Takayama is a castle town high up in the mountains of Gifu prefecture (4-5 hours from Tokyo), overflowing with traditional charm and busy streets waiting to be explored. Renowned for morning markets, sake and snow as well an amazing spring and autumn festivals, not to mention its proximity to onsen towns and the famous Shirakawago, you may well be wondering why you haven’t been already.
The town (locally called Hida-Takayama, to avoid confusion) is perfect for a getaway in the country—each season offers a different take on the town, so you can’t really choose a bad time to go, and there’s always a great excuse for going back again and again. The spring cherry blossoms are stunning of course, the summer is a warm paradise, autumn leaves make for beautiful mountain views and the guaranteed winter snowfall creates a winter wonderland! There is plenty to do for a weekend away, it’s an especially great spot for cyclists.
Sights in Takayama
Sanmachi Old Town
The beautifully preserved old town consists of three main streets that were once the bustling merchant center of the town.
The houses and stores date back to the Edo period and have been carefully cared for to maintain the traditional feel which makes Takayama so special.These days you can find souvenir and craft shops, galleries, museums, cafes and even century-old sake breweries. The breweries can be easily identified by the large balls of cedar branches hung outside the entrance. There is the Hida Architectural Museum, The Hida Folk Museum and the Hida Museum of History and Art if you want to head inside and learn about the area. The first is housed in one of the oldest buildings in Sanmachi, the second is located in an old candle-maker’s house and the third in an old merchant’s warehouse. Some homes are open to the public and you can catch a glimpse of Edo living styles. Shops are generally open between 9am-5pm.
Every day, bright and early, you can head out to the two markets farmer’s market and stock up on fresh vegetables and sweet treats as well.
You can visit either the riverside Miyagawa Market or the shrine-side Jinya-mae Market (or both). Be sure to try the grilled marshmallow squares which are a festival specialty, but can be found at a small shop along the river market throughout the year. If you have cooking space this is a great place to stock up for dinner, as well as being great for fruit and souvenirs too. There are unusual crafts available too, with plenty to peruse as you wander along the stalls. The markets start at 6:30am and 7am in winter.
If you aren’t in Takayama at the time of the festivals, fear not—it has two great museums with displays of festival floats and other paraphernalia. This is a great chance to see the detail up close, as it is hard to see during the festivals themselves.
The Matsuri no Mori has life-size replicas of the floats and marionette puppets as well as some of the largest taiko drums in the world and displays from other great festivals from across Japan. The museum is a 15-minute ride on the Sarubobo bus from the station. Entry is 1,000 yen but you can save 200 yen with this voucher.
The Yatai Kaikan displays four of the actual floats from the festival, considered one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan. Each is over 700 years old and are great displays of the famed craftsmanship of Takayama. The museum is located next to Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine towards the northern end of the Old Town, about 20 minutes from the station by foot. Entry is 820 yen and the site homepage has seasonal opening times listed.
Hida Folk Village
With over 30 houses from the Edo period carefully relocated from across the region, this open-air museum is beautiful to wander around in any season.
The houses include logging huts, storehouses, thatched houses and shrines scattered to create a village. You can enter the buildings where daily articles are displayed as well as demonstrations and workshops which are held to display traditional crafts such as quilting, straw-craft and wood-carving. As it has the famous gassho-zukuri (thatched, steep-roofed buildings), it will fill all your photogenic needs. (While obviously these houses exist in Shirakawago too, many are still inhabited and you cannot enter, they are also not as photogenic). There are many festivals celebrated here, you can check the schedule on their site. It is a 30-meter walk or 10-minute ride on the Sarubobo (local mascot) bus from Takayama Station, and discount tickets including the bus fare and admission are available for 930 yen.
Famous across Japan for the bi-annual Takayama festivals—the festival culture here is strong. Held in spring and autumn, the festivals involve a parade through old town with beautiful and intricately designed floats with marionettes on top. The Sanno Spring Festival takes part in the southern half of old town, and the Hachinamn Autumn Festival in the northern half with both having their own stunning floats. The mechanical marionettes are a large part of the festival and perform on the floats, or inside the storehouses if the weather is bad. The evening festival is especially impressive, as the floats are paraded with lanterns through the streets.
Trips from Takayama
A Japanese mountain settlement carefully maintained and surrounded by snow-covered mountains, Shirakawago offers a unique insight into an isolated village’s way of life.
You’ll recognize the gassho houses from any guide to Japan, with their steep thatched roofs they’re especially stunning when buried deep in the winter snow. The park has two main areas, the first is the village area, with World Heritage status and many houses still inhabited. The second is the Hirase hot spring area, with plenty of natural beauty and a reputation for skin-beautifying water. You can travel between the two main areas by bus, which takes about 15 minutes.
Named after hands in prayer and built to withstand the weight of settled snow through winter, the gassho houses of Ogimachi are the main draw in Shirakawago. The town has different sections, including a small open-air museum of preserved houses relocated from other areas, as well as other preserved houses. Be warned though, the museum is 600 yen and the preserved buildings have a 300 yen entrance fee each. You can stay overnight in one of the farm houses which have become family-run minshuku (Japanese-style B&Bs) with simple amenities. An overnight stay costs around ¥8,000 per person, and includes locally sourced breakfast and dinner—as well as offering a small discount at the town onsen.
You can reach Shirakawago on a 50-minute express bus from Takayama which costs ¥2,470.
Gero Onsen Town
Considered one of the three best onsen in Japan during Edo times, Geron Onsen is still a popular spot (despite the name sounding like vomit in Japanese) with over a million visitors every year. Located between Takayama and Nagoya, it makes a great stop off, especially during the cold months of winter.
There are three public baths in the town, numerous free footbaths and plenty of ryokan with onsen. The tourist information office at the station has plenty of maps and guides with enticing photos, so it’ll be tough to choose. You can purchase a Yumeguri Tegata at the office or any convenience stores or onsen. This is a wooden spa pass which gives you entry to three of the onsen in the town. It costs ¥1,300 and can be used for 6 months, so you could go on your way as well as on your way back!
Where and what to eat
The local specialty is definitely the Kobe and Matsusaka rival: Hida beef. Raised in Hida for 14 months, the black-haired cattle are pampered before becoming dinner, which might make you feel better, who knows.
There are plenty of Hida beef restaurants to choose from, they line the streets and smell amazing, so you can’t really go wrong. For those who prefer not to eat animals, we have a brilliant recommendation. Heianraku serves Japanese-style Chinese dishes with plenty of vegetarian options too—the dumplings are amazing and there is plenty of sake to choose from. The lovely owner speaks English and will ask you to pin your hometown on the map, as well as guiding you on sake choices and generally introducing you to everyone who comes in. We spent a whole evening getting quite drunk, very full and having a brilliant time, so would definitely suggest it.
Heianraku, 6-7-2 Tenmanmachi, Takayama, 0577-32-3078
Where to stay – including temples!
It is possible to stay in a temple in Takayama, with one option being the Zenkoji Temple Guesthouse—with donations in place of payment, it is recommended you donate about ¥3,000 per person for a private room. There is now curfew and there are cooking facilities, a common room and access to the beautiful gardens. However, the temple is currently closed for renovations, so please check the site to see if opening dates have been confirmed.
As far as regular hostels are concerned, there are some familiar names including K’s House and a J-Hoppers, both of which are well known for their friendly service and great tips on where to go locally. There is also a hostel at an onsen resort called Hidemari-no-yu with discounted prices for the bathing areas and a shuttle bus, dorms costing ¥2,500 a night. If you’re feeling fancy there are countless ryokan and nice hotels, some with reasonable rates, but be sure to check distances if relying on public transport or the use of shuttle buses, as Takayama can be quite spread out.
Getting to Takayama
- Fastest: From Tokyo, you can catch the bullet train to Toyama or Nagoya and then catch the Hida Wide View Ltd Express (with special wide-view windows for the sights) taking about 4 hours overall and costing around ¥14,000.
- Cheapest: You can catch an overnight highway bus to Toyama from Narita, Tokyo or Shinjuku for between ¥4,000 and ¥6,000. From there you can catch the Hida Wide View Ltd Express for ¥2,840 (non reserved seat) or take two local JR trains (Toyama to Inotani to Takayama) for ¥1,660. The latter adds about 40 minutes to your journey, but means that you can cut costs down to under ¥6,000 each way if you book your bus early.
Osaka & Kyoto
- Fastest: Catch the Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka or Kyoto stations to Nagoya and then the Hida Wide View Ltd Express for just under ¥10,000 (unreserved) which takes about three to three and a half hours—Kyoto being slightly closer.
- Cheapest: You can catch a highway bus from Osaka or Kyoto stations to Takayama for between ¥3,300 and ¥4,700—which saves enough for a night in a hostel, although it does take around 5 hours from Osaka and 4 from Kyoto.