Travel around Japan enough and you soon notice how so many places like to imagine themselves as somewhere else. Aomori Prefecture is proud of its “Mount Fuji,” Mount Iwake; Kawagoe likes being called “Little Edo”; and there are so many “Ginzas” in the land that if you put them all together you’d have a whole new metropolis.
But the place that other places would most like to be is Kyoto, because it has a cachet like nowhere else. And of the provincial towns that happily call themselves “Little Kyoto,” the one that comes closest to the ideal — in some respects arguably surpassing the original — is Takayama.
Set deep within the Hida Mountains, Takayama is one of the best-preserved towns in Japan, and its isolation plays no small part in the retention of its traditional character. This town in northern Gifu Prefecture is one of those places whose story of rags-to-riches-to-comfortable-obscurity always draws tourists’ fond regard.
In ancient times, the inhabitants of this mountainous region of Hida found that though they were blessed with an endless number of trees, they couldn’t grow a great deal else. Having so much wood around, they naturally became adept at working with it. When Hida had to pay its taxes, it was unable to do so in the usual form of rice, and so it made payment instead by sending its artisans to work in the capital. The highly skilled local woodworkers — in all, about 30,000 of them over a period of 300 years — helped construct the grand wooden edifices of old Nara and Kyoto.
While this enforced labor deprived the Hida region of its male workers, there were advantages. This contact with the high culture of the capital considerably enriched the local one. In later centuries, the Kanamori clan, feudal lords over the Hida domain, also promoted the local culture of Takayama along with its forestry and mining industries, making Takayama one of Japan’s most prosperous provincial cities.
Signs of that former affluence are today most evident in San-machi Suji — the rich commercial center of the old town and touristic center of the new. Like Kyoto, Takayama is laid out in a classic grid pattern of narrow streets. In San-machi Suji, the streets are lined by atmospheric old buildings, running in front of which are narrow sluiceways — in days gone by, a handy source of water in case any of those atmospheric old buildings went up in flames.
Today, those merchants’ dwellings of dark, gleaming wood have, for the most part, been converted for the tourist trade into restaurants, craftsmen’s workshops and stores selling traditional wares. Hanging from the eaves of some of the buildings are sakabayashi, balls made of cedar needles that indicate a sake brewery. The town boasts eight sake breweries of no small repute, and visitors with a fondness for traditional hooch will not return from Takayama disappointed. On many a winter night, the warmed local brew has played its part as a brace against the cold wind howling down from the mountains.
A town with all this historical character naturally pulls in the crowds. If you want to savor a peaceful, uncluttered San-machi Suji, you can rise early or saunter about the late-evening streets. At other times, you have to accept that Takayama is a heartland of tourism, where the tour group rules supreme.
Those visitors who are not on a tour group can see the Takayama sights from behind the back of someone’s head. Rickshaw drivers, invariably decked in traditional garb, shout their services from the roadside. Business, though, is not particularly good these days, so shouting is about all that many of them seem to do. Interestingly, the drivers who do the better trade are not the boys who look as if they are barely out of junior high school, but the ones with shaven heads and Edo-style topknots resembling thugs straight out of a lurid samurai drama.
Should you visit Takayama in summer, though, you may find yourself wilting in the throng. At that time of year, it is better to head to the calmer areas of town around the Enakogawa River. This is a place to enjoy the pines, small bridges, irises and Japanese maples to the sound of a running stream and the call of uguisu warblers.
It is in this area that a sprinkling of museums offers a more intimate glance into how Takayama’s merchants once lived. Perhaps the most attractive is Yoshijima-ke, one of the finest traditional Japanese houses you are likely to find anywhere. The sunlight slides in through high windows and settles down among the rafters. You walk into the calm interior, with the soft spring of tatami underfoot, hear the clock marking time on the wall like a heartbeat of the old house, and you find yourself almost wishing you were living back in Takayama’s halcyon days. And, of course, that you were filthy rich.
The real Kyoto, aside from the grand old temples and the odd, admittedly exquisite, scraps of a glorious past found here and there, is all that you would expect Japan’s sixth-biggest city to be. With its dominantly modern facade, it appears more urban than urbane, its history largely consigned to monuments and museum pieces. But in Takayama, what you find is a place whose historical buildings exist in a healthy, functioning community. Despite the “Little Kyoto” sobriquet, somehow Takayama seems quite happy just to be itself.