I had no idea sleeping on the floor could be so not unpleasant. Until I came to Japan, that is, where it’s not a punishment from your angry girlfriend or something stupid you do when you’re too drunk to walk to the bed but is an end in itself, and a darned comfortable one at that.
At a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – in Nagano three weeks ago, I was first given a tour of the building, including the small onsen and a bathroom with fancy Western-style toilets (no squatting!). Then I was shown through a sliding fusuma door to a small room with a low table flanked by two cushions, a kerosene space heater, and a single window. The ancient, bent Japanese woman who was with me carefully made me a cup of bitter green tea at the table, then told me to sit. While I sipped the tea (it’s drunk neat, without sugar or cream), she unrolled a futon across the tatami floor and made my bed. In America, a futon is a sort of uncomfortable folding couch. In Japan, a futon is not that at all; it’s a thin mattress about two meters long that lies directly on the tatami – rectangular reed mats that have covered Japanese floors since approximately 1,000,000 B.C. It comes with a thick blanket and, if you’re lucky, a tiny pillow about the size of a fashion magazine. It all makes for an excellent night of sleep, especially when you’ve got a belly full of noodles and the window’s open and there’s an autumn chill in the night air and you’ve been walking around a foreign city all day gawking yourself into exhaustion.
In Takayama this weekend – the name means “high mountain” – I met up with my itinerant mountaineering compadre Will and we stayed at a temple inn called Zenkoji, which is technically the name of the temple, but the inn’s attached to the temple, and the friendly Mako-lookalike proprietor, Tommy, who maintains both temple and inn, doesn’t see a need for two names, which is his prerogative. Tatami-and-futon dorm rooms were what Zenkoji and Tommy offered, and I slept like a dog.
Takayama’s way up in the mountains, split by an ice-cold river and ringed on every side by distant towers of rock that cup the city like the hands of stone giants. This is a city that’s built for snow; roofs are all angled like church steeples and the trees are squat, gnarled and hunched over themselves. The city’s been around for ages, part of the old post road between Kyoto and Tokyo. The once magnificent castle on the hill overlooking the town was torn down when a new ruling clan took over the Hida region in 1693 and decided to kick some Takayama ass – about the time the earliest Charlestonians were thinking it would be nice to move out of the West Ashley woods and into a bigger place on the peninsula.
In fact Takayama’s a lot like Charleston’s historic district. It’s riddled with well-preserved old buildings, cobbled streets, souvenir and craft shops, fine art and folk museums, scads of restaurants, and of course plagues of tourists, who wander through streets and automobile thoroughfares like they’re in a theme park. (I’m including myself in this category – it’s even trickier avoiding being run over when you keep forgetting cars are coming at you on the opposite side of the street.) It felt a lot like home.
On Sunday, an hour and a half further east and up, I found Kamikochi to be not so much a town as a merely bus stop and an information center cowering in the Asawaga River valley beneath a half-dozen of the Japanese Alps’ most spectacular peaks. These include 3,190-meter-high Hotakadake, which hangs in the sky at the end of the valley, draped in white, exhaling mist, and radiating majesty in palpable waves. I hiked up the valley to the Kappa-bashi bridge and Myojin-ike pond and by the time I’d returned five and a half hours later, my legs were stiff and my neck ached from looking up all day, as if the mountains had reached down and held my face toward them. For some reason I hardly noticed my foot at all.
Here are a few images from Takayama. I’m not sure how I feel about this slideshow thing. But it’ll have to do until I can figure out how to edit CSS and get some permanent photo galleries created on here. Feel free to provide your own opinion. Just remember, nobody likes a complainer.