There are certainly a great number of symbols in the sake world; images and things that evoke perfectly Pavlovian pangs for a glass of good sake. It might be a blue dyed curtain hanging in front of a sake shop, waiting to be parted as you enter. It might be the rising smell of yakitori […] or just the right fruity or flowery essence reminiscent of a good glass of ginjo. Or, it might be the sight of the sugidama, arguably the oldest and most often-seen sign of where sake is to be found.

—John Gauntner

Photo: A fresh sugidama (cedar ball) outside one of Takayama’s eight breweries.

My husband’s request for our Christmas trip was: snow, onsen, ryokan. As we rode the bus from Takayama station to Shin-hirayu, there was no snow and the temperature was in the mid-40s. As we rode higher into the mountains, the fields and houses began to display small patches of leftover snow, the ground began to fill with frost, and finally we were in the snowy mountain passes, passing ski slopes, and making slushy hairpin turns.

Shin-hirayu (above) is a small onsen, barely a town, more a collection of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns). I picked our ryokan, Seigaku-kan, for its rotemburo (outside hot-spring bath) and because it is fairly inexpensive. In the evening, we enjoyed a long soak together in the rocky bath. Seigaku-kan’s rotemburo is mixed bathing, but they provide a yuyugi, a rectangular wrap that women, but not men, are encouraged to wear. Mine was green and didn’t make it all the way around me, so I held it in front, like a fat, color-blind matador. All the mixed bathing anxiety I had was for naught. Only one young single woman showed up to bathe with us (the ryokan was practically empty). Her yuyugi was so huge on her she might as well been wearing a dress. Mostly we had the place to ourselves.

Dinner was a pleasant surprise for such a modest inn, delicious local food prepared by the proprietor’s mother and father, including a nijimasu (river trout?) marinated with a kinome and miso sauce, wrapped in a bamboo leaf and roasted. They served a shin-mai koshi hikari rice from the Takayama area that had the most amazing floral aroma and was the best rice I have ever eaten (and I splurge on high quality Japanese rice). We drank an amazing sake with dinner that we bought in Takayama before we got on the bus: Himuro (ice room) daiginjo namazake made by the Niki Brewery. It has a rice and pear nose, with a tart freshness on the tongue and a distinctive cantaloupe flavor. (I know, I know, what’s with the mixed fruit bowl? But it’s good.) There’s a bottle in my fridge right now.

The next morning we got up at 6 a.m. to take a bath before breakfast. I scrubbed myself down inside, opened the door to the outside area and gasped. It was snowing a generous veil of slow fat flakes. I found my husband in the outdoor bath wearing a conical hat (supplied by the ryokan to keep the snow off your face) and nothing else. We sat for a long time, watching the morning light come up from behind the mountains, feeling the snow icily tap our shoulders as we soaked in the steaming hot-spring water.

Photo: Traditional thatched roof with moss at the Hida Folk Village near Takayama.

Back in downtown Takayama there was no snow but there were the textures of wood and lacquer and other sensory delights. The old San-machi district was filled with the smell of Hida beef kushiyaki (grilled beef skewers) and mitarashi-dango (grilled rice balls glazed with soy sauce), sold at little grill kiosks. The streets are lined with Edo-era wooden buildings, and dotted with sugidama to alert you to one of the eight sake breweries. We wandered about visiting the old merchant houses, the morning market by the river, the display of some of the famous festival floats, stopping at the breweries to taste the shin-shu (new sake). We were actually a bit early for the major Takayama sake events (January through March), with brewery tours and tastings for each week’s featured brewery.

The Kusakabe Mingei-kan (a merchant house museum, photo above) sponsored a special sake tasting of eight shin-shu from Takayama. Our favorite was the Hidanokuni Takayama (Hida country, Takayama) junmai daiginjo namazake from the Oita brewery, a full, fresh banana attack of deliciousness, layers of aroma, utterly smooth and fine. And yes, a bottle sits in our fridge right now for a future drunken and gloating post…

Carlos tried a good selection of nigori (unfiltered) sakes over two days. His favorite was the—I’m not sure of the kanji reading here, but—Hida Senkyō shiroki honjozo. Hida Senkyō is something like “Hida immortal mountain fairy hometown” or “Hida hermit’s birthplace.” We found it creamy and smooth with good balance. Some of the other nigori we tasted were gritty on the palate with a distractingly sharp alcohol bite. A lovely young Japanese couple, our temporary drinking partners at the brewery, told me the term shiroki was equivalent to nigori, but I was a little buzzed and I may have misunderstood them. [ETA: I found a web page that may explain the term shiroki.]

Photo: Hida Senkyō shiroki honjozo (middle bottle).

Photo: The mouthwatering Immortal Mountain Fairy perfectly poured and begging to be tasted.

Photo: Breakfast at the Nagase Ryokan, a little paradise in the old district.

[For information about sake terminology and types of sake, start with John Gauntner’s Sake World site.]