Takayama destination guide
Takayama destination travel guide - What to do, see and visit in Takayama
Table of contents:
Introduction to Takayama
Welcome to the heart of the Japanese Alps, Takayama. Dotted roughly in the middle of Japan, Takayama is surrounded by 3000-metre high mountains. Although the old town is small in size, the charming and authentic nature of the city draws you in and takes hold of everyone who visits. As well as being incredibly picturesque, Takayama is famous for its historic old town which has fine examples of its dark wooden architecture. You’ll also find exceptional beef quality and a rich history of carpentry.
History buffs will be in heaven when they head to the Hida-no-sato folk village. The replicated living conditions show the lifestyle of how locals would have lived during the Edo period (1603 - 1867). Prior to the Edo Shogunate ruling, Takayama was ruled by a daimyo called Nagachika Kanamori who built his castle and established a town around it for samurai warriors and merchants. Takayama City merged with nine surrounding towns and villages in 2005, making it Japan’s largest city (by surface area) and covering an area larger than Tokyo.
Known throughout Japan as ‘matsuri’, Takayama’s festivals are famous all over the country and attract thousands of spectators every year. Matsuri plays an important role in Japan as it is a cornerstone for bringing communities together. The Takayama festival has been held for over 400 years, occurs twice a year, once in spring and once in Autumn, and is an experience to be put on the bucket list!
You can reach Takayama from Tokyo using the JR Pass. From the JR Tokaido Shinkansen, travel to Nagoya using the Hikari trains so that it's covered under your JR Pass. From Nagoya take the JR Hida Limited Express to Takayama. If you’re coming from the Shin-Osaka or Kyoto stations, take the Tokaido Line to Nagoya and the JR Hida Limited Express to Takayama. Both journeys take around three to three hours and thirty minutes.
Onsen is the Japanese name for a hot spring and thanks to its plentiful volcanic activity, Japan has thousands sprinkled throughout the country. Bathing in these natural hot baths come with many health benefits such as anti-aging and detoxing, due to their high mineral content. Takayama is a spa-town renowned for the quality of its hot springs and clean, mountain air. Traditional indoor onsen are gender-separated and require bathers to go naked inside the pools. This once in a lifetime experience is often completely different to what many travellers have experienced before, but is sure to be one they will never forget!
When considering what to do in Takayama, you can’t go past the morning markets. For a delightful range of local crafts, snacks, vegetables, pickles and flowers, don’t miss the morning markets in Takayama. Take a stroll along the river between 7:00am (8:00am in winter) to the Miyagawa Market or soak up the atmosphere at the Jinya-Mae Market. Both traditional markets have an exciting buzz about them and are a staple of any Takayama visit.
Escape to Kamikochi, the dreamy mountainous highland valley just over an hours drive from Takayama. Offering some of Japan’s most spectacular mountain scenery and being relatively undeveloped (private cars are banned from Kamikochi, only buses or taxis can be used) provides a unique opportunity to really connect with the Takayama nature. Spend your time here exploring the fantastic Takayama hiking trails and looking for local monkeys and native birds!
The Sanno festival takes place in Spring time and is the festival of the Hie Shrine. During Autumn you will find the Hachiman Festival which celebrates the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine. Sacred palanquins are accompanied by lion dancers dressed in ceremonial garb. The extravagantly decorated floats exhibiting craft of the Hida region are a sight to be seen. Look out for some of the floats which are topped with marionettes. The puppeteers perform fantastic traditional dances, backed by an electric atmosphere of celebrating festival goers and traditional music for everyone to enjoy.
Things to do in Takayama
Once you’re in Takayama, the city is best explored on foot or by bicycle which you can rent. Old town can also be toured by rickshaws called jinrikisha. Our Takayama guide will walk you through the very best things to see and do once you’re here. You could easily spend two or three days exploring all that the city and surrounding area has to offer. If you’re a mountain or nature lover, try and allow even longer to really make the most of your Takayama visit.
Old Town (San-machi)
San-machi is the oldest neighbourhood in the well-preserved castle town of Takayama. You will find a range of shops, restaurants, museums and private houses all built in the traditional Japanese style. The beautiful streets lined with traditional, dark wooden buildings provide a glimpse into what life would have been like in the past. The old-town is best enjoyed by a leisurely walk, taking in the details of the very-well preserved architecture.
Matsuri no Mori
A fascinating museum which showcases key aspects of the Takayama festival. You will find examples of the festival carts, mechanised Karakuri dolls and giant taiko drums which are said to be the largest in the world. In case you’re unable to make it during the actual festival dates, you can still take a glimpse into what is experienced during the famous festivals.
Higashiyama Temple Walk
When considering your options for your Takayama sightseeing, the Higashiyama Walking Course is a pleasant route that winds through temples, shrines and cemeteries offering great views along the way. The 3.5km trail is generally fairly quiet so you can enjoy the beauty of the scenery without crowds of people. The best time of year is during Autumn when the colours of the trees are stunning.
Takayama Showa Museum
An immersive museum may not be what springs to mind when you plan to visit Takayama, but that’s exactly what the Takayama Showa Museum delivers. Pop culture trinks from the Showa period (1926 - 1989) showcases an intricate array of nostalgic items and displays. From 1950’s barber shops to 1960’s style theatres, you can take a virtual walk through the six decades of Japanese pop culture. No matter the Takayama weather, the museum is a great place to explore over a few hours.
A ryokan is a type of traditional Japanese inn that features typically tatami-matted rooms, communal baths and a glimpse into traditional Japanese life and culture. A surge in Takayama tourism has ensured the highest quality of Ryokan. Converse with the owners, try out the traditional Yukata robes and soak in the homely atmosphere, that you just can’t get in a hotel.
Hida beef comes from a black-haired cow that is bred in the Hida region for at least 14 months. The marbling specifically is known to be some of the highest quality meat on the market. Marbling fat texture ensures great taste, aroma and tenderness. Try a Hida Beef Bun or Hida Beef Nigiri for a Takayama taste sensation!
Deliciously simple, a bowl of Hida ramen is one of our favourite dishes to try when you visit Takayama. Distinguished by its thin curly noodles and light soup made from soy sauce and broth, Hida or Takayama Ramen is one of the main types of ramen eaten in the area. Eat like a local and taste as many as you can! Each ramen master has a secret recipe for their broth, so no two will ever be exactly alike.
Get in quick, before all of the Soba is gone! Many restaurants in Takayama have a very limited amount of their locally grown soba (buckwheat noodles). Often served alongside high quality Hida beef, spring onions, wild plants, grated yam and nameko mushrooms. For vegetarians you can also order your soba with tofu instead of beef. One of our top Takayama travel tips is to stop by Hida Soba Kofune which has been around since 1936 and has one of the best secret sauces we have ever tried, passed down from generation to generation. Sake Tasting
What better fun is there to get involved in a sake tasting? The hands-on activity teaches sake-culture, traditions and the history of sake. Many will also teach you how to pair each sake with certain foods. There are many tastings offered throughout the old town, just look for the ‘Sake Tasting’ signs, enquire within and enjoy getting to experience this important part of Japanese culture.
Side visits from Takayama
There’s no doubt that Takayama is well worth a visit in its own right. However there are so many fantastic places to explore in the surrounding areas. For those seeking glorious mountain views, fantastic hot springs or great walking trails, basing yourself in Takayama makes for the perfect home base.
Okuhida is located in a remote region of Gifu Prefecture, technically teetering the expansive official borders of Takayama City. It’s most famous for it’s hot spring, rotemburo (outdoor baths) with unbelievable views of the surrounding Northern Japanese Alps. If you have the time, Okuhida is best enjoyed overnight whilst staying in a rustic ryokan.
A miniature version of Takayama, Hida-Furukawa is a quaint riverside town full of historic, wooden buildings. The canal-lined streets offer a more quiet atmosphere than Takayama and is a great escape for anyone who is looking to add relaxing exploration to their Takayama itinerary.
Dominating the landscape at 3026metre, Mt Norikura is the third highest peak in the Northern Japanese Alps. The potentially active volcano draws an intriguing mix of hikers, pilgrims and summer skiers from all over Japan. The Mt. Norikura Snow Resort is known for its great conditions, fluffy white powder, a long run of 3.5 kilometres and adventurous off-piste skiing options.
Mount Hakusan stands as one of Japan’s Three Sacred Mountains (along with Mt. Fuji, Mt Tateyama). Since ancient times it has been revered as a mountain of worship. The mountain towers high above the surrounding peaks and has a particularly special history. Mountain climbing is said to have originated here after Buddhist monk Taicho was the first to reach the summit in 717. Ever since, the tradition of mountain climbing has been viewed as a pilgrimage. There are ten main hiking routes to the top of Mt. Hakusan takes around 8-10 hours to complete.
Long considered a wild and unexplored area, Shirakawa-go was a village that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long time. The large houses which have steep thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. For years the cultivation of mulberry trees and rearing of silkworms supported the survival of the village. Despite economic upheavals, Shirakawa-go is an exceptional example of how locals have lived off the land for centuries.
Gero is a small town nestled in the hills in Gifu Prefecture and has been known for it’s hot springs since the 10th century. The waters of Gero are said to be particularly good for relieving neuralgia, skin complaints and rheumatism. Whilst here, you can also visit the Gero Onsen Museum which exhibits historical documents of the town's history as an onsen resort. The fame of the onsen town has been bringing visitors from all around the world since the 10th century, always promising a relaxing soak alongside a great glimpse into the history of Onsen.
Takayama is the heart of Japan’s inland mountain culture which offers an authentic glimpse into the history and culture of Japan. Not only is the scenery breathtaking, the warm hospitality of the locals and excellent array of cuisine that you can only experience here makes the journey to this magical city absolutely worth it. Takayama travel will be something different for every traveller. Some will remember it for the best ryokan they ever stayed in and others will remember it for the exhilarating feeling of summiting one of the nearby mountains. There really is something for everyone and it is a place in Japan that simply cannot be missed.
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