Dawn is breaking over a mountain range in central Japan. The peaks are enveloped in pink tinged mist like candy floss. Snuggled at the foot of the mountains, a town stirs, stretching out its arms – lights wink on, tiny vehicles snake over tiny bridges leaving tyre marks across piles of pink petals.
Up a little hill on the edge of town, four lumps lie beneath cosy duvets, dreaming of udon and rockstardom.
One of the lumps twitches, fumbling for a mobile phone shrieking out its alarm calls. The lump is me, and it feels too early but I know we booked breakfast for 8am and even if we got in at 3, we can’t let the lovely owners down.
Matt and me creak down the stairs, entering the lounge looking like members of the Munsters but less attractive. We sit at the table, gripping the rim to stay awake. 15 minutes pass during which the owners eye us in a confused way and mutter to each other. Perhaps this is some traditional prelude to breakfast we are unaware of. My head is nodding, ear inches away from a dunking in my coffee, when a staff member approaches and asks politely what we’re doing.
“We’re waiting for breakfast.”
The owner looks more confused than ever. “But you cancelled breakfast.”
Turns out Bart had kindly been down just before us and called off this early meal to buy us some sleep. Just without mentioning it to us.
I would really love to know what theory the staff had about why we were sitting there.
I’ll give you hunny if you agree not to hurt me.
Three hours later we’re back in town, sitting in a ‘Parisienne’ style café. It’s all quite normal but thanks to vague hangovers and the psychedelic jazz playing on the stereo, there are moments where it feels like it’s not really happening. Why is someone beating on the piano like that if they’re not the sound of me going mad?
We take a walk around Takayama, finishing on a loop of the Shiroyama Park. It’s a glorious setting with towering pines, empty paths, and every so often little peeks of the peaks playing peekaboo (peakaboo?) through the branches. The bear signs peppered throughout the park remind me of hikes we did in Canada. I allow the fact they aren’t grizzlies to reassure me, which probably would have proved fatal had we run into one: ‘Can’t you just tell this kind you know their mate Piglet, and that Tigger secretly annoys you and they’ll leave you aloooo’(crunching noises).
We descend from the wildness of the mountain trail into a tranquil park where puppies lollop and small Japanese children with gleaming hair clamber over wooden animals, lie on their backs and squint into the sun. We eat chicken skewers and rice pops from the park café. Each breath of wind peppers us with delicate cherry blossom petals from the surrounding trees. It’s deeply restorative.
‘Just call me Grylls’
The following day we board a bus bound for the Shinhotaka Ropeway with its cable car creeping into the towering white mountain tops. It proudly declares itself to be Japan’s ‘only double decker gondola’, and I wonder how many people have ever actively sought out a double decker gondola, typing the words into google with one set of fingers crossed.
Still, the scenery is unbelievable, and it’s exhilarating standing in the cable car watching the ground and all its effects grow fainter, whilst the creases and crags of the mountain tops are thrown into sharp relief.
We reach the 360 degree viewing platform and pay our silent homage to the scene of beauty. Chill wind and chattering teeth are a happy novelty and we dance from one foot to the next, remembering why we love snow.
We decide to take a little walk along a path carved through a gigantic snow drift. It’s an impressive depth, even taller than us. Matt, taunting us all for being wimps, clambers off the path and onto the compacted snow.
He stops and turns towards us, and from his face we can see he’s inwardly comparing himself to Bear Grylls. But as he straightens up to salute us, his left leg suddenly sinks into the snow up to his groin. He shrieks, losing his balance and almost falling over backwards, but he can’t because his leg is stuck in an upright position. He flails and squeals for some time whilst Binny, Bart and me are incapacitated by laughter. As we move to help him, we realise he also has an audience at the café window above. One young couple is cackling openly. From the table beside them an elderly Japanese couple watches too, their faces utterly devoid of expression. For some reason this is the funniest thing of all, and Matt is left to recover alone.
Old skool and high stools
It’s too much excitement and the journey back is nap time for all my companions.
Thankfully we arrive back in Takayama in time to visit the Showa-Kan museum, a fascinating collection of old skool Japanese memorabilia, spanning the 1920’s – 1980’s. I highly recommend a visit.
We end the day in a traditional Japanese Izakaya, lined up on high stools at the dark smoky bar, while the bartender fries us some excellent tempura on a gas ring encrusted with 30 years of black grime. A Japanese family is crammed into the back room. Their laughter, and occasionally a small child, spills through the doorway. The umeshu is sweet, the bartender friendly, the end of the trip near.