Number two on my list of trips to write about is Takayama, or “Tall-Mountain” as it might be called in English. The reasons for my visit were threefold:
• It’s often referred to as one of Japan’s most well-preserved traditional towns,
• It’s located North of Kyoto, so a trip just after the local blossoms peak would yield a second chance for some great sakura photos,
• The weekend of April 14th-15th hosts the Takayama Matsuri, globally acclaimed as one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals.
From some random website:
“In April when the snow on the mountains which surround the basin of Takayama melts away and solid ground reappears, Spring finally comes to Hida Takayama. As people joyously celebrate the new season, the sound of drums from festivals in nearby village shrines echoes in the clear Spring air.”
Yes, I have been wanting to visit Takayama for quite some time. And yes, I have also been looking forwards to a bit of relaxation after nearly 2 weeks of running around nonstop with my dad. But as always, the opportunity for travel wins. So first thing Saturday morning (after an early night out in Kiyamachi with some coworkers), I grabbed my new SLR and began the five-transfer six-hour trek into the Japanese Alps.
The trip was routine at first; getting off at the end-of-the line, scrambling to decode the train schedules for fear of missing the next outbound, then killing thirty or forty minutes by unsuccessfully scouring the station for WiFi signals. I passed through many familiar places along the way – Sekigahara and Gifu to name a couple – but because I had a long trip ahead of me and a festival to catch, I didn’t stop at any of them. At least for awhile.
At one point I realized that I was about to face a long stretch of track serviced by nothing but “OneMan” trains. OneMans are single-car diesel engines made to carry locals to only the most remote locations – where electric trains don’t run. They’re called OneMan because they’re operated by a single conductor, and because the stations they visit are often unstaffed – when getting on and off, you actually pay the conductor rather than an automated (but supervised) ticket machine like at most other stations. Onemans are, needless to say, slow.
But it was a beautiful day and my energy was fine, so I decided to see some rural countryside up-close. As well as some shocked looks when the local elderly discovered a foreigner passing through their little towns. So I rode the OneMans for an hour or so, patiently waiting for them to stop at every single no-name location along the way. Then at the next “major” station (read: with a ticket gate) I decided it was time to cover some distance. I got off and transferred to a high-speed express.
Man, what a different experience. The express was packed to the brim with Railpass-wielding foreigners; apparently the secret of Takayama Matsuri wasn’t such a secret after all. But at least this meant my chances of riding without having to purchase a way overpriced express ticket were higher – with so many foreigners onboard, I doubted the conductor would bother to check everyone 😉
I was both right and wrong. He checked, but I got lucky and slipped through once. So after making it through the bulk of the wilderness (a breathtaking trip through a gorge in the Japanese Alps), I decided to play it safe and transfer back onto the next OneMan. Only, as it turned out the next train of any type through that station wouldn’t be coming for an hour and a half. And the station attendant had just seen me get off the express. And I didn’t have an express ticket.
Time for some Justin-brand impulse-travel!
I managed to escape from the station though a bathroom exit and ask a local bus driver about my options for getting to the next station (I wasn’t about to go back through the gate I’d just escaped from, particularly because it meant buying a ticket directly from the station worker who had just seen me roaming suspiciously around inside). The next bus wouldn’t be arriving until even later than the train. Well, if I could make it halfway through Europe on foot, I could sure as hell make it a few kilometers to the next station, right? I started walking. And taking pictures. And walking faster. And realizing that I probably wasn’t going to make it in time. And running. And taking pictures of the next train passing me by. Damn.
But I continued the walk, enjoying, once again, the side of Japan that few foreigners ever experience, until I did make it to the next station. The schedule on the wall said that the next train was two more hours away. Damn again.
But wait! I do learn from my mistakes! After my little experience riding a rusted, flat-tired, abandoned bicycle to the Dochu Sand Pillars two summers ago, I’ve started carrying a portable patch kit and pump whenever I do one of my “impulse trips.” This time I was ready. So I found a clearly-abandoned bike (with barely functioning brakes), fixed ‘er up, and started riding.
The ride took me past cows and roosters, through mountains and valleys, and past station after unmanned station. At each one I would check the schedule, monitoring how far ahead of the next train I was. It was like a race – would I make it to Takayama, 45km away, or would the train catch up with me first and I just end up relaxing the rest of the way there?
Well as it turned out, the distance between a certain pair of stations was significantly greater than any of the previous, such that I almost missed the second train that I’d been working so hard to stay ahead of. I watched the clock as my one-hour advantage slowly reduced to thirty minutes and then to ten. I started to worry, so I doubled my pace, then tripled it. The situation was oddly familiar. As was the result: I pulled into the station with one hell of a headache and just 5 minutes to spare. I bought my ticket, hopped on, and the journey continued. Takayama Matsuri, here I come.