5 Reasons Takayama is 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.
4 – Seasonal Festivals
Takayama experiences four distinct seasons with a wide range of temperature between the summer and winter. The sunshine arrives around March and cherry blossoms in April, signalling spring and summer follows around the beginning of June, bringing rainy, humid weather, which then breaks into dryer sunny days, often with quite high temperatures. Autumn approaches during the middle of October and is short, dry and crisp with striking foliage. Winter is wonderfully snowy, obviously pretty darn cold but magical, with the white stuff more often than not, falling daily, covering the beautiful buildings and surrounding countryside with a fluffy white blanket.
To mark the cycles of activity and hibernation Takayama is host to vibrant festivals in April and October when visitors head to the area to enjoy these. Nature provides a dazzling backdrop to each festival with its stunning display of “Sakura” cherry blossoms in spring and “Koyo” autumn leaf colours, later in the year.
The autumn event on the 9th and 10th of October is the annual festival of the Sakurayuama Hachimangu Shrine. Considered one of the country’s most beautiful festivals, the two-day extravaganza features nearly a dozen tall floats “yatai”, each representing a specific district of the city. Gorgeous booths designed like the moving Youmeimon (a temple gate at Heian, the original imperial palace of Kyoto) and charming “chochin” lanterns illuminate the floats. Ancient mechanical dolls “karakuri” puppets are operated by strings and push rods, to present performances for the gods. Again, like much about Japan, this is all a cultivated and majestic feast for the senses, and the festival demonstrates and reflects the retained skills and craftsmanship of the Hida Takayama region that the locals go to great lengths to protect and sustain. Performances are said to be quite breathtaking and the traditional costumes and music, transport onlookers back to ancient Japan.
5 – Shinto gods, a folk village & retro throwbacks
At the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village “Hida no Sato” authentic homes moved from within the region and preserved intact, make this attraction a very special “open-air museum.” More than thirty traditional buildings including thatched and shingled houses, shrines, sheds, and others are scattered around the hill. Fires are still lit in the “irori” (sunken hearths) every morning, not only to keep the houses in good condition but also to create a peaceful atmosphere. More wonderful Japanese Zen.
Near to the folk museum, the Forest of Seven Lucky Gods features – funnily enough – seven, huge Shinto gods carved out of thousand-year-old wood. Set in a tranquil forest, the gods of abundance, warriors, long life, happiness, earth and enlightenment, commerce and trade, were important figures in Japanese legend and mythology. Shintō “kami-no-michi” is the ethnic religion of Japan that focuses on diligent ritual practices to establish a connection between present-day Japan and its ancient past.
Fast forward to the 1900’s for a different kind of Japanese history at the Showa Retro Museum, which is a re-creation of the 1920’s to the 80’s period with shops, a doctor’s office, a schoolroom and several homes as well as thousands of exhibits and a tiny cinema. The Showa Period marked huge changes from militarism to democracy and agricultural to industry. It was the beginning of the integration of East and West and is presented in a beautifully quirky nostalgic fashion. Small, but packed full of charisma, definitely worth a visit.
That’s all right? Nope, read on…
There are many more reasons to visit Takayama. For example, Takayama Jinya, a super well maintained 17th Century Government building in town, which is popular with visitors. In complete contrast, there is the wonderfully bizarre Teddy Bear Eco Village, hosted in an old farmhouse on the outskirts and home to over a thousand teddies. Not only can you meet pirate bears, fishing bears, baker bears and wedding bears, you can wear teddy ears and dine with the bears in the café. Can you really dare miss such a fluffy experience?!
In addition to other museums, there are sacred and religious sites and lots of ways to enjoy this area of outstanding natural beauty, such as Mount Norikura, a dormant volcano, east of Takayama, which you can reach by bus. The Shin-Hotaka Ropeway (cable car) offers impressive views and Shokawa-Zakura an ancient cherry tree, best in full blossom bloom.
Hida Takayama is a small town on a big river set against the stunning backdrop of the Japanese Alps. There’s an abundance of nature and lots of nurturing, of tradition and culture, alongside authentic, fascinating history. It’s no surprise that it is constantly voted as one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, it’s a very special place.
Take the chance to visit Japan soon.