I want to go back: Hida Furukawa. We spent only a few hours that charming little town, and this is how it happened.
We’re planning the Japan itinerary for March 2016 when I google “Gifu,” and see small mountain villages filled with thatched roof cottages, a major tourist attraction. What catches my eye, though, is a picture of young people laughing as they bike through a flat, green field on a sunny day. I print the ad, and take it to my next meeting with Noriko, the travel agent who’s making our reservations, “We want to do this.” No problem; she will arrange the train tickets.
I don’t ask the others if it sounds good, but everyone answers questions about height and weight for the bicycle company without complaining. The bike ride will be a highlight of the trip, for me. The others will put up with my wishes.
Our ride is the afternoon of a busy travel day: a half hour on a bullet train from Kyoto to Nagoya, then two hours on an express train from Nagoya to Takayama, then a short trip on a third train, a local to Hida Furukawa. The Furukawa train runs less frequently than more popular routes, we’re told, and we have to arrive in Furukawa before 1 PM or we miss the tour. All this means we must leave our Kyoto hotel at 6:30, too early to enjoy the hotel’s Asian-Western breakfast spread. I explain the problem to the hotel. We would prefer to pack up some pickled vegetables, broiled chunks of salmon and mackerel, rice cakes and creamy corn soup––their standard yummy breakfast fare. But rules are rules and the only alternative they offer is a box lunch that we can eat on the train. Later I won’t remember what was in the box, but I will remember that vending machine coffee and a greasy donut purchased at a platform kiosk, tasted better.
Trains in Japan run on time, we’ve been told time and again. And they do. A train stops, people get off, people get on, and in a couple of short minutes the train takes off. Today, though, the Hida 3 Express leaves Nagoya several minutes late––an unusual happening to start with, but not a big concern. We hear no announcements in English and the scrolling red letters on the electronic sign might say station names, but we don’t know because it shows only Japanese characters. So we watch the clock. By 10:55, the scheduled arrival time in Takayama, we’ve moved with our suitcases to one end of our car toward the exit door. The train doesn’t stop. Well, we did take off late, so we’re not too surprised. A few minutes after 11:00, the train stops. Along with a handful of other people, our group of five gets off. We know the routine, and move quickly, so as to not affect the train’s schedule. I don’t see much of a station, but lead the way up some nearby steps. Then I hear Irv call out to me and turn to see a small lady, the train’s conductor, jumping up and down, waving us back onto the train. We’ve arrived at some small no-name outpost; the Takayama station is another ten minutes down the track. We would have missed our bike ride if she hadn’t been so kind as to shoo us back on board, making her train even later.
We arrive at Takayama, where we see posters displaying plans for a new station. Just in time, we think, as we walk through an area remarkably similar to small stop in the middle of nowhere. This popular ski destination for locals in the winter, and more and more a summer tourist destination, needs a better station.
Our hotel, a half-block from the station, agrees to hold our bags for an evening check-in. We must depart on the 12:19 local if we are to arrive in time, according to the bicycling company, Satoyama Experience. We walk back to the Takayama station a half hour early, but it is chilly and one son wants to go back to put on another layer of clothes, the other wants to go with him, and another of us wants to go back to the hotel to get some snacks. I don’t like it. Once we are at the proper place on the platform, I want everyone to stay put, especially when we must catch a specific train. But before I can say too much, they take off. Plus I’m the one who led the group off at the wrong station, so I’m keeping quiet for now. The guys come back in time, and we purchase tickets for the local train to Furukawa, a station even smaller than Takayama.
We have a map with directions from the bike company, but it is difficult to use because we see no street signs. We walk in the direction that we think we need to go; we know if we cross the river we’ve gone too far.
Canals line the streets, and then we see the koi. We will learn later that a few small colorful fish were placed there years earlier by the town, in order to prevent people from discarding trash in the canals. Now the canals are clean and the koi number 2000. Every day, townspeople throw bread crumbs and fish food to the well-fed koi. In the fall, volunteers scoop up the fish and place them in a pond by the high school. That pond doesn’t freeze in the winter, and there the koi cluster together and wait for spring. We are lucky again––today is the first day the colorful fish are back in the canals.
We are almost to the river when I show a local man the map, and say “bike ride.” In pretty good English, he tells us we need to backtrack a couple of blocks. When we get close to Satoyama’s office, we see our guide in the street, looking for us. I relax a bit––we made it. We go in and meet the rest of the bikers: a couple from England and another couple from Australia. We fill out the obligatory forms and then the young woman hands us our helmets. I’m happy that we didn’t have to drag helmets from home, but the straps on this helmet are so skanky I can smell them two feet away.
We walk across the street to the row of bikes lined up, and pick out ones that sort of fit. Our guide Hiro tells us that this is one of the first rides of the season––hmmm, so it’s all 2015 sweat––and goes on to tell us that last year at this time there was so much snow on the ground that they couldn’t ride until May. Gosh, I hadn’t realized it was a ski area, or even that it snows here, or that they couldn’t ride bikes year round. We’re already cold.
We start down a road, then head off on a path along a rice field. Well, it’s just dirt now, but it will be a rice field in a couple of months. We see very little green, and no sun.
But we do drink fresh mountain water from a spring where a local is filling jugs. He tells us this water makes better soup and better mixed drinks too.
We learn about rice––how the farmers store it as brown rice because polished white rice doesn’t last as well. Every two weeks, they polish just the amount of white rice they will use in those two weeks.
We ride on, past more mud fields and wooded areas, and learn that Hida carpenters are known for their nail-less joinery. Hiro shows us a complicated three-dimensional puzzle whose pieces fit together to form a stable union. He tells us the carpenters in this area are revered because they know how to make the puzzle pieces fit together. Or something like that. We wish Hiro would talk faster––our ungloved hands are numb with cold.
Then he tells us the good news––it’s time for our hot tea break.
We ride to a small picnic shelter where he lays out a colorful cloth, heats some of the spring water and makes tea. He hands us double-insulated metal cups that don’t warm our hands at all––safer for the kids he says. At least the shelter has a roof, now it has started to rain.
We ride back in the rain, through this picturesque town, along the canals with the koi, to the bike barn. Our beautiful ride ends too late for a sake stop––the sake factory only stays open until 4 PM in early April––and we are a little too wet to hang around anyway. We catch the 5:00 train back to the Takayama hotel in time for Happy Hour.
I don’t ask the others if they liked it until after we’ve had a hot meal. No one liked the ride as much as I did, but we all share one regret: everyone wanted to spend more time in Furukawa. At dinner they all say yes, they want to come back. When it’s warmer.
The bike ride is Satoyama Experience. Every time I see a Facebook post from them, I want to go back to Furukawa. When it’s warmer.
Date of travel: late March, early April 2016.
Hotels, trains, and tours arranged through IACE Travel, Saratoga, CA.