Against the backdrop of the Northern Japan Alps, isolated and picturesque Takayama, in Gifu Prefecture, is a welcome retreat from big-city life.
Brochures promote it as the “home of the Japanese spirit.” Such an abstract superlative is debatable, but countryside tradition pervades Takayama’s morning markets, functioning old town, preserved folk village, temple-walking course and one of Japan’s must-see festivals.
But while Takayama (“tall mountain”) is not alone in considering itself a “Little Kyoto,” it at least has an historical connection to this coveted moniker. The Hida Takayama region is blessed with natural resources, especially timber. The city became a recognized center of carpentry, and its skilled workers contributed to the temples and palaces in the ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara.
This woodworking tradition is honored with pictorial banners over Honmachi-dori, a covered shopping street that is also dotted with larger-than-life statues of these tradesmen.
The Miyagawa River breaks up the city’s modern facade. Takayama’s charm lies east of the river, as are most points of interest. The most popular are the old merchant homes of San-machi Suji, a neighborhood with rows of dark wooden buildings with joined eaves.
Galleries, restaurants, sake breweries and craft shops have moved in to capitalize on heavy tourist traffic arriving on foot and by rickshaw. These streets are on everyone’s itinerary, so stroll early or risk the crowds (and commercialism) swallowing up San-machi Suji’s Edo-Period appeal.
Souvenir shops in the area do a brisk business selling sarubobo — “baby monkey” charms that look like faceless human babies. Eerie yet ubiquitous, they make for obligatory mementos.
Contemporary visitors will agree with Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) that Takayama is a special place. Realizing its strategic military value and abundance of building material, this fifth shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate placed the area under his direct control in 1692.
Takayama Jinya (government house) stands as a unique reminder of the city’s close relationship with the government. Officials from the capital were dispatched to manage the hinterlands, including here. The Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867) established about 60 other government houses around Japan, but only Takayama’s survives.
This worthwhile national historical site makes for an interesting glimpse into period architecture and interior design, as well as the shogunate’s system of governance and justice. The law court strikes fear into visitors as it displays a range of torture devices of the day. The entrance hall is stunning; the front wall with semicircular blue lines representing sea waves is symbolic of the shogunate’s direct rule. Elegant in its simplicity, the repetitive pattern would be at home in any modern-art museum.
Two of Takayama’s most pleasant attractions can be enjoyed outdoors on the outskirts of the city.
Further east of the old town is the Higashiyama Teramachi temple district. A bilingual-signed walking route steers you through an historical setting of temples, shrines and Shiroyama Park with castle ruins and commanding views of the mountains that frame the city below.
Further afield is Hida Folk Village. A dozen wooden homes from villages around the region have been transplanted to this open-air museum. They feature gassho-zukuri-style thatched roofs in the shape of praying hands, from which their Japanese name derives. The steep slope is designed to withstand heavy snowfalls of more than 2.5 meters. Poking around the dim interiors, faint whiffs of smoke are not just atmospheric, but also guard against insects and preserve the vine ropes tying the rafters. Wooden wheels decorating the outside of one house from the 1700s hearken back to simpler modes of transportation, and visiting ahead of the fleet of tour buses makes for a decidedly more intimate experience. While touristy, the village doesn’t feel artificial. The homes, pond, water mill and rice field blend into the wooded surroundings. The museum is a worthwhile substitute if you’re unable to reach the World Heritage homes still in use in Shirakawa-go.
Takayama’s attractions can fill two days, but a good matsuri (festival) always justifies staying longer. The spring and autumn festivals are said to be among Japan’s most beautiful. The town swells with visitors during Sanno Matsuri (April 14 and 15) and again for Hachiman Matsuri (Oct. 9 and 10).
A dozen ornate floats dressed in red curtains roll through the streets accompanied by hundreds of costumed participants and Shinto musicians. Floats parading over the Miyagawa’s vermilion bridges are a postcard image straight from the festival’s 16th-century origins. During quieter times, four floats are on rotating display at an exhibition hall to give a flavor of what passed by.
Takayama is best explored on foot, which is guaranteed to work up an appetite. Restore stamina with hearty regional specialties like sansai (mountain vegetables) and Hida beef. Feast on both at the popular Suzuya restaurant, tucked away on Hanakawa-cho, a side street halfway between the station and the river off Kokubunji Street. The fresh vegetables, mushrooms and chicken served in a piping hot miso-flavored nabe stew hit the spot. For dinner, just a minute south of the train station is the spacious Ajikura, a carnivore’s paradise where Hida beef is grilled at the table and washed down with local sake. Stepping out onto the darkened, hushed streets, the stars shine bright and the mountains stand tall.