Takayama Guide

If you are looking for a thoroughly old and authentic traditional Japanese town, Takayama, a city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture, is the perfect place for you to visit. It is more widely known as ‘Hida-Takayama’ in reference to the Hida Province.

The high altitude and separation from other areas of Japan kept the area fairly isolated. This allowed Takayama to develop its own culture over a 300-year period. Back in 2017, the city was selected as one of the top ten travel destinations in Asia by the Lonely Planet Magazine.

Highlights

  • The Sannomachi Street in the old town is home to many old homes, shops, coffee houses and sake breweries.
  • Sake tasting is offered in the breweries around Takayama’s old town.
  • The Takayama Jinya is a museum, previously serving as the local government office.
  • Takayama is near Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses.
  • The Takayama Festival is one of Japan's three most beautiful festivals.

Travel to Takayama

One of the main touristic regions in Japan covers the central region, encompassing Kanazawa and Nagoya. Takayama lies between the two and can serve as a perfect short detour. Another perfect detour spot, close to Takayama, is Shirakawa-go.

You can reach Takayama from Kanazawa or Nagoya by train or coach, which takes about two hours. The train journey offers beautiful views of the Hida River and the Hida Mountains, of valleys, bridges and woods alongside the train tracks.

Takayama is an extremely easy place to explore, as its main attractions can be reached within 30 minutes or less by foot. One of the favorite tourist spots is Takayama’s old town, where quaint souvenir shops, food stalls and sake breweries line the streets. It’s an easy walk from the station and the perfect place to try local foods or pick up local souvenirs.

Top attractions in Takayama

Takayama is more rustic than the more famous and modern Kyoto, because it is nestled deep within the stunning Hida Mountains. It is a wonderful choice if you want to witness a more authentic Japan.

Miyagawa Market

Miyagawa Market is one of the two morning markets located in Takayama, along with Jinya-mae Market. It is located along the Miyagawa River in the old town. There are stands that sell local crafts, snacks and farm products such as vegetables, pickles and flowers.

Sannomachi Quarter

The Sannomachi Quarter is a street in the southern half of Takayama's old town. This is where many old homes, shops, coffee houses and sake breweries have been open for business for centuries.

The old merchant houses reveal high, sky-lighted ceilings and fireproof storage rooms. Visitors are able to see behind the facade into the former living quarters of the local merchants which exhibit traditional household goods and local arts and crafts.

Takayama Jinya

The Takayama Jinya served as the government headquarters for Hida Province under the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan from 1692 to 1871, during the Edo period. The building complex was in official use until 1969, and is now open to the public as a museum.

The museum displays various nicely maintained tatami mat rooms that once served as offices, conference rooms, guest rooms and residential space; there is also an interrogation room.

Matsuri-no-Mori museum

The Matsuri-no-Mori is a museum where festival carts are displayed that are used for the Takayama Festival, one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals. It is located outside of Takayama city center.

At the main exhibition space, visitors can view a number of magnificent, life-sized replica floats, which offer a close view of their elaborate designs, decorations and karakuri dolls and marionettes which are a key feature in the Takayama Festival.

Hida Folk Village

Hida Folk Village is an open-air museum where you can see about 30 old farmhouses that illustrate the traditional architectural styles of the mountainous regions of Japan. The structures range from 100 to 500 years in age and many of them were brought from their original site to preserve them.

Sake breweries

Takayama is known as one of the cities that produces some of the best-tasting sake in Japan. The city has been famous for its sake production for over 400 years. Currently, scattered around the historic old town, there are 6 local traditional sake breweries that are still in operation, which offer you the chance to tour their facilities and also taste their sake.

Side trips from Takayama

Close to Takayama are many other interesting spots that are worth a visit. These places offer beautiful scenery and also glimpses of ancient Japanese structures.

Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

Shirakawa-go and neighboring Gokayama are famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The main attraction is Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go's largest village, replete with thatched-roof houses, built without using a single nail. Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer", since the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. They were designed this way to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter.

Gokayama is less developed and less crowded than Shirakawa-go. Its villages are smaller and have less intrusion from modern buildings. Its nicest villages are Suganuma and Ainokura.

Kamikochi

Kamikōchi is a remote mountainous highland valley in the Northern Japan Alps of Nagano Prefecture. Surrounded by tall mountains, including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake, Maehotakadake, and the active volcano Yakedak, it offers some of Japan's most spectacular mountain scenery.

Okuhida

Okuhida is a region located in the northeastern part of Gifu Prefecture, known for its rich natural beauty. There are different spots where you can experience nature's blessings such as Okuhida Onsen-Kyo and Shinhotaka Ropeway.

The Mukashibanashi-no-Sato Gohei-Mura is also a place where you can experience traditional Japanese lifestyle. Another thing it is famous for, are its hot springs. It is one of the best places in all of Japan to enjoy large, attractive outdoor baths in natural settings and to stay overnight at a rustic ryokan.

Takayama Festival

Held annually in the spring, on April 14 and 15, and in the autumn, on October 9 and 10, the Takayama Festival is one of the three great festivals of Japan, along with Kyoto's Gion Matsuri and the Chichibu Yomatsuri.

The Takayama Festivalis believed to have started in the 16th and 17th century, during the rule of the Kanamori family. It is held in the old town of Takayama and attracts large numbers of spectators every year.

The Spring Festival and Autumn Festival

The spring festival is the annual festival of the Hie Shrine in the southern half of Takayama's old town and is held to pray for a good harvest. It is also called Sanno Festival, as the shrine is also known as Sanno-sama.

Similar to the spring festival, the autumn festival, also known as the Hachiman Festival, is the annual festival of the Hachiman Shrine in the northern half of the old town and is held for giving thanks.

Although the spring and autumn festivals are separate occasions, they have similar attractions and schedules. Each festival features its own set of about a dozen festival floats or yatai.

Festivities

During the festival, 11 lavishly decorated floats are pulled through the town. Some of the floats have small stages where intricate marionettes are made to dance by incredibly complicated arrangements of strings, manipulated by expert puppeteers.

The Karakuri Marionette performance is one of the attractions of this festival. Three of the floats put on display are decorated with so called karakuriningyo which are sophisticated mechanical dolls that can move and dance.

These marionettes which are controlled by dozens of strings, are operated by highly experienced puppeteers. They move and appear to come alive in intricate dances which enact old Japanese legends and tales that are broadcast to the crowd over loudspeakers.

Another attraction is the Mikoshi Procession. In this procession, a mikoshi which is a portable shrine is carried around the town in a parade, starting and ending at the respective festival's shrine. The mikoshi contains the shrine's kami which is a Shinto deity. The festival is the only time of the year when the deity leaves the shrine to be carried around town.

Finally, there is the Evening Festival or Yomatsuri, where the festival floats are pulled through the streets of Takayama's old town for about two to three hours in the evening of the first day. This is considered the festival's highlight by many visitors.

Full-day Takayama highlights tour

On this tour, a guide will accompany you. Start the day with a visit to the local Miyagawa Market in the old town. Freshest fruit, vegetables, flowers, and other items can be found at the market stalls. It is recommended to go early to avoid big crowds, so that you can take your time strolling along the market and inspecting all the stalls.

Next, take a walk in the district called San-machi Suji. This is where the traditional homes of Takayama merchants and sake brewers have been preserved in almost exactly the same state as 200 or 300 years ago. You can also buy a sarubobo doll as a keepsake.

After that, visit the Takayama Jinya. It is just a short walk from San-machi Suji. The Takayama Jinya served as the local administrative offices of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan during the Edo period. It was in official use until 1969, and is now open to the public as a museum. You can tour the rooms and learn about how business was conducted back in the day.

End the morning by stopping at a sake brewery. Sake is one of Takayama's local specialties and is renowned in Japan, due to the clear water of the surroundings. You can find several old sake breweries in the southern part of Takayama's old town.

Finally, you can visit the Matsuri-no-Mori Museum in the afternoon. This is where the festival carts from the famous Takayama Festival are preserved and displayed. The traditions and symbolism related to this festival will be explained by your guide.

Full-day Takayama & Shirakawa-go tour

You will be taken to Takayama’s beautifully preserved old town and the UNESCO site, Shirakawa-go village.

Start the day with a visit to the local Miyagawa Market in the old town. Freshest fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other items can be found at the stalls. It is recommended to go early.

Next, take a walk in the district called San-machi Suji. This is where the traditional homes of Takayama merchants and sake brewers have been preserved in almost exactly the same state as 200 or 300 years ago. You can also buy a sarubobo doll as a keepsake.

After that, visit the Takayama Jinya. It is just a short walk from San-machi Suji. The Takayama Jinya served as the local administrative offices of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan during the Edo period. You can tour the rooms and learn about how business was conducted back in the day.

End the morning by stopping at a sake brewery in the southern part of Takayama's old town.

In the afternoon, go to the Shirakawa-go region. Your guide will show you around the village. You can view over 100 traditional thatched-roof houses, known as gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Many of the farmhouses now serve as restaurants, museums or minshuku, where you can stay overnight.

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