Most people (myself included a year ago) imagine Tokyo and Japan as the same place. When you think of Japan, you think of Tokyo: Flashy skyscrapers, quirky fashion, bubbly J-Pop, and kitschy karaoke bars. But beyond this animated city are Japan’s small towns – towns where people invite you into their home for tea before even knowing your name; where evening music is played city-wide to welcome people home at the end of the day; where life is slow, traditional, and intangibly charming. I spent the past year living in one such town, and it’s about time I properly introduced you to it.
When To Visit
Takayama lazily rubs the sleep out of its eyes twice a year for elaborate festivals held every April and October. During the festivals, thousands of tourists from across Japan and around the world cram into the town’s normally quiet streets. The festival days are busy and beautiful, but they’re not necessarily the best time to appreciate Takayama itself. I think a lot of Takayama’s gentle charm is smothered by all the crowds and excitement.
Takayama’s spring and autumn festivals unofficially mark cycles of activity and hibernation. Spring arrives a little later in Takayama compared to many other parts of Japan, with the snow beginning to melt and temperatures beginning to heat up towards the end of March. Thus, the Spring Festival in April signals the start of the lively spring and summer months: There are cherry blossoms in the spring, lavender in the summer, outdoor flea markets on Sundays, and generally rampant hiking, biking, and strolling. Autumn, which lasts from around September-November, is another fantastic time to be in Takayama. The weather is cooler compared to the humid summer months, and koyo (autumn leaf) viewings are almost as big a deal in Japan as cherry blossoms.
Winter begins to set in around the time of the Autumn Festival in October, making this festival Takayama’s last big party before everyone hunkers down for the winter. Buried in the Japanese Alps, Takayama’s winters are long, snowy and quite cold. That said, winter in Takayama is a lot prettier than the grey Canadian winters I grew up with. In Takayama, the winter weather is generally clear and blue-skied, so the town ends up looking like the inside of a lovely Japanese snow globe.
What to See
Old Private Houses (Sanmachi)
I literally gasped when I first saw Takayama’s s Edo-period buildings. It’s tough to describe these gorgeous dark wood buildings without resorting to clichés, because walking through the narrow streets really does make you feel like you’re stepping into an older place and time. Most of the buildings now house restaurants and souvenir shops, selling laquerware (a product Takayama is famous for) and other handicrafts, as well as Sarubobo dolls.
Some people complain that the old private house streets are too touristy, but this part of town is still completely magical to me. Keep an eye out for shops selling bottles of Takayama’s local brew, Hida Beer. It’s a little pricey, but it’s one of the best beers I’ve had in Japan.
Takayama is well-known throughout Japan for producing amazing sake. Like wine or beer, there are countless different types and flavours of sake, so it’s worth sampling some even if you haven’t enjoyed sake in the past. Check out this post for my recommendations on the best places to try sake in Takayama. Takayama holds a festival every mid-March to present the year’s new sake brews. It’s definitely not on the same scale as the Spring and Autumn Festivals, but there are traditional dances, parades featuring the barrels of sake and, of course, free sake.
This historical government house dates back to the 17th century when Japan was still ruled by shoguns. A free guided English tour is available with the admission price, although sometimes you’re asked to come back in an hour or so when the guide is available. It’s worth waiting for the English guide because Takayama Jinya is only really interesting when you hear its historical context. The guides speak excellent English (ours had actually lived in Vancouver for a few years), and they’re able to point out cool features that I would never have noticed if I had walked through the residence on my own.
One of the most popular museums in Takayama is the Festival Float Exhibition Hall (Takayama Yatai Kaikan), where Takayama’s centuries-old festival floats are stored. You can get close to the floats during the festivals, but they’re cordoned off and separated in the museum. Frankly, the floats just aren’t as spectacular-looking from a distance, so skip the overpriced Exhibition Hall (¥820 admission!), and check out the Showa Museum instead. This odd, family-run museum exhibits all kinds of memorabilia from Japan’s Showa Period (1926-1989). You’ll find ancient monuments pretty much everywhere you look in Japan, which makes this homage to Japan’s recent past an interesting visit.
Hida Folk Village
The Hida Folk Village is a collection of Edo-period farmhouses. These large, sturdy houses are unique to this area, where harsh winters made it necessary to construct homes that could withstand heavy snowfall and cold temperatures. The houses are set on a pretty lake, and nearby you can learn how to make Sarubobo dolls, wind chimes and other handicrafts at the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center. Inside, each house in the Folk Village is like a self-contained museum, displaying traditional tools and various personal items. Many of the houses were moved to this site from nearby Shirawkawa-go, so if you’re planning to visit Shirakawa-go as well, the Hida Folk Village isn’t really worth the trip (unless you have a particular obsession with Japanese farmhouses).
For the most part, it’s easy to get around Takayama on foot, and there are also plenty of shops and hostels that offer bicycle rentals. Takayama has a local bus system, but it’s typically so sporadic that you’ll spend more time waiting for the bus than you would spend just walking to wherever you’re going. That said, the “Sarubobo” tourist bus runs roughly every hour between the JR train station, the Hida Folk Village and some tourist sites downtown. The Hida Folk Village is a little further outside the town center compared to most of Takayama’s attractions, so it might be worth catching the tourist bus to get there. It costs ¥600 for a one-day pass, and the bus is easy to spot because it has Takayama’s Sarubobo mascot on the side.
Where to Eat
This little café near Takayama JR station serves what is certainly the best Japanese curry in Takayama – maybe even all of Japan. Japanese curry is quite different from a Thai or Indian curry. It’s thick, dark, and not typically very spicy – almost like gravy that’s been taken up a notch. The cozy atmosphere is also a huge part of this restaurant’s appeal: It’s a family-run place, with an open kitchen that makes you feel like someone is cooking dinner for you in their home. The interior looks like a retro rustic cabin, with low lighting, wood paneling, quirky posters, and everything from Janis Joplin to the Beatles playing on the sound system.
Sennon No Utage
This is my favourite place in Takayama for a proper Japanese izakaya experience. One of the downsides of a small town like Takayama is that most restaurants close at around 7-9pm. This is one of the few places that stays open late (until 3-5am), serving both food and alcohol. There are English menus available, and seating is in cool individual booths separated by sliding shoji doors. The English name on the yellow and black sign is quite small, but you’ll see it located directly across from the JR station.
Chuka Soba Kajibashi
One of interesting things about traveling through Japan is that every area makes ramen a little differently. Takayama’s ramen, called “chuka soba” or Chinese-style ramen, uses a soy base with curly wheat noodles. My favourite place for Takayama ramen is Chuka Soba Kajibashi. This restaurant doesn’t have an English sign, but it’s located right across from the Kajibashi Bridge and its almost entirely black exterior makes it easy to recognize. The distinct black walls continue on the inside, with white dragons painted across the panels. They usually play an interesting mix of traditional Japanese music, and English menus are available.
Hamazushi is a chain of conveyor belt sushi restaurants found throughout Japan, and the one in Takayama is our go-to place for sushi. With 2-piece plates of sushi ranging from ¥90-100($0.90-$1), it’s a fantastic place to eat on a budget. Takayama doesn’t border any bodies of water, so it isn’t the area to find Japan’s best sushi. Save some money by getting cheap sushi in Takayama, and then splurge when you’re in an ocean-side city. Check out this post for tips on what to do in a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.
I know, right? Nobody comes to Japan to eat hamburgers, but trust me when I tell you that Centre4 is totally worth bending the only-Japanese-food rule. This restaurant makes some of the best burgers I’ve ever had – not just in Japan, but anywhere. The restaurant seats under 15 people and, like Jakson Curry, the kitchen is so small and open that you feel like you’re eating in someone’s home. The little restaurant is filled with a collection of international beer bottles, weird knickknacks, and Bob Dylan music is always on repeat. It’s located one block from the old private houses, and there’s an English sign out front. Weirdly, you have to walk through another store (which seems permanently closed but forever stocked with items) to the restaurant in the back. It’s an intimate, comfortable place to hang out, which is very popular with locals (both Japanese and expats). Despite serving burgers, it’s definitely not your typical tourist-geared international restaurant.
Street Stalls and Markets
Takayama has two morning markets: One in front of Takayama Jinya and the other running along the Miyagawa River. They’re stocked with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, as well as pickled versions of pretty much everything. The merchants are very generous with samples, so it’s a good place to snack on pickled veggies and rice crackers, plus pick up ingredients for cooking later.
A number of stalls around the old private houses and the main shopping streets sell the two foods that Takayama is famous for: Mitarashi dango and Hida beef. Mitarashi dango is a skewer of chewy rice balls coated in soy sauce. The mitarashi dango stalls are easy to find because the soy sauce creates a sweet, burned smell that you’ll notice from blocks away. Hida beef is a melt-in-your-mouth, marbled beef comparable to more famous Kobe beef. It can be quite expensive in restaurants, but you can buy a skewer in the street for under ¥400 ($4).
One of the things that surprised me about Takayama – and Japan in general – is that it’s almost impossible to find cafes with free Wi-Fi. In addition to providing precious Wi-Fi, Soeur has awesome baked goods, as well as really tasty coffee and herbal teas. The back wall of the cafe is one massive floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the Miyagawa River. Add in the lazy jazz background music, and it’s a perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon or take a break from sightseeing.
Have you ever been to Takayama?