This post was last updated on June 11th, 2020 at 01:43 pm
The town of Takayama is wedged between snowy mountain peaks in the heart of the Japanese Alps. A place where you travel back in time thanks to the ancient center, which consists of narrow streets with historic wooden merchant houses, sake breweries, and tea houses. The street scene has changed little here over the centuries and if you disregard the tourists, you’ll feel like you’re on the set of an old Japanese movie.
After a stay in intoxicating Japanese metropolises like Kyoto and Tokyo, it takes some getting used to the serene tranquility on the street, but trust us: the fresh mountain air gets comfortable quickly. Wondering what you can do in one of the best-preserved historical towns in Japan? In this article, we share our tips.
Step Back in Time on Sanmachi Street
When you walk from Takayama Station towards the Miyagawa River, you will pass many coffee shops, bakeries, specialty beer cafes, and beautiful streets, creating a cozy atmosphere. Afterward, walk across the red Nakabashi Bridge and you will end up in the iconic old town of Takayama.
The main attraction in this area is Sanmachi Street. When you walk here, you instinctively go back in time. You will find completely intact wooden houses and shops, dating from the Edo period that ran from 1600 to 1868. Think of craft shops, such as sake breweries and shops where they make and sell handmade clothing.
At the start of Sanmachi Street, you’ll sometimes see “rickshaws”. This is an ancient Japanese form of transport in which a young man pulls the cart, which often contains two ladies dressed in kimono. Nowadays they are also used throughout Japan to give tourists a local experience.
If you arrive after 09:00 a.m., this picturesque street will already be almost completely overrun by tourists. We will certainly not romanticize it. We took the photos above and below at around 8:00 a.m. when it is still nice and quiet.
Hike Through the Beautiful Shiroyama Park
We were very surprised by the Shiroyama Park. Just behind the center, you can walk straight into the hills, where you can enjoy temples, shrines, and castle ruins in addition to nature. The best part to us, however, was the incredibly bright autumn colors, which were especially visible in the lower areas.
There are several winding paths you can walk in and eventually you will end up in the bustling center of Takayama. A route that you can follow is the Higashiyama Walking Course, which is about 3.5 kilometers long.
We’re not kidding when we tell you to watch out for bears. There are even warning signs. Fortunately, we have not encountered them, although there is a chance. You’ll even see people with so-called bear bells walking around to scare the animals, just to make sure they don’t come close.
Eat Ramen with Wafer-thin Wagyu Steak
Takayama is more than just picturesque. The town is famous for its Hida steak, which is one of the better Wagyu varieties in the country. Unlike most ramen in Japan that is usually served with pork, Takayama offers ramen with this local steak. We recommend Le Midi and Menya TOTO.
On top of the noodle soup, with a beef bone stock, are paper-thin slices of Hida beef, some vegetables, and possibly a boiled egg. Really delicious.
By the way, keep in mind that Hida steak is far from cheap. You pay about twice as much for a bowl, compared to the variant made with pork. But it’s definitely worth the experience.
View One of the Many Temples and Shrines
Admittedly, the temples and shrines you will find in Takayama are not very special, but it is still worth taking a look at some of these shrines. You can take a tour of Higashiyama Teramachi, the temple district of the city. Incidentally, the aforementioned Higashiyama Walking Course also takes you there.
For example, walk to the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine, which you reach through a red torii gate. The location in the hills and the huge trees that are there make for a beautiful setting. Especially if you have just been in the busy center, it will feel like an oasis of peace here.
Another must-visit is the Soyuji Temple, where you will hardly encounter people, just like at the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine. Nearby you will find the Sogenji Temple and the Unruyi Temple. It is nice to continue walking towards this location. There are some rice fields there where locals are working every now and then.
Finally, you can visit the Hida Kokubun-Ji Temple near the station, a spiritual place where you will regularly see locals pray. A little further along the river, you will also find the Takayama Jinya, a former government building decorated in a beautiful Japanese way.
Visit the Nearby Village of Hida no Sato
Also known as “Hida Folk Village”, Hida no Sato is only a 20-minute drive from Takayama and is the smaller and less touristy alternative to Shirakawa-go discussed below. In this village, which was transformed into an open-air museum in 1971, there are 30 authentic wooden farmhouses with thatched roofs. Originally these Gassho houses were located elsewhere, but they have been moved to the open-air museum of Hida no Sato in order to preserve them as well as possible.
Besides walking around and taking pictures it is nice to follow a workshop. It teaches you to make all kinds of things in a traditional way. Think key chains with beads, local sarubobo dolls, and ceramic pots. You can follow a workshop at the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Center and you don’t have to book in advance.
Visit Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a small village with similar photogenic wooden houses like in Hida no Sato. On arrival, it soon became clear that we were not alone. Hordes of tourists wash up all day long, wanting to see how special the village is. Well, if you keep this in mind, you’ll at least be prepared for it.
The best view is at the top of the Tenshukaku Observatory, which you can access via two roads. The path through the forest is the most adventurous and the most fun. After an hour or two, you’ve probably seen everything in Shirakawa-go. You can then go back to Takayama, or take the bus for example to Kanazawa. Or you can combine your visit to Shirakawa-go with Gokayama. This village is similar to Shirakawa-go, only much less touristy.
How do you get there? From Takayama, buses run every hour that take you to Shirakawa-go in about an hour’s drive. The same goes for Gokayama.
Attend One of the Festivals
Several festivals are held annually in both autumn and spring, the most famous of which is Takayama Matsuri. And not without reason, because together with Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and Chichibu Yomatsuri, it is officially one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan.
If you are in Japan in the spring or fall, you must visit Takayama during one of the harvest festivals. On April 14 and 15, and on October 9 and 10, richly decorated floats (yatai) pass through the city to pray for a good harvest (spring) and to express gratitude for a good harvest (autumn).
The spring festival in particular is a great spectacle that attracts thousands of people. Are you unable to be in Takayama during the festival? The rest of the year you can visit the special Karakuri Museum and the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan, where the floats are exhibited.
Just one more thing to add: it gets very crowded.
Shopping in the Morning Market
It pays off to set your alarm because early in the morning, around 7 o’clock, the streets in Takayama become very active. Like the locals, head to the market early in the morning to shop. Local farmers sell their products there, but you can also find snacks, flowers, and special souvenirs from local artists. There are two markets every morning: one along the banks of the river and one opposite the Takayama Jinya building.
Spend the Night in an Old Temple
Atmospheric overnight stays for a small budget can be done in the special Zenkoji Temple, within walking distance of the train station and the historic center. The old temple is run by volunteers and is now used as a hostel for travelers who want to learn more about Japanese culture.
You will not come across monks, but it’s still a special experience. You will be assigned a futon mattress on the floor and you can sleep in the prayer hall or in the spaces around it. The temple dates from 1894 and has simple rooms with original Japanese elements such as paper sliding doors and tatami mats, a cozy living room and a large kitchen where you can cook something for yourself. It is advisable to make reservations in advance.
How to Get to Takayama
Takayama is located in the heart of the Japanese Alps and is quite easy to reach by train. If you have a JR pass, you can use the slow train between the cities of Toyama and Nagoya for free. Both can be reached with the super-fast shinkansen. Not a punishment, because you will be treated to beautiful views of forests, mountain peaks, and waterfalls that pass your window along the way.
From Tokyo, it takes more than 4 hours to travel to Takayama, from Kyoto you’ll be on the road for about 3.5 hours. We visited Takayama on a longer tour of the Japanese Alps. You can also combine Takayama with a visit to the snow monkeys in the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Where to Stay in Takayama
Accommodations in Takayama are relatively cheap and in addition, are of very good quality. We stayed at K’s House Takayama Oasis, a cozy place in the middle of the center, near the station, where you can easily meet people. You can get a nice breakfast at Komaya Pan, a bakery with delicious sandwiches that is located a few blocks from the hostel.
If you’re looking for a very nice and traditional Japanese hotel in Takayama, where the staff does everything to make you feel at home, check out Oyado Koto No Yume. The Onsen is also a wonderfully relaxing experience. We recommend trying their traditional Japanese breakfast.
If you have a little more to spend and are looking for a boutique hotel, Eph TAKAYAMA is definitely recommended.
Looking for a more traditional way to spend the night in Takayama? Read about the traditional ryokans below.
Best Ryokans in Takayama
Takayama is not only a travel destination, it is an experience. At least that’s how we think about it. You just have to search a little bit to get the most out of your experience. Perhaps the choice of accommodation is not the first thing that comes to mind when looking for a unique experience. After all, you spend most of your time there with your eyes closed, or at least with the lights off.
A ryokan is a Japanese inn. You sleep on a futon spread on a floor of tatami mats. In addition, you are often served a delicious Japanese meal ranging from 5 to 11 courses. In addition, in a ryokan, you can usually enjoy a bath in a hot spring, an onsen, and sometimes in a beautiful environment.
Ryokans come in all shapes and sizes, from basic to extreme luxury. Here are some of the best ryokans in Takayama:
This luxurious Ryokan has both a shared bath (“onsen”) and rooms with a private bathroom. Enjoy delicious Hida cuisine at dinner, with the dishes freshly prepared using local seasonal ingredients, which are used to their full potential. Ryokan Asunaro is a short 10-minute walk from Takayama station, the morning market, and the historic center of Takayama.
Open the ‘fusuma’ doors (Japanese sliding doors made of cardboard and paper) and you will see the ‘tatami’ mats and the Japanese ‘futon’ beds. You will sleep in a traditional Japanese accommodation tonight, a nice experience! With or without a private bathroom; both are possible. An ‘onsen’ is also available.
Get to know traditional Japanese cuisine in the evening! The owner of the Ryokan speaks great English and will help you make your visit to Takayama as comfortable as possible. Ryokan Murayama is about a 20-25 minute walk from Takayama station. If you call them (e.g. from the Information Center, opposite the station), Ryokan Murayama will arrange a transfer between 2:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. (you can return to the station at 8:20 a.m., 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m.).
TIP – Near Ryokan Murayama lies a renovated 200-year-old Gassho-zukuri farm. Now it serves as the world’s first teddy bear museum. If you’re traveling with children, it is nice to take a look here (note: the museum is not always open).
One of the most historical ryokans in Takayama is Ryokan Tanabe. The staff comes to the room in the evening to put futons on the floor. They were very professional and efficient and it was an interesting experience to see them at work. You can also get a great kaiseki dinner and breakfast there – which we absolutely recommend, the ingredients are very fresh and healthy.
Oyado Yamakyu also has an onsen and we opted for dinner in the hotel, which is known to be very good. The room is in a traditional Japanese style with a table, three chairs, and Kimonos waiting for us. The ryokan host explains that during dinner, the hotel staff will prepare the beds (futons) for us. We slept very comfortably even though it was on the tatami mats. Definitely a once in a lifetime experience.