Since last I posted we've visited the small castle town of Matsumoto, spent a night at a high-end onsen (hot spring resort), and landed in Takayama.
In Matsumoto we toured the castle, where I asked the English-speaking guide what tatami mats are made of. She looked it up in her handheld electronic dictionary and it said "iguanadon." In her defense, she was working in the dark without glasses and might have typo'd the Japanese, but then again this is the home of Godzilla. I bought a little cell-phone dangle of Godzilla attacking the castle at the castle gift shop. Also in Matsumoto we ate oden (miscellaneous boiled things) at a tiny bar presided over by two ladies I nicknamed Flo and Dot. The food was nothing special but we had great conversation, despite the formidable language barrier. I am so glad we studied Japanese. The next day we ran into snarke and Eric just as we were checking out. They were staying in the same ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) and visited the castle at the same time, but we managed to miss them until the last day.
The onsen was a phenomenal experience, featuring world-class service, relaxing hot baths, and an amazing dinner. Fifteen tiny courses, all different and all delicious. My favorite course was the "mini-steaki's" of famed Hida beef (they take their cows seriously here); the weirdest one was a beautiful bouquet in which the largest flowers were actually two whole fish, skewered and grilled and intended to be eaten right off the stick. Fish on the cob. Breakfast the next morning was not so overwhelmingly wonderful but was pretty overwhelming in its own way. Probably the strangest breakfast I have ever eaten. The best part was another local specialty, miso paste grilled on a leaf on a tabletop brazier, kind of like hot sesame peanut butter. Trust me, it was delish. But then, I have been eating things with eyes and loving them.
Takayama reminds me of Lincoln City, touristy but not overwhelmingly so. Unlike Lincoln City, people come here for the history -- there are picturesque 100- and 200-year old streets all over the place. It's also a bit like New Orleans in that there's a huge parade every year and much of the town is focused on it year-round. Like Mardi Gras, it's nominally a religious event; there are gigantic floats with competing neighborhood krewes; and you can't get a hotel room during festival week (October, with a smaller one in April) for love nor money. But with all those tourists the restaurant scene here is great. We had Hida beef tonight, cook-it-yourself on a tabletop grill, expensive but worth it.
We're staying at the Rickshaw Inn, lots of foreigners here but the room is traditional-style and one of the nicest we've had (well, not as nice as the onsen but the price is about 1/4 as much). We're enjoying Takayama enough that we decided to stay here two more nights, skipping our planned stop in Kanazawa, and head straight to Tokyo from here. This change in plans is going to greatly reduce our stress levels. The takkyubin (delivery service) system that whisks your heavy bags from each hotel to the next, which is working great for us so far, takes a day, so it doesn't work well if you're only spending two nights in each place; this change helps that too.
We're having a lot of fun. I'm even getting used to the Shoe Thing.