Takayama: Japan’s best kept secret
There’s no better place in Japan than Hida Takayama. Ask foreigners and they will likely never have heard of this small town, nestled in the Japanese Alps. Ask Japanese natives and they will tell you it is a favorite destination for the Japanese to go on vacation. What makes this small town so special? What can you do there, and most importantly–should you go too? Heck yes, you should! And I’m going to tell you why.
Japan’s “Little Kyoto”
Having traveled the length and width of Japan, I can tell you with no uncertainty, that when I go back, the number one place I want to visit is Hida Takayama (飛騨高山). This small town is full of quaint shops made from traditional Japanese homes. There are so many traditional homes and beautiful streets that Takayama is sometimes referred to as “Little Kyoto.” You can spend hours wandering the old streets checking out the homemade sake and miso.
The old streets run nearby Takayama’s river, known as the Miyakawa River. One of the most picturesque locations along the river is the Nakabashi Bridge. It’s impossible to miss with its bright vermillion red paint. In the spring, when the cherry blossoms bloom, it is one of the most beautiful places to stop and photograph the scenery in the area.
Festivals in Takayama
Takayama has some of the coolest festivals in Japan. The most famous of these are the Spring and Autumn festivals when the town gathers and a celebration is held, in which floats are taken out of their storage in shrines and displayed throughout the city. Get there early though, because during these festivals the sleepy little town will quadruple overnight. In the spring the floats are from the Hie Shrine located in the southern half of Takayama, and in the fall the floats are taken from the Hachiman Shrine in the northern portion of the city.
The Spring Festival is held every year on the second week of April, and the Fall Festival is held in Mid-October. If you are lucky enough to make it to one of these festivals be sure to keep an eye out for the Karakuri Performance portion of the float parade. The Karakuri are incredible marionette-type dolls that are controlled by masterful puppeteers. Much like the Bunraku of ancient Japan. These Karakuri are unique to Takayama, so it’s well worth it to attend the parade when the Karakuri performances are being held.
If you aren’t able to be in Takayama for the festival, don’t worry, you can still see some of the shrines, called “Yatai” in the local dialect, at the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. The hall is close to the Sakayama Hachimangu Shrine which is also worth taking the time to see.
Festivals in Hida Furukawa
Hida Takayama is very close to its neighbor, Hida Furukawa ( a whole 15 minutes away from Takayama). Because of their close proximity, the main festivals of Hida Furukawa are easily accessible and basically in the same city as Takayama. The three main festivals of Furukawa are:
Hida Furukawa has a “Will-o-the-Wisp” Festival that’s supposed to grant prosperity and a happy home to the people who attend. It’s held on the 4th Saturday in September.
Three Temples Pilgrimage
Another Hida Furukawa festival happens mid-January. This festival is knowns as the “Three Temples Pilgrimage.” The young people who join in are often looking for help in their relationships and make a journey to three temples over the course of the celebration.
The last of the Furukawa festivals I’ll mention here is the “Furukawa Festival,” held on the late to mid-April. This one is particularly interesting considering it’s called one of Japan’s “Naked Festivals.” Whoa, wait, is everyone naked? Thankfully, no. However, the guys in the festival basically just wear a white cotton loincloth as they run around outside. The festival is based around the Okoshi Daiko, an enormous drum that the men beat at they parade it throughout the town.
Things to do in Takayama
There are so many things to do and explore in Takayama. If you only have a few days you’ll have to choose what looks best to you. Here’s a not-so-inclusive list of things to do in Takayama. The options really are endless.
Onsen and Ashi-yu
Japan is a highly volcanic island that sits at the junction of not one, but FOUR tectonic plates! This leads to a very volatile environment in terms of earthquakes, but also has some much more enjoyable effects as well, namely, onsen and ashi-yu. Onsen and ashi-yu are hot springs, but they have been adapted into pools that visitors can soak in and enjoy.
Onsen is for your entire body, and the ashi-yu is for you to dip your feet into. Takayama’s location in the Japanese Alps is the perfect environment for these hot springs because they occur abundantly and naturally in the area. While you do need to get naked to be allowed into the onsen. Never fear, men and women’s sections are separated, and onsen is a very normal part of Japanese culture.
This goes along with the onsen point above. Japanese ryokans are sort of like the Japanese version of a bed and breakfast type establishment. They are traditional inns that often have their own onsen for their guests to enjoy. Some ryokan even offer very nice meals called Kaiseki. Kaiseki can range from the lower end of the price range, to extremely expensive. Whether you’re on a budget or wanting to splurge, a ryokan is a super popular place to stay in Takayama.
Hida Takayama is home to some unique treasures that you can’t find anywhere else in Japan. One of these is the Sarubobo. “Saru” means “monkey” and “bobo” means “baby” in the local dialect, so, monkey baby. These small red figures have their origins because of the monkeys that live in the area.
The story goes that the local monkeys were sneaking into people’s houses and stealing their babies for food. The locals decided to put an end to this and began creating sarubobo dolls and placing them in the infant’s beds. The monkeys would come and take the sarubobo doll instead of the baby, and the babies remained safe. They are seen as a symbol of protection today and are sold throughout the town.
I also recently learned of an adorable, alternative, type sarubobo. At the Takayama Usagi House, you can get sarubobo dolls that look like little rabbits! These are incredibly unique and you can bet it’s on my list of places to visit next time I’m in Takayama.
Miyagawa Morning Market
The Japanese are morning people for sure. It’s not called the “Land of the Rising Sun” for nothing. The Miyagawa Morning Market is a great place to check out what the locals are selling. It’s inexpensive to buy good food here, so it’s definitely worth a look if you’re in town. If you’re ambitious and get there around 6 am, you can watch the locals set up shop.
Most places in Japan have a regional food they are known for. Hida Takayama is famous for their incredible quality beef—hida gyu. Think Kobe beef, but not quite as expensive. While it might still cost a bit to get a good meal with hida gyu, it’s something you can’t miss out on in Takayama. Hida gyu is also slightly less expensive if you buy it in Hida Takayama because it is local to the region. If you’re looking for cheap hida gyu, there’s a stall in the old town by the southern red bridge that sells some awesome hida gyu kebabs. They’re amazing and about as cheap as you can get hida gyu.
Another great place to try out is Chika Soba. It’s some of the most amazing tsukemen you can get in Takayama, and this is coming from a true tsukemen snob. Tsukemen is a type of ramen, but instead of noodles coming to you already soaking in broth, the noodles are placed in their own bowl, with a hot bowl of thick broth to dip them in. Trust me, it’s good.
Hida no Sato (Folk Village)
About a mile from the Takayama train station is the folk village of Hida no Sato. These traditional, thatched roof houses showcase a bit of what life was like during the Edo period of Japan. People in the folk village still do demonstrations of traditional skills that would have been used during the Edo time period, including dying fabrics and lacquer techniques.
Despite the endless things to do in Hida Takayama, you’ll definitely want to check out the surrounding areas as there are some super amazing things to do nearby.
Not far from Takayama is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go. Some of these beautiful and picturesque thatched-roof homes have been around for over 250 years. They are reminiscent of what life was like in Japan hundreds of years ago, and their steep roofs are for keeping snow to a minimum when the harsh winters roll through the area. It’s the only place I regret not seeing when we were in Takayama.
Nestled between Matsumoto and Takayama is Kamikochi. It’s a beautiful alpine park system that’s very popular with hikers looking to take their adventurous spirit to the mountains. There are places to stay nearby if you are looking to turn it into a longer hiking experience. Just make sure to constantly be aware of your surroundings, Japan has many volcanoes and you should always be aware of any gases or if you feel anything unusual.
Why You Should Go
Aside from the myriad of other things I’ve mentioned in this post, one of the biggest reasons to visit Hida Takayama is to get off the well-beaten tourist path of most foreigners. Will it be harder to communicate outside of Tokyo—yes. However, Hida Takayama is a place where you can get a true feel for what life is like in Japan without the noise of a big city. Everyone’s wanted to see Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, but it’s an amazing experience to explore and get to a small town that’s not on everyone’s travel list.