From Fukuoka, we headed into the mountains, and spring turned back to a chilly drizzle. In Takayama, the sun, breaking through the clouds, left the blacks and whites of the Meiji-era buildings sharp and gleaming, their contrast heightened by their clean, rainy dampness. From the homey temple rooms where we slept on heated futons on the tatami floor, to the thick thatching of the historic farmers' houses in the folk village, and even to the eerie, gilded Sukyo Mahikari Main World Shrine that looms, out of scale, over the outskirts of town, Takayama is a showcase of architectural clues to lifestyles past and present.
Takayama is also a showcase of regional delicacies. In Japan, every town has its specialties, and the more tourists there are, the more specialities there will be to sample on the walk from the hotel or tour bus to the sights. In Takayama, the specialities were all about the grill: grilled mochi dumplings, grilled rice crackers, grilled miso, and grilled Hida beef (from locally raised cows, second only to Kobe beef in fame). Mitarashi dango, above, are glutinous rice balls, grilled and coated with a thick soy-based sauce. While you can find them all over Japan, especially now during hanami season, Takayama boasted an especially large number of streetside windows offering the sweet and toasty treats. The grilling gives the smooth, chewy rice a nice nutty flavor, and browns and firms the coating of sauce.
These grilled rice crackers, similar to mitarashi dango in taste but not texture, reminded me of ones we had in Vietnam, although they are somewhat thicker, and are dipped in a thick, sweet, soy sauce while grilling. The cracker came apart in great crumbling mouthfuls, the exterior held together by the shiny layer of sauce, while the interior flakes apart with a crunch.
Grilled miso on a magnolia leaf is another local dish, usually involving mushrooms, green onions and other vegetables mixed with sweet, rich miso paste and cooked over a brazier at the table. Its warmth and heartiness make it perfect for a drizzly day.
The famous Hida beef we ate grilled and also raw, and while we chose cheaper cuts, it was all delectably marbled. The firm flesh of the cheek provided such a contrast to the tender, meltingly juicy ribs, in taste and texture, that I really wish we could have tried a wider range of cuts. The cheek was beefier and nuttier in flavor, while the ribs were sweeter and developed nice crisp corners on the grill.
Nozawa Onsen is a ski and hot spring resort where we stopped for some late-season snowboarding. While a couple of our fellow boarders found themselves bouncing over cabbages and mud puddles at the bottom of the slopes, the upper half was still blanketed in a thick layer of snow, and the gentle March sun made for very comfortable conditions. The Japanese alps sport a thick, picturesque forest, and are dotted with the otherworldly serow, making it one of the most beautiful places I've seen for winter sports. You can tell we had a good time by the fact that this is the only photo I took, and it hardly does even the less beautiful parts of Nozawa justice. Unfortunately, this means I failed to document what might have been the best post-snowboarding meal ever, a group dinner organized by our hostel at a local restaurant, and featuring sukiyaki with sides of tempura, sushi, beer and sake. Gochisosama!