As magnetizing as Tokyo can be, there are many reasons to venture out of the metropolis and discover the incredible charm of Japan that lies beyond. I had been dying to see the mountainous region for a while and after a day-trip to Nagano my desire to go back to the central alpine region grew even bigger. So, equipped with lots of enthusiasm and a new awesome friend Mandy (who freaks me out because we are so much alike!!) I headed to Japanese Alps for a relaxing fun-filled weekend.
The adventure started two hours prior to arrival to Takayama, when we boarded express train with extra wide windows. Train ride up to Takayama is truly half the experience, with crystal clear water reflecting the mountains like a mirror, bamboo groves covering the hillsides, rugged cliffs beaten up by the ferocious river, random ancient shrines peeking out of the lush woods and cute little houses planted in-between vast verdant rice fields. We passed dozens of villages and farmlands detached from the rest of the world and living at their own pace.
We got off at a small train station which seemed to have stayed one step behind of the main cities, with no automatic ticket machines. Instead, welcoming conductors greet passengers into the city after manually checking their tickets. Our hotel was conveniently located within a walking distance from the train station, so we quickly dropped off the bags, freshened up and headed out to explore. Streets looked almost deserted and it seemed like the rhythm of life was put on snooze here.
The truth is, Takayama is mainly a dormant city except for Spring and Fall, when it suddenly comes to life and attracts crowds during Takayama festivals – Sanno Matsuri and Hachi-man Matsuri – held twice a year. Honestly, I loved being during an “off-season”. This way it felt like we had city to ourselves and better managed to soak up the rustic charm of the place. Nicknamed “Little Kyoto”, Takayama has wider streets, fresh mountain air and gorgeous scenery. Even though it is a small town Takayama offers plenty of interesting spots to keep you busy for a weekend. Here are some of the best things to see and do in Takayama.
Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine
This beautiful Shinto shrine dating back to 400 AD is nested on the edge of the woods. It is in fact one of the most visited shrines in Takayama with over 1.5 million people each year. We came in the late afternoon and the shrine was already closed and crowds were dying down, so it was a very serene and unruffled environment, perfect to find your zen.
This stately building housed government officials who administered the Hida region for 176 years. You will be able to see original torture chamber, samurai barracks and storehouse. You can even request a free guided tour in English!
Historical Heritage Houses – Kusakabe & Yoshijima
One of the highlights for me was a visit to heritage houses (next to each other) which have been transformed into museums allowing visitors to see how noblemen used to live. Kukasabe Mingeikan, for example, belonged to wealthy traders of the Edo period and features number of artifacts from their household. The handsome interior features heavy polished beams, tatami floors and slender latticework. It is finished with a dark brown paint made from soot.
They kindly served cold green tea at the end of the house tour which we enjoyed. It was so.hot.
Yoshijima house was built in 1907 and belonged to Yoshijima family who was at the time a well-known brewer of sake in Takayama and also engaged in money landing.
Sanmachi Street in the Old Town
Takayama is often compared to Kyoto for its Edo-period feel and browsing the winding streets of the Old Town definitely makes you reminiscence of Gion. The entire neighborhood is lined up with beautifully preserved old wooden houses painted in stark black.
Most of the buildings now house restaurants and souvenir shops, selling lacquerware, handicrafts, and Sarubobo dolls – Takayama’s mascot said to bring protection and a happy marriage.
We also nibbled on some street food from numerous whole-in-the-wall type of eateries. One of the memorable ones was Hida Beef Bun.
Fresh and hot from the steamer, the buns were tender and soft, and the beef inside was juicy and simply melts in your mouth. I also highly recommend trying Hida Beef Sashimi. Slightly torched and seasoned with ginger it melted in my mouth.
Sunset by the Riverside
As we try to frantically tick everything on our bucketlist and hop from sight to sight we should never forget to take a moment to actually enjoy the place we are at. As the sun was about to set, Mandy and I decided to take an advantage of the beautiful Golden Hour and equipped with peach ciders we nestled by the beautiful Nakabashi bridge, highlight of Takayama, to marvel the beauty of the city and just be present.
We watched the sun go down, the tourists cross the bridge, heard the neighbors greet each other from their tiny balconies. And somehow everything seemed perfect. Silly I know, but it is these tiny details that somehow get stuck in our brain, fill our heart and leave unforgettable impressions.
Hida Folk Museum
This open air museum features a collection of Edo-period farmhouses which are unique to this area. Harsh winters made it necessary to construct homes that could withstand heavy snowfall and cold temperatures. Inside each house there is a display of folk artifacts like tableware, weaving tools and various personal items. Some of the houses are folk-craft workshops, with demonstrations of wood carving, lacquering, Sarubobo doll, and other handicrafts.
Migayama Morning Market
If you have time it is worth checking out the morning farmer’s market to savor some of the local flavors and get an insight into daily routine life of Takayama.
If you have particular interest in festivals, you will find original yatai (festical floats) used in Takayama’s famous matsuri. You will also be able to marvel up close their delicately etched wooden panels, carved wooden lion-head masks and elaborate tapestries.
One of the local specialties in Takayama is an amazing sake. There are countless different types and flavors of sake, so it’s worth sampling some even if you haven’t enjoyed sake in the past.
Shirakawa-go or Kamikochi
To be quite honest, the biggest memories we made was further afield. Takayama can serve as a perfect base for traveling deeper into the mountains to remote spots like centuries-old village of Shirakawa-go or spectacular Kamikochi. I will make sure to blog about both in the nearest future.
Best Places to Eat in Takayama
Don’t let the size of the town fool you, there are quite a few gourmet gems in Takayama which I am eager to share.
Coffee at Soeur
We discovered this lovely coffee spot overlooking the Miyagawa River through floor-to-ceiling window. It had very pleasant ambiance, good coffee and even offered some good-looking eats (including waffles!) if you are in search of breakfast/brunch.
Soeur | 2-35 Honmachi, Takayama 506-0011, Gifu Prefecture
Lights Snacks and Desserts at Bagpipe
We accidentally passed this spot while going to one of the sights. A charming compact two-storied private house hosts guests on the first floor. Vintage European décor creates such a homey atmosphere that you don’t want to leave (as long as you don’t mind the smoke, though). I sampled their Bavarian sausage that came with a salad, and a matcha cake, both being very tasty. The meal was topped with excellent house-made lemonade!
Bagpipe | 75 Kataharacho, Takayama 506-0847
There are a few local specialties that you have to try in Takayama and Hida beef (premium wagyu beef farmed from a black-haired Japanese cattle in Hida region, similar to Kobe or Miyazaki beef) should definitely be on top of your list. It is hard to avoid eating it though because there is an abundance of restaurants trying to lure you in with big posters picturing that succulent marbled cuts. My regular readers would know though that I usually try to avoid similar tourist “traps” and go off-the-beaten track to search for the best places to taste the food.
One such place is Center4 in Takayama, an absolutely hip and quaint spot that served hands down the best hamburger I have ever had. Yes, you read it right. Literally tucked away inside the building behind some vintage knickknack shop, this tiny funky joint specializes in burgers and serves lunch and dinner.
The place seats under 15 people and the kitchen is so small and open that you feel like you’re eating in someone’s home. The highlight on the menu is a Hida beef burger, although when we visited the first time during lunch time it was already sold out. We had “to settle” for a regular beef burger, but it was oh-so-amazing we actually came back the next day for dinner (something I very rarely do).
Regular burger was delicious, although I’d definitely recommend upgrading to Hida beef (if available). The meat was cooked to perfection – juicy, tender and out of this world flavorful flavorful – topped sky-high with all the traditional garnishing. Mandy enjoyed hers draped with cheese for added goodness.
The potato wedges were up to par with the scrumptious burger and I thoroughly enjoyed my extra helping of pickles too! To top it all off, service here was hands-down fantastic. If you are jonesing for burger, you simply must not skip this spot. Added bonus free wifi. I highly recommend you make reservation in advance and show up close to opening time to make sure those limited Hida burgers are still available!
Center4 | Address94 Kami-ichinomachi, Takayama, Gifu Prefecture
Dinner at Hidatakayama Kyoya
We didn’t want to leave without savoring it one more time, but in a form of a steak. Hidatakayama Kyoya, specializing in Hida beef, was highly recommended by my fallow bloggers and TripAdvisor so we made a reservation for our first night there.
The restaurant has very rustic ambiance making you feel you actually visiting the house of the chef. Since all the yakiniku (charcoal grills) tables were taken, we sat on tatami floors in the inner dining hall.
They offer extensive menu with a variety of set menus, and Mandy thoroughly enjoyed her choice.
After eating the hearty burger for lunch and then snacking I was not too hungry so I opted for just a steak with a side of two other local specialties – tofu and hoba miso. The local Hida miso was placed on the hoba (magnolia) leaf and cooked on the grill. It was like nothing I have had before, sweet and savory at the same time. I definitely recommend you to try it. Hida beef did not dissapoint, it was rich and buttery, although I would have preferred to cook it over the charcoal grill for added smokey flavor I love so much.
Mandy enjoyed her version which was mixed with chunks of Hiba beef, as well as the rest of her tasting menu!
Hidatakayama Kyoya | 1-77 Oshin-machi
Getting to Takayama is fairly easy. Take Shinkansen to Nagoya and then change to Wide View Express going to Toyama. Takayama is fairly compact town and you do not need transportation to get from one sight to another.
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