Hounoki Ski Area ほおのき

Today, we at WestCoastToFarEast.com bring you to the beautiful Hounoki Ski Area in Takayama Japan, or as some call it the Japanese Alps. There is excellent skiing, snowboarding, sledding for kids, and more. There are multiple lodges here where you can rest after a day on the slopes with warm, affordably priced meal. Or soak your weary bones in a hot onsen bath (my personal favorite) and overlook the mountain tops.

What’s great is that it’s a relatively quick and painless ride up the mountains from Takayama City. There are several ways to get there via bus or tour, or simply drive. If you drive while it’s snowy be sure to have a 4wd vehicle for slippery roads though! Once you are up here you’ll also be in the vicinity of several famous Onsen locations.

Learn more about the Ski area here: http://www.hounoki-daira.or.jp/
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Takayama Showa Era Museum 昭和時代

Today I bring to you a true Hidden Gem of Takayama-city – the Shōwa era museum. Hidden Gem in every send of the word. Hidden because it’s literally through the back of a toy & candy store, unseen until you enter through a curtained door. A Gem because while it is not huge in size, it’s uniqueness and quality make up for it in its brilliance!

The Takayama Showa-kan is located right in the middle of Takayama near the old town on a fairly nondescript side street, aside from some retro signs and animatronic sculptures that set it apart from the surroundings.

The windows give you a peek into the toy and candy store.
The windows give you a peek into the toy and candy store.

Once inside the toy and candy store… you wonder, how big could this museum be?? There’s really no way to tell without paying admission. My opinion – it’s worth the $8 to get in, and there was more to explore than I expected. Certainly not a huge museum – but an adventure for the eyes with plenty entertain you for an hour or two.

As you enter the museum you begin to feel transported to a part of Japan’s not too distant past (Showa period 1926-1989). A time that endured a lot of change and most of us have only seen in the movies, where industry, fashion and culture changed following the war. For some, that period may even be our original vision of Japan.

The layout of the museum breaks the art installations out into various themed rooms or shops that line a street.

You get the quaint feeling that this must have started as someone’s personal collection… which grew out of control, and then took on a new meaning – and then others began to contribute. Is this true? Maybe not – but i’d like to believe it is.

Some of the items are rare pop-culture relics that collectors-of-too-many-things like me would love to have in their own home, while other items feel more normal, as if you might be able to find them in a second-hand junk store. Together it works, building a vibe that allows the imagination to run.

It’s not hard to find a variety of classic movie posters, both foreign and domestic.

Another thing that makes this museum unique is the access. There’s no barriers, ropes or security guards – you are in it. Trusted to treat the place with a measure of respect.

Shōwa era restaurant
Recreation of a Shōwa era restaurant.
Buddy Mike steps into the past.
Buddy Mike steps into the past.

As i wander around, I wonder where all this stuff came from, and who in town still has treasures like these sitting in their own closet or storage house. I certainly don’t see these types of items in the local second-hand store. One side of the street we see a barber shop, while another corner has a recreation of a camera stores. You pop in and out of rooms, and inevitably your eyes are drawn to the tiny details

Video game nerds will be happy to know there is a small gaming area set aside with emulations of Nintendo, Intellivision, and other 80’s era game consoles where you can take a rest and relive some childhood memories.

The Classroom
The Classroom

And I can’t go without mentioning one room which i found to be especially endearing – the Showa era classroom. Is this classroom like the one that “the creator” of this museum went to school in? I can’t tell you. But I hope to answer some of these lingering questions about how and why this small but beautiful museum was created, and I hope that you check back if you are just as curious as I am.

Now go check out my post 8 Things to Love About the Japanese Countryside.

Sanno Matsuri まつり 祭り

As the seasons change one exciting form of public entertainment is the many festivals, often regional or for specific purposes, which take place in Japan. When I say Japan I’m really speaking about my own very limited experience, in the Hida Takayama region of Gifu prefecture, and the Takayama Spring and Fall festivals.

In April you can truly witness the change of seasons, with drastic changes happening overnight. Literally, I’ve woken up to fields of flowers that were not there the day before.
Takayama’s spring festival, or Sanno Matsuri, celebrates this change of season. Takayama’s festivals are generally regarded as one of the best in japan, due to the sheer beauty of the elaborate displays called Yatai.

Now let me take a step back here. It’s hard to know how to describe what the Yatai is, and the closest english is probably “parade float” but I really hate to use those words for two reasons. 1. I’ve never been a fan of parades, and I wouldn’t compare one to the festivals. and 2. When I say “float” it makes me think of an inflatable Donald Duck ballon or something, and the Yatai carts are ornate wheeled displays with intricate carvings, lacquering, woven-work and decorative metal-work, found both on the outside and inside – some with intricate mechanical puppets which perform as part of the entertainment.

 

My understanding is that the different Yatai carts were created by different surrounding communities, with contributions from various artisans from those communities. Over time they would be further improved, and with a bit of competition between the communities the carts would become even more beautiful.

As expected there is music, dancing, performances, and of course my favorite… many differed food stalls to choose from. I recommend attending one for yourself if at all possible.

Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド

A spontaneous weekend family road-trip took place. We recently made it to an amusement park in Nagano, called Shirakaba Family Land 白樺 ファミリーランド. I imagine most Americans are familiar with Nagano due to the winter Olympics of 1998 being held there, and yes as expected there was plenty of mountains and water which would facilitate such an event.

Getting to Family Land from Takayama took a few hours, although I recommend paying the toll roads to get there faster. Skipping the last toll road and trusting our GPS took us up some wild mountain road to get there which had me a bit white-knuckled at times. So i’m going to go ahead and recommend taking the standard highway route on this trip.

Family Land was perfect for ages 3-8 or so I would say, although the whole family had fun and even our 1 year old went on some rides. I would have to say that Japanese amusement parks, or at least this one in the off season (ski season over) was very laid back. Definitely the most stress-free amusement park I’ve ever been to. The number of people wasn’t overwhelming, and the atmosphere relaxed.

Some of the rides they had:

– Elephant ride (similar to Dumbo at Disney)
– A smaller Roller Coaster (still too big for my kids)
– Go Carts
– A beautiful mini-golf putt-putt area
– Zip Lines
– ATV riding
– A canoe water raft ride
– Multiple bounce-house type areas
– Merry-go round
– Large adult-size trampoline area
– Swan boats on a lake filled with fish
…you get the idea!

Plenty to keep little ones busy, but not overwhelming either.

TIPS:

  • You can either pay “per ride” or get an “all day pass”. We opted for 1 day pass and figured the other parent could go per-ride, as one of us would often be watching the baby. In retrospect it was far from strict, and we could have just paid per-ride. I mean how many rides can you fit into a day with two little ones anyway?
  • Attractions were spread out into a few different areas, so there was quite a bit of walking. I’d recommend a stroller, baby backpack, water, sunscreen, hats.
  • The food area we ordered from was nothing spectacular, mostly fried food and took a long time. It’s probably a good opportunity to pack lunches for the family and bring them with you.
  • We stayed affordably in a nearby hotel for one night, which included all you can eat (and drink!) dinner and breakfast, which really makes for a great start & end to the day.
  • I should also mention that the area contains several other places which can be visited including multiple farms, a ski resort, a brewery, etc. You could stay multiple days and find plenty to do.

While I didn’t make it to the brewery, I was able to track down a few of the local Shirakaba beers in our hotel, and managed to end my evening with one in the cool mountain air. Delightful! Adding it to my list of Japanese beers I’ve enjoyed.

Shirakaba Beer Review

Malty, thick but satisfying. Kind of like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast with a bit of sugar. Surprisingly easy to drink, could easily have 2 or 3 in a row. Not hoppy at all. Slightly sweet aroma like ripened apple skins, but subtle. It’s what I want from a craft beer, a special and complex taste that I can sip and enjoy. It’s my last beer of the night, and perfectly timed.
More Beverages>>

Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) “Pure Water Temple”

I want this Blog to document my move to Japan, a “fish out of water” experience. But it’s not as if I’ve never visited. It is the beautiful experiences with the country, people and culture which strengthen the siren call to make the big leap. Being married to a Japanese citizen means that I’ve had the fortune of a few trips, usually focused around family, food, travel and fun.

One such trip was my Honeymoon, in 2010. On this trip we stayed with family in the countryside, but also made it a point to visit a few other cities including; TOKYO, KYOTO, and IZU.

Today my mind wanders to a fond memory from Kyoto. With literally hundreds of temples and shrines in Kyoto, I only had the time to pick a couple to visit. One was Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺).

 

I remember clearly how it was not only the hottest day of the year, but also the hottest day on record for decades. We didn’t let it deter us and it made for a vivid memory. I’ve heard that extreme cold/heat can make for stronger memories. Maybe there’s some truth to that. As always, the streets and people in route to the destination always grab my attention.

A few facts about Kiyomizu-dera:

  • Founded in 780
  • Like most ancient structures it has been built, and rebuilt with current buildings from around 1633
  • Not a single nail in the entire structure, notched wood
  • It’s named after a waterfall that runs through it
  • The Main Hall hangs off the side of a cliff, overlooking maple trees and the cit of Kyoto
  • An old tradition states that if you jump off (49′), and live, your wish is granted (jumping not allowed)
  • In 2007 it was a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of the World
  • It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I guess it’s typical of my curiosity to focus on the oldest structures first. And with this temple being founded around 780, perhaps as early as 657, I can’t help but be fascinated by it.

The reality is that no man made structure lasts forever, and the temples and castles of Japan have often been partially or even completely rebuilt at times due to fire or various battles. This one is no exception with many of the buildings having been rebuilt in the 1600’s. One amazing feat is how faithful they are to reproducing the original structures.

Not a single nail is used in the construction of the 13meter high main hall which sits on the edge of a mountain. 139 pillars, each 49 feet high.  What a testament to the mastery of the creators. It is said if you jump off and survive – your wish will be granted. While the practice has obviously gone out of fashion (banned), 234 jumps were recorded in the Edo period and 200 survived. I’d love to know what their wishes were.

As you can probably guess, I recommend checking out this temple regardless of the fact that it is a popular destination. It is large enough, with enough history and interesting things to explore that you are sure to have your own unique experience.