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A Local’s Guide to Hida-Takayama, Japan

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A Local’s Guide to Hida-Takayama, Japan

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.

guide to takayama japan

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 festival

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)

takayama sanmachi old private houses

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.

takayama sarubobo doll

Sarubobo – Takayama’s mascot is said to bring protection and a happy marriage.

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.

Sake Breweries

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.

Takayama Jinya

takayama jinya governement building

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.

Showa Museum

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

hida folk village takayama

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).

Transport

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

Jakson Curry

jakson curry takayama

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

hamazushi takayama

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.

Centre4Hamburgers

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 morning market

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.

street food takayama

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).

Soeur

cafe soeur wi-fi takayama

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?

41 Comments

  1. Agness March 5, 2014

    Great guide Jessica! You were so lucky to live here for nearly a year. It looks so quiet, charming and beautiful – perfect to experience an authentic Japanese cuisine, culture and traditions! It's great to hear you can easily get anywhere on foot. Dongguan, where we're living now, is way too huge. I feel so small here. I'm so jealous of your KitKat chocolate bars. Can you get them there as well?
    My recent post Postcards from Alona Beach, the Philippines

    • waysofwanderers March 5, 2014

      It's been a good year, but I'm looking forward to living in a city again. I love Takayama, but it's a little too quiet sometimes. I can get KitKats! They change every season – although each region of Japan has different KitKats, so we also new ones when we travel to different cities.

  2. TammyOnTheMove March 5, 2014

    I just looooove the look of Takayama. If I ever make it to Japan, I will have to check it out.

    • waysofwanderers March 9, 2014

      It's a cool place to visit to contrast with the big cities – I think you need to see both sides to really understand Japanese culture.

  3. ferretingoutthefun March 5, 2014

    I spent a weekend in Takayama a few years ago and this brings back so many fond memories! We were with Japanese friends who showed us around. We saw the Showa museum and old government house, ate lots of yummy Hida beef and toured the folk village. It's such a lovely place!
    My recent post Becoming a Celebrity in China

    • waysofwanderers March 9, 2014

      I'm glad you visited the Showa Museum – I always recommend it when people visit. It's definitely not as popular as some of the other sites, but it should be!

  4. Joella J March 7, 2014

    This is a great guide. I'm desperate to visit Japan but so far, even though I've lived in Korea and now China, I'm yet to make it! I definitely want to see more than just Tokyo (although I can't wait to experience Tokyo too!). Every time we plan to visit, something gets in the way! Hopefully this will be the year!
    My recent post Perfect Winter Days in Beijing

  5. japanaustralia March 9, 2014

    Hida Takayama is one of my favourite places in Japan and we try and visit a few times each year. I was just there yesterday in fact for another weekend visit. We always visit the old part of town (Sanmachi). I didn't drive this time, so could enjoy some sake tasting at the different sake breweries. We also visited Takayama Jinya and made the journey further north to explore Hida Furukawa. I can also highly recommend Center4Hamburgers. I had the Hida Beef Burger which was amazing!

    • waysofwanderers March 20, 2014

      Agreed! We splurged on the Hida Beef Burger once (I think it's about $22) and it was totally worth it!

  6. Catherine March 9, 2014

    Takayama sounds fascinating! So many great places to eat, almost started dribbling just reading this 🙂 Japan is very high on my list of places I'd love to visit, but a bit put off by the fact it seems so expensive – is it possible to visit on a tight budget (by which I mean a very, very tight budget)?
    My recent post UKIERI Study India Review

    • waysofwanderers March 10, 2014

      Definitely! It's much less expensive than it used to be. It's certainly still expensive compared to the rest of Asia, but prices are comparable to Western Europe or North America.

    • waysofwanderers March 12, 2014

      If you're ever in Japan, I definitely recommend going. It's mid-way between Tokyo and Kyoto, which makes it an easy stopover on most tourist routes.

  7. francaangloitalian March 12, 2014

    What a shame that while in Japan we missed visiting Takayama, it looks such a traditional place to stay. I miss Japan so much, I'd love to go back one day and perhaps stay longer. You are a very lucky girl! Great guide by the way 🙂
    My recent post Hotel Or A Designer’s House? – citizenM London Bankside

  8. itstartedinasia April 29, 2014

    What a fantastic guide! This looks like such an amazing little place. I love the history and culture of Japan, and look forward to experiencing it in real life one day. Sarubobo is cute and the fact that it has a special meaning is sweet. The food looks delicious!
    My recent post ESCAPE THE RAT RACE: Make Your Dreams A Reality

  9. Millie May 14, 2014

    Planning a short trip to the Takayama areas including Hirayu Onsen, Shirakawa-go and Kamikochi with my family in Summer. But was wondering whether Takayama areas is as hot and humid as Tokyo? When is the rainy season in Takayama? Is it too hot to take a dip in the onsen?

    • waysofwanderers May 15, 2014

      It does get seriously hot, but it's definitely not as bad as Tokyo. The rainy season is roughly around the same time as the rest of Japan – June and early July. We still visited onsen in the summer – you kind of end up sweating in there anyway, so the added heat didn't really make a big difference. Plus, if you do visit in the rainy season, the indoor onsen are a good place to spend a rainy afternoon.

  10. Sherry September 28, 2014

    Great post! I was wondering if you have any tips on how to find an extended rental in Takayama? I'm hoping to move there for a year or so with my family and can't find any real estate agents with English websites that offer rentals. Any ideas?
    My recent post Hello world!

    • waysofwanderers September 28, 2014

      I wish I could help! Since Takayama is a relatively small town, the number of English speakers is pretty limited. Everyone I've known (including myself) that has moved there has had a help from their employer in arranging accommodation. You could maybe try apartment rentals like AirBnB, Roomerama or HouseTrip, since a lot of those owners are willing to rent their rooms long-term.

  11. jw24 November 16, 2014

    I enjoyed reading your recommendations, thanks!

  12. James January 31, 2015

    Hi there! My wife and I are on our way to Takayama in a couple of days and I came across this very helpful post. The restaurants you suggest sound great and we will definitely be taking your sake advice. Thanks!

  13. @HazelFruitloop February 18, 2015

    Thanks for recommending the Showa museum – we had a great time there! Definitely a change from the many museums focused on earlier periods of Japanese history.
    Also, for people visiting in February 2015, there are six sake breweries that are taking turns opening their doors and holding guided tours (in both Japanese and English). We visited Kawashiri Sake Brewery which is running tours until 19th February. The next (and last) to open for these tours is Niki Sake Brewery (20th Feb to 1st March). You need to turn up either between 10 and 12, or 1 and 4 pm. We found it very interesting and the guide gave a great explanation of the process. You also get to sample some of the sake. For more info – look out for the pamphlet about them in your hotel.

  14. Ada Wilkinson February 18, 2015

    Hello Jessica, I found your blog while searching for local guide to Hida Takayama. My husband and I were just here last weekend to spend our Valentines. We absolutely love the place and plan to go back whenever we can. The food and hospitality of the people is not comparable to other cities in Japan. You're lucky to have lived here for a year! This is now our favorite place and wish to live here too. When we go back, we will definitely try those restaurants you mentioned.

    P.S. we didn't toured Takayama around but never saw the Hamazushi!
    My recent post Winter Wonderland Is Real: Visit Hida Folk Village

  15. Michael Strudwick April 23, 2015

    I think it's an over priced tourist trap. See place in about 2 hours. Save your cash. Michael Australia

  16. mjhutchison111 May 11, 2015

    I lived a few hours South of Takayama near Nagoya last year. I was able to take a couple trips up there and I loved it. I'm super jealous you were able too live there for a year. How did you do it? Did you find a teaching job there? I looked but I couldn't find anything.

    • waysofwanderers May 12, 2015

      We worked for a small local school called Let's English (they only hire one couple each year) – we found the job through Dave's ESL Cafe; the other teachers I met in the area were part of the JET Programme.

  17. Molly September 12, 2015

    On a train to Takayama right now and this article is SO helpful!! Thank you so much for posting!

    • waysofwanderers September 12, 2015

      Yeah! So glad you found it helpful! Have fun in Takayama!

  18. KEO September 14, 2015

    Great article, thank you for putting it out there. Is it crazy to visit Takayama the middle to end of November? I am sure it will be amazingly beautiful but will it be too cold and or snowy to enjoy?

    • waysofwanderers September 15, 2015

      It's definitely cold and probably snowy, but it really is a lovely time of year to visit! I found most winter days were quite sunny and the old houses look gorgeous covered in snow. Dress warm and you'll love it!

  19. Christine October 17, 2015

    Hello,
    My husband and I will be in japan for 1 month from mid-february to mid-march.
    We start by spending one week in Tokyo,Asakusa area…wondering if we should go directly to Takayama from Tokyo for 3 nights before carrying on to Hiroshima , Naoshima, kobe, kyoto, kumano, and ending in Osaka where we fly back….any suggestions about the order of our travelling spots or any other places you can suggest. We are open to everything from culture, to people watching to hiking. We love to explore….
    Thank you for your help!
    Christine

    • waysofwanderers October 17, 2015

      Hi Christine,

      That sounds like a great itinerary – Takayama is about mid-way between Tokyo and Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe area, so it's a nice stop-over as you're heading south. You'd probably only need 2-3 days there to see the highlights. My one slightly more obscure Japan tip is to see some live jazz in Tokyo – it's surprisingly popular in Japan and the talent we saw there totally blew my mind!

  20. Sam April 9, 2016

    Hi Jess,

    Hello from a fellow Canadian, an architecture grad student from Toronto!
    I was wondering if you had any additional tips in regards to visiting Hida-Takayama or even the nearby towns/cities of Gifu, Toyama, maybe even Kanazawa, Nagoya or Tokyo? A bunch of my classmates and I will be in Hida-Takayama studying woodcraft locally this May-June as a studio project, but after I'm trying to visit some of the cities, see sites, maybe buy some local specialty items if money doesn't get tight… all within a little more than a week's time.

    Your insights into Hida-Takayama is refreshing, especially the tips about the lack of wifi or cafes is enlightening! Not something we've been informed, but the region is remote! Also I am wondering about your experiences communicating locally… Manageable?

    Thank you in advance for any help/advice you might have (realizing its now 2 years since your post)!
    Your travels around the world seem exciting! Best of luck with that!

    Cheers,
    Sam

    • waysofwanderers April 13, 2016

      You shouldn't have too much problem communicating in Takayama – while there aren't that many English speakers, locals are pretty used to Western tourists, so everyone makes it work :).

      I don't have quite as much insight into neighboring cities having never lived anywhere else in Japan. I wouldn't say Toyama is particularly worth a trip (although if you do a search on this site, you'll see a post about one attraction found there – the Hill of 500 Buddhas – which I recommend checking out if you're in the area). Nagoya can be fun, but I don't think it has as much personality as Tokyo or Osaka – it's more of a big generic city.

      • Sam April 22, 2016

        Thanks for the tips! I appreciate it!

  21. foodvagabonds June 29, 2016

    i love your Blog!!! Thanks for all the great tipps!! 😀

  22. Charles January 29, 2017

    I really appreciated your insight concerning Takayama. I am planning to head out there with my wife in April for the spring festival. Regrettably there are no more accommodations left in the city during that time. We are thinking of staying in Matsumoto and taking a bus ride into the city for the festival. That means we might be stranded for the night. Do you think it is unwise if we decide to stay up until the next bus out of the city the following morning? I know this sounds a little far fetched but it seems to be the only option we have left other than paying 1000$ for a night. Thank you!

    • waysofwanderers January 30, 2017

      Hi Charles — I don't think you want to get stuck in Takayama overnight with nowhere to stay, because it can be quite cold in April and the festivities don't continue throughout the night. Check out the Nohi Bus schedule online for a list of bus times and see when the last one is. The festival is on for most of the day and evening, so there's really no need to stay late to enjoy it. There are also lots of closer towns you could consider staying in — Hida-Furukawa, for example, is only about 15 minutes away by train, so it's much more convenient than Matsumoto.

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