I know I said I’d start doing shorter, more frequent posts. And I will! Some of the time. But I’ve still got 2 or 3 half-written travel posts to catch up on ( as always! 😛 ) So to start off, here’s the conclusion of…
Takayama Part 2: A Very Cold Evening
At long last I’d arrived at Takayama, one of only three places that remained on my “To-Visit” list when I left Japan back in 2006. It had been a long day of travel by train, foot, and bicycle. But despite my exhaustion, there was still a bit of sunlight remaining – the sky was still blue enough for some nice photos – so I began wandering the streets in search of the famed Takayama Matsuri.
At first I was surprised to find a city not overrun by visitors, but scarcely more crowded than any other noteworthy Japanese town. In Kyoto the word “matsuri” always goes hand-in-hand with drunken crowds so thick you can barely move, so I thought for sure I must’ve made some mistake. But a quick inquiry to a local police officer assured me that I had indeed arrived on the right day. Apparently what I considered to be an “average town’s population” was the result of the matsuri after all, and on any other day the streets would be virtually empty. Man, I’m glad I live in a big city 😛
As I wandered through several of Takayama’s preservation districts in search of the festival floats, I was reminded more and more of Gion – old wooden storefronts offering everything from tea ceremony utensils to useless souvenir trinkets, populated by a good mix of western clothing & kimono, adorned with signs in old Kanji and modern English. I would discover over the course of the weekend that Takayama did not earn its fame from its ability to preserve an authentic, non-touristy feel, but through its determination to preserve a much larger percentage of traditional homes and buildings even than Kyoto.
But hey, what do you expect – this is Japan, the land where 2,000-year-old temples are catered by Coca Cola vending machines and Mc Donald’s take-out 😛
I wandered about taking pictures as always until I found what appeared to be the “central area” of the festival. Four or five giant floats were lined up along the road, glistening in the sun as traditionally-clad locals scrambled to make some final preparations for the festival. The crowds were thickening by the second, and before I knew it I couldn’t get a clear shot without a peace-sign wielding child or overweight American tourist jumping into my line-of-sight. I have no idea where they all appeared from, but at last Takayama had that all-too-familiar feeling in the air: A Japanese Matsuri.
Once the sky had grown sufficiently dark I decided the time had come to stock up on supplies for the main event. I hurried back towards the train station to the only combini (convenience store) I’d seen all day, bought myself an Onigiri and several beers, stuffed them in my backpack, and headed back towards the crowds. By the time I got there the main intersection had lined itself with so many eager observers that I could barely get within 50 yards of the nearest float…so I did the best I could before settling next to a giant samurai statue and a lamppost. I couldn’t see a thing.
But attached to the lamppost was a metal workman’s latter, which I used to hoist myself onto the samurai statue, shimmied around to the front, and finally stood seven or eight feet above everyone else’s heads. A nearly perfect view – and no one below could seem to believe what I had just done.
“That’s right everyone, welcome to the world of free thinking! You should try it out sometime!”
I watched the traditional song and dance until a traveler from below got my attention and asked if I’d be willing to snap a few unobstructed snapshots with his camera. We got to chatting, and before I knew it I’d made friends with two more friendly backpackers – a man and his wife on vacation from Tel Aviv. So after we’d had our fill of the festival’s dancing, shouting, float-pulling, and cheering, we headed back away from the crowds together for a bite of hot ramen.
Not that the festival wasn’t interesting, but if you’ve seen one giant thousand-year-old float hoisted through a city intersection you’ve seen twenty.
(Interesting side note: When my new friend mentioned that he was from Tel Aviv I asked if he knew Benny Meirov, an extraordinarily successful diamond importer, ex-business partner of my father, and family friend. “Of course I know who Benny is,” he said, “When you’re that high up in the social power-circle there aren’t many who haven’t heard of you!” Damn Benny, you’ve been busy 😉 )
After dinner we headed out towards the baiten (food-stall) area for some post-ramen snacks. For those of you who’ve never been to Japan, festival food is one of the things that make matsuri so worthwhile – steaming hot takoyaki, taiyaki, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, hiroshimayaki, and any other kind of yaki you can think of, prepared fresh by friendly and energetic street vendors of all ages. The first booth we visited yielded a cup of Sweet Potato French Fries. They were mediocre. The second provided flame-cooked Yakitori and vegetables. They were quite good, despite having been prepared by an ex-Yakuza henchman.
As it turned out, upon hearing that I could speak Japanese one of the guys working at this particular booth became very excited and offered to pour me a drink along with his own. I transferred my still half-full beer to my left hand and accepted it with the right. We got to chatting, and he soon started bragging about 大和魂 (Japanese Spirit) and how badass the Japanese are as a people. I decided not to tell him that my experience differed slightly from this description. Example: he told me that unlike foreigners, when Japanese fighters see blood, it only makes them want to fight more. Whatever you say, buddy! 8)
Then he started showing me his missing pinky and tattoos (which covered his entire body, from his neck right down to his ankle). But despite his apparently rough past he was an extremely friendly guy, and by the time we separated he’d provided me several cups of umeshu (plum wine) and two or three free sticks of yakitori. I guaranteed him that if I ever visited Nagoya I’d stop by “his park” – he told me that if I asked any of the local street workers for The Boss, I could find him in a jiffy.
After concluding our rousing conversation, my Israeli friends decided to head back to their hotel while I started thinking of ways to procrastinate the inevitable: I knew from the moment I left Kyoto that I’d never find a place to stay in such a small town during such a big festival, but was not particularly eager to find out what this would eventually mean. (Note: After my incredible experience at the Tokushima Awa Odori Matsuri I decided that a lack of sleep would be a small price to pay for a shot at another lifelong memory. In the end, Takayama couldn’t quite live up to Tokushima. But I’m still glad I came.)
I began killing time by hanging around with a few lingering juvenile delinquents who greeted me while I was evacuating my first couple cans of beer in a local restroom. This encounter ended rather quickly, however; despite it barely having reached 11pm, Takayama is a small town and its citizens were heading home fast. Next I visited a nearby bar recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook. It turned out to be small and not particularly interesting, but on the way out I heard some shouting voices in the distance and decided to investigate. Heading in their general direction led me to a bar with a huge group that looked to be just about my age! Had I found a fun place to bide my time for the evening? I dashed upstairs, took off my backpack, and walked up to the bar. Most of the people inside seemed pretty shocked to see me, except for the bartenders who just ignored me for the first 10 minutes or so. That is, until one of them told me that I’d walked right into a private all-you-can-drink party. I felt pretty dumb. Oh well, time to start looking for a place to sleep.
My failed attempts were as follows:
1) A large shrine: Foiled when I entered the grounds and triggered an ear-piercing alarm in the middle of the night. I got out of there in a hurry.
2) Under a bridge near the river: Foiled when a group of river bugs flew up and began buzzing around my arms and face.
3) On the staircase of an unlocked apartment building: Foiled when the caretaker woke up to find a foreigner passed out in the stairwell.
4) On the roof of another unlocked apartment building: Foiled when the industrial-sized air conditioner started clicking on and off, waking me up every 20 minutes or so.
This wasn’t going quite as well as Tokushima.
In the end I got less than 3 hours of sleep on a bench in front of a local museum after spending most of the night wandering the streets and trying to keep my hands warm with cans of hot chocolate and tea purchased from local vending machines.
And this brings me to a little side point. Some of you may be thinking “What a weirdo – who goes on a trip and spends the night wandering the streets in the freezing cold! Isn’t it exhausting? Don’t you get sick all the time traveling like that?” Yep. But I wouldn’t trade my experiences for a few more hours of sleep if you paid me. My Japanese friends often ask how I’ve managed to see so much of the world at such a young age, and I tell them that it’s simply because I’m willing to rough it if the need arises. Many choose to save up cash for months and then take one short trip in luxury. While traveling in luxury is obviously preferable (I recognize that I won’t be able to do things like this forever), at this point in my life I’d much rather go somewhere new every single weekend (and have to hop a fence every now and then) over waiting a year before seeing something I’ve never seen before. But that’s just me. The 馬鹿な外人 (dumbass foreigner), as I often introduce myself to new friends 😀
Anyways, the next morning I decided to take advantage of my early start (continuation?) by photographing as much of the empty city as I could before the tourists started emerging from their fancy hotels and ryokans. Despite my exhaustion (and dire need of a shower after that intense bikeride here), it was an extraordinarily pleasant morning – I felt like I had the entire city all to myself. Too bad I still have no idea how to work a real camera and ended up botching most of the pictures I shot before the sun had fully risen.
Then around 10am, after several hours of wandering, I found myself right back in the area with Takayama’s festival floats. And they were on the move. So I followed them a couple of blocks to a large intersection where they stopped. So I waited. And by 10:20, crowds had accumulated on all sides of me to such a density that I couldn’t even sit down if I tried. By total chance I’d wandered right into a front-row seat for the continuation of the festival – an event that I never knew existed! An announcer soon informed us over a loudspeaker (in both Japanese and quite hilarious Engrish) that the event was to be a puppet show, performed with wooden puppets hundreds of years old, mounted on top of the floats themselves, manipulated by up to ten people each.
In all honesty it was a bit slow and drawn out…but I was still happy that I got to see. Especially because it was by total chance 😀
By the time the crowds had thinned enough for me to escape I was about ready to collapse from exhaustion, but there was still one more thing I wanted to see before leaving: the so-called “Hida No Sato” (see POTD), a traditional village constructed by relocating homes and buildings from throughout the Hida region. Could I really muster the energy for another few hours of walking? …Or better yet, could I really rent a bike at the shop so conveniently located just 50 yards from Takayama Station? Duh! I rode to the village, gave it a good once-over, rode back, and hopped on a train back to Kyoto.
From then on I don’t even remember how I got home.