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Japanese Alps and Sumo

alpsThere's a scenic train trip that should not be missed from Nagoya to Takayama. Unfortunately, we are here in the rainy season (June-mid July) so we aren't seeing the very best of the views. The mountain tops are shy, hiding behind their mother's white skirts. But the lushness of the dense forests, that the mountain's wear tightly around their steep sides, are probably at their prime - fresh from the thaw of snow, and the river gushes enthusiastically within its striking gorge. It's an impressive journey reminding us of Canada or New Zealand and possibly surpassing both. Have I ever seen so many trees?

Takayama, a pretty town, is accessible by foot or bike. We stay at K's House, a great hostel a short walk from the station. The friendly staff immediately engage with the children. Before long Asha is engrossed in creating an origami giraffe and Ru has made a Taiwanese friend equally into electronic games. Hostels can be so warm and welcoming compared to hotels, and with the new increase in quality hostels there is no compromise on comfort. A communal kitchen is good for socialising and saves on eating out all the time.

takayamaA short walk further takes you to the river that divides the town, old from new, and once you have crossed there are several streets with ancient wooden buildings, many of them housing souvenir shops and cafes. The tourists are drifting away and the shops shutting up at the end of a busy day. The men in our family get their haircut, always risky when you have no common language, but it works out OK. We eat at the only restaurant, called Kyoya, that seems to be open after dark in the old town, its a good choice. In a building hundreds of years old, we sit crossed legged at low tables (actually really uncomfortable for me) with rustic beams overhead. Hida beef is 'the' thing to order here. There are barbecue grills on the table where it can be cooked, and it is truly delicious! There is a heavy downpour to accompany us on our way home.

Leaving some luggage stored at the hostel we catch a bus further into the mountains from alongside the train station. We are heading for Kamikochi, a car-free valley in the centre of the Nippon Alps. There is a bus change at Hiraya and the scenery is improving at every turn. A misty pond comes into view and soon after we are dropped at the bus station. At tourist information the forecast isn't great which is a disappointment. We have plans to hike mountains, but most are out of bounds. It is the hiking season, but also the wet season pond- again I wonder if we have come a little too early… However, the advantage could be less visitors than mid-July through August when its also very hot, which could be hard work.

Our hotel is over Kappa-bashi Bridge, the centre of the valley, and a short stroll with the bags.  We head straight out to walk to Myojin-ike Pond, on raised flat wooden tracks in the woodland. The pond has a small fee as its alongside a shrine, but its well worth it. It's simply beautiful - green reflected on green and a wooden painted boat, tied to a small pier, which is used during the local festival for the priest to float in. Crossing a bridge we walk back on the other side of the river and come across several monkeys playing in the trees just over our heads. The walk takes about 4 hours. Afterwards, while we settle into our typical Japanese room with tatami mats, and screens, low table and the smell of green tea, the downpour begins. We had a lucky escape!

Dressed in hotel robes and slippers we enter the communal bath for a wash and hot soak. Then still dressed in these robes sit in the dining room for our set evening meal. It is traditional food brought in small dishes - maybe 15 of them in all. Strange pickled vegetables we don't recognise, a tasty robesgrilled fish on a stick, delicious meat and veg cooked over a flame at the table, square of bean curd in sticky sauce… It was an amazing meal, but impossible not to overeat. But at breakfast and dinner and breakfast again with the same impressive array (and occasionally something slimy and less appealing) I was struggling to keep up the momentum.

The rain continues through the night and until midday the next day. It thunders relentlessly on the sills outside our bedroom making it difficult to sleep through the night. The rock-solid Japanese pillows don't help either! In the morning we lounge around bloated with food until the clouds are empty.

Too slippery to conquer a mountain, we walked to the other end of the valley, alongside a seriously swollen, brown and frantic river. It looked completely different to the day before. Some paths were closed, so it was a mere stroll to at least prepare us for eating again! There are a couple of regular restaurants and cafe's advertising around Kappa-bashi Bridge, so its not essential to go for the hotel meals. Also you could come here for the day by bus to keep costs down, but avoid weekends which get more crowded.

It's our last day. Sir, as the husband likes to be known, takes his chance and heads off early to climb Yakedake, 2455m. It should take about 5 hours but there are sections of house-high ladders which may stall you, waiting for others to go the opposite way to you. It's the only mountain recommended to climb in the current conditions - it's still changeable but thankfully without heavy rainfall. The kids and I go to Taisho-ike Pond, reopened now the river has calmed a little. It's a pleasant walk, although busy with Saturday visitors. We all met up again in the afternoon and took the bus back to Takayama.

Dinner is at Itamen, which offers an imaginative mixture of Italian and Japanese food, for example carbonara noodle soup. Narrowingly missing another downpour we get back to our favourite hostel for the night.

On Sunday, it's the first day of the Sumo wrestling competition in Nagoya and we have tickets! Back on that same scenic train journey for 2+ hours we enjoy sitting back - these journeys are the best time to relax. Then we race across the city of Nagoya by tube and make it into the Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium before the opening ceremony when the famous sumo champions waddle onto the stage with big embroidered aprons, before spinning to show us their clenched buttocks. The atmosphere is charged with excitement - we immediately get it. We are sat in our family box - which is a square with 4 cushions on the floor - with a good view of the stage. A couple of inches away is another family sit, with their boxes of interesting food, and they greet us warmly and tell us which names to chant along with the crowd.

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Sumo is steeped in tradition and history. There are grand costumes and singing and fans from referees, salt throwing and leg raising from competitors, and plenty of build up to each 'match'. I had thought it would be interesting but I didn't bank on quite how enthralling it would be. The tension builds up as they crouch, knuckles inches from the floor, just for one to rise up and go through the build up again. Then boom, they were go like bulls, arms flailing as they try to get a good grip on the belt and then one (or both) are out of the circle - bang on to the ground below, and several times on to spectators too! If there is any doubt who landed first, a group of large (possibly ex-sumo wrestlers?) solumn black-robbed gentlemen gathered to debate it. Hakuho was the winner of our day and he did a performance with a long decorative stick at the end. We were all completely hooked! I am officially a Sumo fan.

It was all over by around 6pm and we got a quick glimpse of the Nagoya Castle, which is on the same site, on leaving. It was largely destroyed in WWII, but the castle was re-built afterwards as it was an important symbol for the city, and currently the Palace building is being reconstructed too.

Somehow we dodge the crowds and got a taxi back to Nagoya Station area. The area of Meieki, near the central station exit, was alive with interesting eateries. We stopped at Tarafuku and enjoyed Japanese style tapas and weak cocktails in this cool, innovative restaurant. Although Nagoya probably isn't high on people's to do list, I liked it. It's a business hub, with modern high-rises and screens and bright lights everywhere, but it had a good feel to it. And it is definitely work trying to catch the limited dates for a sumo competition in this city, or in Tokyo, Osaka or Fukuoka when these matches are on. It's well worth incorporating that into your Japan experience. It's has been a highlight for us and a great note to leave on. Sa-yo-na-ra.