For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama

Takayama Travel Blog

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Credit: My friend and awesome Brazilian photographer Itxaso Zuniga

One morning in a ryokan guestroom in the Hida region of Gifu prefecture, I opened the windows and saw that powdery flakes of snow—the first signs of winter that year—had begun to fall upon the Miyagawa River, which stretches through the city of Hida Takayama. Inside, the ryokan staff, who just moments ago jolted me awake from my futon with a boisterous “Ohayo gozaimasu!” had prepared a perfect breakfast complete with bubbling hoba soy paste on crispy magnolia leaves, a local recipe. The charms of Takayama are always unexpected and low-key, and touring the area, from the enduring villages to a hidden temple, is best described as a treasure hunt.

Located just under four hours from Tokyo, the city of Takayama dates back to the Jomon period. Sheltered by the surrounding steep mountains, its geography gave rise to the distinctive culture still evident today. “Pretension” is a word unknown in this compact little town, best explored on foot so as to invite as many discoveries as possible. Keen travelers are well aware of the name Takayama, but most of them still pass by the city while on their way between Kyoto from Tokyo.

The best time to visit is during the spring and fall seasons, when the Takayama Festival, considered to be one of the most beautiful in Japan, enlivens the area with ornate floats crafted by local artisans.
But because Takayama is dotted with myriad museums and temples, there’s enough to see even during the off-seasons. In fact, it was by way of getting somewhat lost that I stumbled upon the precincts of Hida Kokubunji, where a three-tiered pagoda vied for my attention alongside the incandescent yellow leaves of the 1,200-year-old Ginkgo tree.

I eventually became focused on the Yoshijima Heritage House, a stately sake brewery of overlapping cypress beams and posts with a cool, earthen floor. A veteran tour guide who had resided in Takayama all his life—save for the years during World War II—explained in loving detail about the ripples in the handmade glass windows and about the time a TV drama was shot there. After complimentary green tea and rice crackers, he suggested I go see the old private houses, just in time for the enchanting moments before nightfall, when the lampposts along the narrow streets gradually illuminate.

Situated on the east side of the Miyagawa River, Sanmachi is the village where the houses are arrayed in rows, offering glimpses into what life must have been like during the Edo period. The old homes, some of them sake breweries and others merchant houses and souvenir shops, are a photographer’s dream with their dark wood eaves and latticed bay windows flooded with orange light. Just a couple of blocks away is one of the locations of the Hida-style farmer’s market—an asa-ichi (morning market) that got its start in the Edo period. The people of Takayama proudly showcase their vegetables, flowers, spices, freshly baked rice crackers, souvenirs and even bottles of hot milk at the market, but the laidback vendors are impressively well-behaved—eager to help, never pushy.

Unlike most rural cities with an allegiance to the ways of the past, Takayama knows how to let its hair down by night.
The neighborhoods that bustled with activity will fall silent past dinner time, but venture through hidden pathways off the main road, and there are karaoke bars, “snacks” and tiny izakaya and pubs to be found. One night I settled on Doya, a tiny bar with no menu or signpost, just your average English-speaking bartender with a newsboy cap and penchant for blues and jazz. But just after a few rounds of locally brewed sake and chitchat, it was time to make my way along the narrow alleyways back towards the Miyagawa river and the ryokan, just in time for curfew.
portia says:
wonderful writing about a place I would love to visit someday!
Posted on: Jan 13, 2008
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Credit: My friend and awesome Braz…
Credit: My friend and awesome Bra…
the room for the solitary traveler…
the room for the solitary travele…
took this during my stroll through…
took this during my stroll throug…
My little motel for the night
My little motel for the night
cute bottles that were stocked up …
cute bottles that were stocked up…
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photo by: Eric