Great Takayama Road Trip Part I

It’s spring break! With no big plans in the works, my ever faithful travel companion and I decided that a quickie road trip up to Takayama in nearby Gifu Prefecture would be the perfect way to spend a Saturday. What’s there to do over in Takayama? Well…

takayama road trip
Historic Japan

Much of Japan is rebuilt and artificial – concrete slab box buildings and shiny glass paneled convenience stores blending into a modern ugly mess. But this is not all there is to Japan – though their numbers are few, historical structures like this comprise an essential part of the “japanese” atmosphere. Whenever I think about leaving Japan for the wide open greenery and planned cityscapes of modern America, I try to imagine never casually passing buildings like this on the street again and feel a very odd sense of disconnect and sadness.

takayama road trip
Street Strolling

That Japan has a lot of concrete is no secret. That the majority of it is quite ugly is also no surprise, but every once in a while it surprises you the things they can do with concrete in this country. These fence posts (and the steps in the background) should have been depressing – rusting metal poles jammed into moldy pitted pre-cast concrete columns, but for whatever reason, they seemed perfect in this context. It might just be me, but I can’t imagine them being made of anything else.

takayama road trip
Giganto Sembei

I love Japanese food – most foreigners lose weight when they come here but for me it’s a struggle just to avoid pigging out every day of the week. One of the things I love the most is the humble senbei (japanese rice cracker), which is why when I saw this absolutely enormous giganto-senbei for sale by a street vendor, I was so there! Never have I ever paid 250 yen ($2.50) for a cracker, but I’m going to tell you what, it was worth every yen.

takayama road trip
Giganto Senbei II

When you order it, they first dip the senbei in a tangy, savory sauce, then roast it over an open charcoal flame for a minute or two. Then, when it’s crisped to perfection – the sauce cooked to a sweet and salty slightly sticky glazed texture, they wrap it in a sheet of seaweed and drop the whole thing in a white wrapper for you to hold as you eat it.

takayama road trip
Giganto Senbei III

I chose the unusual dimensions of 578x300px for my images because it forces me to think about the most important parts of a scene in order to crop the pictures accordingly. But this time, I just couldn’t resist putting up the entire image, just so you can see how mouthwateringly delicious (and huge!) this sembei was. This picture is what sightseeing in Japan is all about for me – delicious food, historic buildings, beautiful sun shiny days, missing gloves, what have you.

takayama road trip
The Nuzzle

“Hey Panda let’s take awesome myspace pictures!” yells KC, running after me down the narrow streets of Takayama, digicam held jutted into the sky primed and ready to take a shot in the ubiquitous myspace profile-esque top-down stylee.

“But we’re in the middle of the roa-” I begin to protest. A sharp KACHACK! of the camera shutter cuts me off. A boxy pink car swerves to avoid flattening us. KC brings the screen to her face then suddenly doubles over in laughter, almost toppling into a ditch in the process.

“Oh my god! It looks like I’m NUZZLING you..!!!” she squeals in between giggles. A passing Japanese family shoots us a wary gaze as they give us a very wide berth and I swear I see the mother pull her children closer to her and away from us.

Such is the fate of a panda.

takayama road trip
Open Air Markets

I stared at this thing for 5 minutes trying to figure out what on earth it was and why it cost 2000 yen ($20USD). The things in the background were clearly wind chimes, but the longer I stared at this brown woven ball, the more I swore it looked like a hornet’s nest.

I remember when I was young, my brother and I would dress up as “Bug Busters” – cover ourselves from head to toe in a heavy sweat suit, winter gloves, muffler around the face and goggles over the eyes, then fill up old shampoo bottles with water, and run around the backyard and squirt bugs to try and drown them.

This was well good and fun until one day we made the mistake of trying that on a hornet’s nest.

I haven’t messed with hornets since then.

takayama road trip
Kiddie porn

This was supposed to be a picture for use as profile on KC’s myspace site. What it turned out as was something that makes me feel very very uncomfortable having on my computer. I feel like I need an age waiver just to show this!

KC, what on earth are you doing here?

takayama road trip

Small wooden verandas on old buildings in downtown Takayama. They were so simple but very beautiful.

takayama road trip
Water scoops

I really like the small scoops which are used to collect water to wash your hands outside of a temple. I like the way the water splashes on the backs of them when not in use, the way it shoots and collects in puddles in the inverted bamboo rims, overflows and trickles down the sides, ripples in the glassy surfaces below. I could sit and watch it for hours…

takayama road trip

“Hey panda, get a photo of me pretending to buy something at the market!”

“Umm okay. You mean, like you’re gonna pose? Isn’t that kinda fake?”

“Yeah! But who cares? It’ll look more realistic that way!” she exclaims as she preps for the shot.


She glances at the camera and bursts out in laughter. “Oh my god!! I look like an asshole!! Like I’m telling my latina housemaid of dubious immigration status what to do or something!”

“KC, do you have a latina housemaid of dubious immigration status…?” I inquire.

“I’m gonna throw this apple at your face.”

takayama road trip
Bridge to Terabithia

A bridge crossing over the Miyagawa River (which is pretty lame by river standards, but mercifully devoid of the usual litter that plagues most Japanese waterways) into the historic city centers of downtown. The first time I ever saw a torii painted in this unique shade of bright orange, I thought it looked garish and jarring, like the blaze orange safety vests Wisconsin hunters wear. But now, years later, I really love this color. In many ways this unique shade of orange, along with wooden browns and the pure whites of walls – have come to define the palette of the traditional Japan I’ve grown to appreciate.

takayama road trip
Furui Machi Nami

These old houses, shops and buildings have been standing for hundreds of years while still maintaining their traditional architecture and businesses. While the latter are squarely aimed at tourists these days, walking down the wide, smooth streets filled with shadows from the elegant wooden eaves one can smell the wonderful scent of incense from shops, the pungent earthiness of sake breweries and the mouthwatering aromas of traditional foods wafting through the air. Couple it with gorgeous weather and I can’t think of any better way to spend a Saturday!

takayama road trip

One of the crafts for which Takayama is most famous is the “Sarubobo” doll. The name literally translates as “baby monkey”, and they function both as a doll and a protective amulet (similar to omamori). Sarubobo are supposed to not only protect the bearer from bad things, but also facilitate a happy marriage and complication free childbirths (quite an industrious little monkey!). They are traditionally made by grandmothers for their grandchildren as dolls and for the daughters as amulets. According to one of the shopkeepers, in modern times, different colored sarubobo have different effects (blue is for successful studying, yellow for monetary success, etc.) which I think fosters a “gotta collect them all” pokemon/carebear like mentality that cheapens the traditional aspects of it. But what do I know? I think they look like Alien Facehuggers.

takayama road trip
Street Shops

Just a random street scene. I find these colors next to each other so refined and soothing.

takayama road trip
Not a Trash Bucket

A bucket next to a street food vendor. The sign says it’s to throw away the skewers used in the dumplings he was selling after you’re done. The grate on the top is to discourage people from throwing away any non-skewer trash. Something many people don’t realize about Japan is that there are practically no trash bins in public (or even in most buildings!) I have no idea why this is, but I do know that if the vendor didn’t lock the grate atop the bin, it would soon be overflowing with all manner of trash. As it was, some sneaky bastards already threw away random bits of garbage and one industrious fellow somehow crammed a small plastic yogurt container in there as well!

takayama road trip
Street Gutters

I like Japanese street gutters. They’ve so much more character than the ones back home!

takayama road trip
Where to next?

“So then…” I begin as we walk back to the car after finishing our tour of downtown Takayama. “Where to next?”

She contemplates the question for a minute.

“Well, I did see this place called “ECO BEAR VILLAGE” on the map…”

I raise my eyebrow.

“Eco bear village?” I repeat, somewhat dubiously. I have flashbacks to the ill advised detour to the “Samurai Village Movie Theme Park” debacle from a few weeks ago.

She instantly sees where my mind is headed.

“Come on panda! I promise it won’t be like that Samurai village theme park I dragged you to before!”

“You said it was billed as ‘The Japanese version of Universal Studious’!” I protest weakly.

“Well it was, sorta!!” she replies.


“oh yeah. I forgot about that… Well anyway these are bears, so they won’t hurt so much if they hit you in the eye!”

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Smokey, the smoked up bear

So despite being bigger, taller and the only one who could read the map, my vote somehow gets overridden and the next thing I know, we find ourselves pulling up in front of a wooden shack with the words “TEDDY BEAR ECO VILLAGE TAKAYAMA” burned into an oak placard out front. Next to that placard? Smokey the Bear, who looked like he’d gone a little Rastafarian in recent years.

“OMIGOD who blazed up Smokey!? He looks so freaking high!” Mutual laughter ensues.

“I’m so gonna go get a picture with high Smokey!!” she exclaims.


takayama road trip
Designation Photo Spot

So what does one do in a TEDDY BEAR ECO VILLAGE in the middle of the Japanese countryside? Pose with bears in “Designated Photo Spots“, I suppose. This looks like it should be the cover of my new CD “Michaelpanda reads bedtime lullabies to small Japanese children”.

takayama road trip
How much fun is this?

Never have I seen such an extremely high density of teddy bears in one place before (and I pray to god I never will again). The excitement for my teddy bear loving friend, however, proved to be too much and here we can see her slumped over comatose from fuzzy ursusian overload.

takayama road trip
Teddy bear Weddings

I’m not really sure what to say about this one. It’s two gigantic stuffed teddy bears engaged in a mock wedding ceremony. The TEDDY BEAR ECO VILLAGE website says the two bears measure over 190cm (6′ 2″) tall each and were made in England. Of course it also claims they’re “popular with couples and women” and while I’ll believe the latter, I can’t imagine what dude would get excited to come see two gigantic british teddy bears dressed up in wedding finery.

Then again, I’m taking pictures of them, so who am I to talk…

takayama road trip
Teddy Bear Wishes

These wooden plaques are one of the most photographed things in Japanese temples (even this blog has been guilty of it before). Known as “ema” you buy one of these plaques and write a wish or dream on it, then hang it up on a special board for (the gods?) to grant your wish.

So what are these doing in an ECO TEDDY BEAR VILLAGE? Well, pretty much the same thing as anywhere else, except that these featured a small teddy bear wood burned into the surface, and the sign announced that rather than ema, these were “eguma“. You see, because “kuma” is the Japanese word for bear, so if you combine the two, it becomes “eguma” and that, I am informed by my Japanese friends, is apparently a hilarious pun.

Which brings me to the topic of Japanese humor (those of you who don’t read Japanese feel free to skip), a significant portion of which is dedicated to “puns” (I use the term loosely). For example:

山あるのに山梨 : yama arunoni yamanashi
“Even though it has mountains (Yamanashi prefecture) is called “Yamanashi” (“no mountains”)

猫が寝込んだ : neko ga nekkonda
“The cat fell asleep”

布団は吹っ飛んだ : futon ha futtonda
“The futon blew away”.

*sigh* trust me, it loses something (i.e. everything) in translation. Now you might be wondering why I’m boring you with these jokes (though if you find yourself a nice Japanese lass feel free to try them out in an attempt to solicit some giggles). It’s because sometimes the Japanese try to translate this sense of humor into english. Like this time I was driving a couple of japanese friends back from Chicago on a chilly winter day and one of them said “Wow, it’s so cold here in Wisconsin!”

“Yeah! It’s so cold…. it’s like Iceconsin!!!”

(entire SUV erupts into uproarious laughter for 5 minutes)

“Panda, isn’t that so funny? ICEconsin!! HAHAHAHAHHAHAHA!”


Isn’t it amazing the way what’s considered funny varies so dramatically from culture to culture?

takayama road trip
Thank you earth Room

Hidden behind a bookshelf in the ECO TEDDY BEAR LIBRARY (who knew there were enough teddy bear books to fill a library…) we found a mysterious sliding door. Attached to it was a cryptic sign that read:

Give Thanks to the Earth Room

Be very quiet, close your eyes and enter this room silently. The earth is your friend. Reflect on all that the earth has given you.

I’m pretty sure sleeping is a form of reflection…

Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Stay tuned for part II of the great Takayama adventure. It’s gonna have some marvelous photographs, I promise!

Now listening to: “Imogen Heap – Hide and Seek”

12 Reactions

  1. Anonymous

    dont hurt me :)
    these panda pictures are hot – i feel like im looking at porn at work! Although I remember that we too also met a large stuffed bear that you HAD to have your picture taken with.

  2. kitty

    last comment was from me. i forgot to write something. oh, did you notice you wrote a HAPPY Japan entry. Yup. Even one that states you’ll MISS Japan if you go back. I think spring is touching you in good places ;)

  3. ben

    You should find time and come visit Canada, where you can meet Real bears and shake their hands. hehe.. joking.

  4. moritheil

    That’s fantastic. And indeed, it’s often odd to see humor that doesn’t translate well. Even between the UK and the US, where the language is ostensibly the same, some things just aren’t as funny when put in another culture.

  5. Shay

    Those are some great pics (once again). I especially like the senbei pics…I’m hungry!

  6. a

    I love the sembei shots (it’s huge!). Anything that looks that good must be horribly unhealthy though, desho? ^^;
    Come to the light! Come to Apple — join us!! :D
    Moritheil: How true. I’m weak against Brit humour.

  7. coolnahalf

    hands down, panda, your comment about the girl next to you on the plane was the funniest comment i’ve ever gotten. in fact, that coment deserves a post of it own. that’s comedic gold. you can’t waste that kind of humor on the backpages of my comment section , man! hahahahahahaha!
    i always think those sembei thigns look good. so i get one. but though it tastes an 8 out of 10, they usually cut the roof of my mouth so i don’t appreciate them so much. kinda like doritos.

  8. Wantin

    It doesn’t look like you’re protesting and saying “we’re in the middle of the roa-” in the nuzzle picture. Sorry, that’s just me, like that time when I said “That makes 4″ or something like that :P Yes you can kick me now.

  9. LH

    That crazy teddy bear place had me on the ground laughing. Especially the wedding scene….
    Totally inappropriate question, but I’m wondering: if Japan is so anti-public-trash-cans, why would the vendor provide one for his skewers? Any chance the vendor has come up with a clever scheme to save on skewer costs by “recycling” used skewers? Maybe this is typical American laziness, but if I were a dumpling vendor and I didn’t have to provide a receptacle for the garbage my dumpling cart created, I wouldn’t go to all the trouble of attaching a grate to a can to filter the garbage.

  10. momolo

    mmm, rice crackers and puns! i don’t know which i like better!
    also, i saw you on the sartorialist commenting! omg, i browse there too!

  11. Kittos

    Those senbeis looks delicious! That’s what I miss about Japan. The traditional food!