Whether you’re a long-term resident of Japan or you’ve just popped in for a gawk, chances are you made some sort of effort to head to Kyoto soon after arriving. Well, if you didn’t, Lonely Planet will be sending someone over to your joint to flick you on the forehead with their middle finger and say “man, what’s your problem?” To be sure, along with Tokyo, Kyoto defines Japan to most non-Japanese (and probably many Japanese, too); it’s held up as the traditional and cultural epicenter of the country, yada yada yada.
But not all roads end and begin with the big K, and for the discerning – or just plain curious – traveler, there’s always Hida-Takayama, nestled within the Japanese Alps in Gifu Prefecture. While it may not get slathered over the way Kyoto does in any of the countless guidebooks on Japan, it’s a no less satisfying destination. For anyone based in the Aichi and Gifu areas, too, it’s easily doable as a day trip, though you’d do better to devote an entire weekend to exploring its many sights (not to mention the onsen-rich surroundings).
It’s a pleasant journey from Nagoya Station to Takayama, and probably only your budget and personal preference will dictate whether you go via the Hida Express (¥6070 one way, 2 hours 9 mins) or the JR Tokai Bus (¥2900 one way, ¥5000 return, 2 hours 40 mins). However you choose to travel, you’re afforded spectacular scenery along the way.
Takayama has a long history of arts and crafts, which, rather than seeming like relics from the past, are still actively practiced by the city’s residents today. Any number of shops you wander into along the old preserved shopping streets will be filled with Takayama goods – handmade, just like everything used to be, ya know, back in them good ol’ days. Most of these stores have a homely feel to them, and throughout the winter freeze – felt much more keenly in Takayama – shop owners are likely to be found huddled over heaters, making endless cups of tea while conversing with browsers.
While even Takayama has been unable to escape the clutches of that evil mouthless kitty, there are more than enough unique souvenirs you can pick up without the word ‘tack-o-rama’ coming to mind. Sarubobo is a Takayama specialty, and these strange monkey babies are popular good luck charms, perfect for adorning everything from your keitai to your new baby bub’s crib. If you’re looking for some upmarket gifts for friends, the region also produces a great many varieties of sake (the pure water from the mountains is a key ingredient). You can even pop into one of the breweries in the center of town and sample their produce, if you ask politely. Takayama also specializes in fine lacquerware and intricate wood-carved ornaments of the highest quality.
Perhaps the most pleasant thing about the city is that you can cover most of it with ease on foot. The Higashiyama temple area is modeled on the Kyoto district of the same name, but on any given day you’ll be able to walk through it without encountering another soul, save for the occasional shuffle of monks’ feet from inside a temple – that’s when you notice how quiet it really is. Dotted throughout the town are attractions that don’t go out of their way to grab visitors’ attention; they lend themselves more to being stumbled across, rather than actively sought. Some residents have obviously had the odd person accidentally walk into their home thinking it was a museum or public attraction, and post large signs clearly warning the hapless tourist that, no, you can’t come in because there are people still living here. That’s how well preserved the houses actually are.
One place well worth visiting is Takayama Jinya, or Governmental House (8:45–16:30 daily, until 17:00 between April and October, ¥420). It’s the only building of its type still existing in Japan today, and you can get an insight into the governmental and magisterial proceedings that were carried out here during the Tokugawa period. They have some interesting preserved artifacts, including a storehouse packed with enormous rice bags made of straw. Check out the law court where they interrogated prisoners, too – the torture instruments are simple but effective spine-chillers.
The two morning markets held in Takayama are an excellent way to shake any early-morning weariness and really clear your nasal passages with the distinct smell of pickles in every color, shape and size. The markets have a long tradition, having been held since the Edo era, and they remain incredibly popular. Running daily from 7am until noon, they’re held along the Miyagawa River and also in front of the Governmental House.
Time your visit well and you may even catch one of Takayama’s renowned matsuri. Its Autumn Festival, on October 9th and 10th, is one of the most celebrated in Japan, where beautiful festival floats are paraded through the streets. Expect more of the same at the annual Spring Festival, held on April 14th. To see original floats that are now too precious to use in the parades, head to the Yatai Kaikan (Festival Float Museum), open from 8:00 to 17:00, ¥820. The mannequins posing as carriers are a bit creepy, but the floats themselves are amazingly intricate in their beauty and craftsmanship. Just down the road is the Shishi Kaikan, with its collection (and regular performances) of mechanical dolls, and a room dedicated to the wooden lion heads and various instruments used regularly in festivals (8:30–17:00 November through March, until 18:30 during the rest of the year).
For another glimpse into the past, head out of town to the Hida Folk Village, a complex of thatched, steep-roofed farmers’ houses, moved from nearby areas and maintained in their original state. It’s meant to be a sort of museum, but it really feels like visiting a village hundreds of years in the past, thanks to the extraordinary condition of the houses. You may even get to see local craftsmen in action, or workers performing routine maintenance on the impossibly steep roofs, which are fully replaced every 15 years or so. You can get to Hida Village from Takayama Station by bus, or walk there in about 30 minutes. Entry is cheaper if you buy the bus fare plus entry, at ¥900.
Right, time for some grub. The Hida-Takayama region is famed for its exquisite beef – if you feel like having a real splurge, head to the restaurant Maruaki on Kokubunji-dori. You can’t miss the cow statue on your right as you walk from the station. If you were so impressed by your meal you feel like tackling some shabu-shabu on your own, you can also purchase beef at the store in front of the restaurant.
Another local favorite is misoyaki, where assorted veggies, beef and miso seasoning paste are enclosed in a leaf and cooked over a tiny grill with a flame. Truly delicious, your best chance for experiencing misoyaki is staying overnight in a ryokan or minshuku. Sumiyoshi Ryokan offers cozy traditional accommodation on the river, with a yummy breakfast to boot (worth the 7am wake-up call, yawn). Prices range from ¥8000 to ¥13000, with meals. Visit www.sumiyoshi-ryokan.com, or (0577) 32-0228. If you’re on the cheap and looking for a pretty unique hostel experience, Tenshouji Temple offers shukubo, temple lodging. Located in Tera-machi, it makes a great base for exploring the Higashiyama temple walks. Give them a call on (0577) 32-6345, it’s ¥3990 for an overnight stay.
Though the actual town center of Takayama is somewhat lacking, it still exudes a certain charm, and has probably the quietest pachinko parlor you’re ever likely to come across in Japan. But there are a number of options for coffee breaks and a quick bite to eat along most streets – and chances are any shop you walk into will offer you an English menu, without you even having to try and ask. It’s clear that the township of Takayama is happy to accommodate visitors, from the friendly shop vendors to the well-placed tourist information center, and the street signs on virtually every corner. It’s really more difficult to get lost here than you think – but sometimes, it’s a bit hard not to want to.
Takayama has a wealth of information available in English on its website, www.hida.jp, and you can give the Hida-Takayama Tourist Information Center a buzz on (0577) 32-5328 (it’s located right in front of Takayama Station). Especially useful is the seasonal information, so you can see exactly what’s going on in whatever weather you’re willing to step out in. They can also offer information about hands-on experiences like making your own soba, and have all-English maps at your fingertips.
Buses run 9 times daily from Nagoya Meitetsu Bus Center – book tickets at the “green window” in Nagoya Station next to the JR Bus Centre. You can also catch the JR Hida Limited Express (Wide-View Hida) – it’s a safe bet you’ll be able to buy tickets on the day from the good folk at the shinkansen ticket window. Trains depart 8 times daily from Nagoya.