Western style. The price ranges from 8,000 yen to 13,000 yen per person, per night. This is extremely affordable considering the personalised service, the level of comfort that the abode (yes it does feel like you are living in Tai and family’s personal quarters) provides, and the 雰囲気, atmosphere contained within its walls.
The house itself is over a hundred years old, but had recently been renovated by Tai. By night, it feels like you are in the embrace of a log cabin, as the living room’s fireplace flickers with life like a beating heart. Arriving late after dinner, Tai’s parents greet me like a friend they’ve known their whole life. They don’t stop at polite, they’re also politely curious and want to know about where I’ve come from, even if it’s as uninteresting as Tokyo or as unoriginal as Australia.
Tea is poured by お母さん and she later also offers a bowl of fruit, with a knife, should you wish to further slice the already cut pieces of apple and pear. By day, the house radiates with modest tranquility. I hate to say “unpretentious” but there’s a certain ease about the place which encourages you to just, be. The living room is light-filled, opening your eyes to the tasteful decor, down to the minor details. A calligraphy piece looks over the main dining table while a lingering Tama-chan, a stray-turned-adopted cat, reminds you who the real master of the household really is.
Your breakfast options are Japanese-style or Continental style, and you sit amongst the other guests, who now also feel like an extension of your own family. Both sets have a charm of their own, Japanese has miso soup and a decent cut of an oily fish that nourishes deeply. Opt for Continental and you face a basket of bread to eat with house-made jam, alongside chicken, consommé and fresh salad. The third iteration of SOY comes to life here, as the main sitting area also doubles as a cafe. Should a stay not be within the means of your itinerary, dining at the cafe is your second best option for experiencing SOY hospitality.
A common school of thought regarding Spirited Away, one of Ghibli’s most films, is that the film is a metaphor for visiting the underworld. There’s nothing quite as foreshadowing here in Hida-Takayama or at SOY. But being taken away from the life that you know is a consistent theme, as is having been stripped back so that you are just your essence. On the train back to the city, I could feel my flesh return, like a numbing sensation ebbing away, as my Tokyo clothes put themselves on. Thoughts of work, personal stresses, my next visit to my Muay Thai gym, flooded back like old friends. Clothing the soul is a necessity, but it’s nice to let it dance, once in awhile.