We hopped on the train from Hiroshima to Kanazawa which is on the north/west coast of Japan. I had thought Kanazawa was going to be a small city but it was actually a lot larger than I had originally thought. It was a great experience visiting this Japanese city as it’s a bit off the well beaten tourist path. We stayed in another Airbnb inside a local resident apartment complex which enabled us to get a real pulse on the local life. You simply cannot get this sort of living experience staying in a regular hotel in the tourist zone. Airbnb has been our preferred style of accommodation as it offers a huge advantage to a traveler looking to assimilate into the local way of life.
Every single city we have visited in Japan has made us appreciate the low key and laid-back Japanese way of life. There has really been nothing like it in all of our travels. It is difficult to put into words but if I had to describe Japan in one word….. It would be CLEAN. Not just ‘Clean’ in being immaculately clean but ‘Clean’ in living life the right way and doing the right thing. Many people have varying opinions on what the “right thing” truly means. In this case, the Japanese look out for each other and have total respect for one another. The people in the country go about their daily business as if they are one big unit, all being on the same page. This is probably why they function so well together, just like a family should. Barbie and I tried to follow all of the unwritten rules. I can honestly say, it made us feel good about ourselves and gave both of us a sense of being part of the family.
Kanazawa’s big attraction is the Castle Park and Castle Garden, which is ranked as one of the top 3 gardens in Japan. The Kanazawa Castle Park, with its huge green lawn was free and a great place to cool out. However, we had to ante up 310 yen ($3 bucks) to check out the famed Kenroku-en Gardens and it was worth the yen splurge. The gardens were lush green and a real peaceful place to wander about. Being a zen master myself, I appreciated all the Feng Shui shit in the gardens. Barbie being the animal lover that she is, enjoyed feeding the koi fish and turtles.
Our favorite daily activity in Kanazawa was a visit to the Omi-Cho Market where tons of vendors served up the freshest seafood and sushi. We did a double header at Mori Mori Sushi Omicho, one of my favorite conveyer belt sushi joints in Japan. A total sushi eating orgy. We enjoyed our stay in Kanazawa and it served as a good transit city for us on our way to Takayama, in the Japanese Alps.
We rode the high speed Shinkansen train from Kanazawa to Tayoma with a transfer in Tayoma onto the scenic Wide View Hida train on the Takayama Line. As the name suggests, this train boast wide windows, from which we were able to get spectacular views of the surrounding mountain landscape.
Takayama ticks off all the boxes tourists are looking for when thinking of a traditional Japanese city. The city’s surroundings feel as though you are living the life of a samrai and are ready to do some king fu fighting. Takayama has the cobblestone streets surrounded by cool looking old wooden houses that date back centuries. Throw in some Ryokens (Japanese style inns), some Onsens (Japanese hot springs), hillside shrines/temples and the obligatory river running thru town.
Takayama is in the Japanese Alps and it has a ski village type feel to it. I am not certain where the nearest ski mountain is located……maybe in Nagano where the Olympics were held in 1998? Takayama is probably really beautiful in the winter when snow fills the town and a chill fills the air. A perfect time to sit down and warm up your body with a hot bowl of traditional Takayama noodle ramen soup. Our favorite Takayama ramen noodle soup was a small cozy joint called, Kikyou-ya tucked in a small alleyway.
The big activity in Takayama includes a wander around the old-fashioned streets, especially around Sanmachi Suji which is the most photogenic part of Takayama. These streets are lined with ancient wooden houses, sake breweries, restaurants and cafes.
The Takayama Morning Market is bustling with locals and tourists with many vendors selling an array of various shit. If you are lucky enough to time your visit during the famous Takayama Festival which is held in the old town twice a year – at spring (14th to 15th April) and autumn (9th to 10th of October), you will get the chance to see supposedly one of the best festivals that Japan has to offer. We did, unfortunately, miss it as we visited Takayama in September.
The other big activity is a visit to the nearby mountain village of Shirakawa-go which we did not do as we opted to stay in town exploring with our electric bikes. Thankfully, we had electric bikes to make it up the steep mountain into Kitayama Park to visit the very relaxed, Cafe Ichii. The cafe had amazing views of Takayama town and the best part of this cafe was the Neil Young soundtrack playing which helped perfectly create the chill atmosphere while we sucked down our iced coffee.
THRU THE BINOCS –
Takayama is also the place in Japan where Barbie hit the wall and went thru her first serious withdrawal phase. Upon arrival, I looked into Barbie’s eyes and I could tell something was amiss. Flashpacking Barbie admitted she was having some severe Mexican food withdrawals and did not know if she could continue on. Barbie craved a change from the normal Japanese cuisine that we had been gorging on for the past few weeks. Mexican is Barbie’s ‘go to’ comfort food in times of duress and after surfing the net, her results came up with Chapala’s. Mexican food in a small town nestled in the Japanese Alps?? Let’s just say I had my doubts. However, being the compromising sole that I am, I went with the program.
We showed up to Chapala’s starving, right at the 6 PM opening time. We arrived to this ramshackle old school Japanese wooden house with the doors locked, no lights on and not a sign this place was ever going to open. I was ready to scram but Barbie had her heart set and lips wet thinking about Mexican food nestled in the mountains of Japan. She insisted on waiting. We were relieved a bit to see three other Japanese guys waiting as well. I looked up above the restaurant and heard some noises and shades moving in the connected upstairs house. I assumed the owner lived upstairs and was awakening from his nap. Barbie remained optimistic. BFD had his doubts. The lights flicked on at 6:10 PM and we all entered the dark wooden shophouse restaurant.
I took one look at this slightly disheveled Japanese chef and he was the only employee working this 16 seat restaurant with an open kitchen area. This one man show was the owner, chef, food prep guy, bus boy, waiter, accounts payable guy, bartender and dishwasher. I looked at Barbie and told her, “no shot this guy is going to pull of any sort of tasty Mexican fare.”
I can just picture his meeting with the loan officer at the local Takayama bank when he went in to obtain a business loan to jump start his dream Mexican restaurant business out in the sticks of Japan.
LOAN OFFICER: So let me get this straight, you want a business loan to open a Mexican restaurant in Takayama?
HE SAYS: Hai (yes, in Japanese)
LOAN OFFICER: You want to open a 16 seat restaurant and you will be the only employee?
HE SAYS: Hai
LOAN OFFICER: Your open air kitchen will be the size of a small bathroom, fit 1 person, have 1 hot plate to cook stuff and a tiny sink to wash stuff?
HE SAYS: Hai
LOAN OFFICER: You will serve your Mexican food on old ass plates that look like they were handed down from your Japanese ancestors?
HE SAYS: Hai
LOAN OFFICER: You will play the Jackson Browne – Running on Empty CD in the background to create the atmosphere?
HE SAYS: Hai
LOAN OFFICER: You will decorate your restaurant with decorations that you stuffed inside your suitcase from your 1 month trip to Guadalajara, Mexico?
HE SAYS: Hai
LOAN OFFICER: Your entire idea and business plan to open a Mexican restaurant in Takayama, Japan came about from your one month vacationing and enjoying Mexican food in Guadalajara, Mexico?
HE SAYS: Hai
Orders were then taken from us. Let me just say, I had zero expectations at this point for this guy to deliver on anything that tasted remotely like Mexican food. I bitched to Barbie and told her this is going to really suck. It was at this point that I could see the doubt in her eyeballs. However, pride set in. It was her restaurant choice after doing extensive research, she was proud of her choice, and was determined to see this through. The lady ordered first (Damone taught me that trick) and pulled the trigger on the beef tacos, tostada and a side of guacamole. I ordered a cheese quesadilla, chicken enchilada and a tomato salad.
I can attest that when it comes to Mexican food that Barbie knows her shit regarding quality. After a few bites of the guacamole, Barbie proudly proclaimed it was the best guac that she has ever tasted. I did not try the guac as for some reason I always get heartburn from it so I could not attest to her positive review. My quesadilla and salsa arrived and the salsa was off the charts. I thought to myself, this guy actually has it going on. My enchilada arrived along with Barbie’s beef tacos and they were both first rate.
The Japanese owner/chef actually pulled off the impossible. I have seen some one man shows in my life, but nothing remotely like this. I would have bet anything that he had no shot to pull it all off. He served up excellent Mexican grub in the remote mountains of this small Japanese town of Takayama. Just one of those unique travel culinary experience that I will never forget.