Beautiful landscapes, unique culture, traditional architecture, culinary delights and stunning seasons celebrated with festivals that have been running for hundreds of years. Sounds awful right? Unless you’re interested in one of the captivating and often overlooked destinations in Japan, then stop reading now.
Hida Takayama, which appropriately, means ‘tall mountain’ is in the northern Gifu Prefecture, among the striking Japanese Alps.
Although just four hours away from the most populated metropolis on the planet, this is no Tokyo. In fact, it’s a total contrast to the modern, often pioneering ‘new’ culture of Japan’s capital. It is this focus on traditions steeped in history that makes Takayama so very worth visiting.
1 – A glimpse into the past
The 16th century signalled the start of the Edo period, a time known for economic growth, stability and a blooming time for arts and culture across Japan. The mountainous location of Takayama meant the city was somewhat cut off from other parts of the country, allowing it to retain and nurture ancient customs, such as carpentry, sake brewing, lacquerware, pottery and furniture making.
The charming city, which is a relaxing and aesthetically pleasing train journey from Nagoya (connected to many hubs such as Tokyo), is easy to navigate on foot or by bicycle and offers sightseeing buses and guided tours on rickshaws (our favourite of course!).
Today, Takayama old town, called Sanmachi Suji, is a collection of narrow lanes, lined with beautifully preserved merchant houses, so it literally feels like taking a step back to the times of the samurai.
Deemed cultural artefacts, the houses are breathtaking. The city also features “ryokans”, traditional wooden Japanese inns that have existed since the eighth century, where visitors can stay to fully immerse themselves in a cultural experience (like the famous tea ceremony and beautifully formed food). Further into the mountains, are “minkas” authentic farmhouses unique to the Hida Takayama region.
Waterways from the mountains and Miyagawa river, run under and alongside the beautiful streets and act as a reminder that the cool air and pure mountain water offer all of the elements necessary to support a superior brewing process to produce top quality sake…
2 – Sake, Sake, Sake!
Nihonshu Sake has been part of the culture in Japan for thousands of years. In Hida Takayama, you can easily recognise the traditional breweries by the sake barrels called “sakadaru” which can be seen outside the shops, or by “sugidama”, special balls made of cedar branches, which hang over the entrances. These also indicate the current stage of the sake process. A green sugidama tells passers-by that the sake has just been freshly pressed from the new rice harvest, while a brown sugidama indicates that it has matured and is ready to be consumed. With hundreds of years’ experience of brewing, you’re in the right place to become acquainted with the best quality sake.
“In sake brewing, the character and devotion of the brewer is reflected in his product. For this reason, each year we endeavour to brew with renewed focus, making sure to never forget the intensity and spirit of challenge required. We listen to the voices whispering from the koji and moromi, so that we can harness the unique elements in the ingredients, and put our heads together in discussion as we focus all of our efforts into creating the best possible brew.”
The Funasaka brewery, Hida Takayama
The breweries offer a fascinating insight into the Takayama sake making process featuring the magical “koji” (steamed rice that has had koji mould spores, cultivated onto it) and the “moromi” mash that defines the flavour.
In Japan, there is a saying “sake-wa honshin-wo arawasu” which translates as “alcohol reveals the true heart”. Essentially, this feels like a nice way of saying that there can be a tendency to overshare when we are a little, ahem, inebriated. The Japanese just seem to be able to express these things in such a way that demonstrates the elegant nature of their culture and tendencies. Still, Hida Takayama seems a perfect place to reveal your true heart including via the “izakaya” experience (an izakaya is a venue comparable to gastropubs and tapas bars but featuring, unsurprisingly, lots of sake). There’s even a sake festival here each March.
3 – Takayama’s incredible food & Hida-gyu beef
To accompany your superior beverage is none other than another world-class renowned Hida Takayama delight, “Hida-gyu” – a beef from a Japanese cattle breed, that has been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least fourteen months. It is subject to strict certifications and grading on its firmness and texture. This is serious stuff.
If beef is not your thing, there are plenty of fantastic eateries in Hida Takayama. You can try Japanese curry, eat the city’s own style of ramen, called “chuka soba” (Chinese-style with a soy base plus curly wheat noodles). Or you can go for inexpensive sushi at the Hamazushi chain, as well as finding amazing food on the street stalls, such as “mitarashi dango” a skewer of chewy rice balls coated in soy sauce. Visitors also rave about the Center4 Hamburgers (yes really), so it’s full circle back to the beef – should you choose, you can invest in the Hida burger, not cheap, but one of the best money can buy.
To continue your foodie experience, Hida Takayama also has two morning markets. One in front of Takayama Jinya, and another running along the Miyagawa River. They’re stocked with lots of fresh fruits, “sansai” (mountain vegetables) and “wasakana” (river fish) as well as pickled versions of pretty much everything. The merchants are generous with samples; so it’s a prime spot for a morning snack, especially post sake.