Favourite Places in Japan: Takayama

Continuing with my posts about my favourite places in Japan, I’m writing about Takayama (高山). I have only been there once – during my time in Japan on the JET Programme in 1994. Although I went through Takayama again many years later on the train from Nagoya to Toyama, I’ve not had a chance yet for another visit, despite the first one making such a good impression.

Living in Seto in central Japan for a year, I often saw pictures of Takayama on the local TV. Takayama particularly got mentioned for its very cold winter and festivals, when there is a procession of some historic floats (Spring festival: 13-15 April, Autumn festival: 9-10 October). However, Takayama is still a wonderful place to visit even when there is no festival.

Even the trip to Takayama is great. You can get there from Matsumoto during summer and spring (snow closes the route until mid-April – as I discovered when trying to drive to Matsumoto after visiting Takayama), but I got there from Nagoya. If you have a car, then make the most of it, although parking is not easy in Takayama, by also taking the opportunity to stop off and look at the sights along the beautiful Hida river valley. This is how I did it in 1994 and I realised many years later that I must have driven past the Hidagawa Bus crash memorial. If you don’t have a car then there’s also a good rail connection from Nagoya, for example.

Although there are newer areas to Takayama, they (at least when I went in 1994) tend to be restricted to the ring-road that skirts round Takayama on its way to Toyama. The central part of Takayama is quiet and beautiful.

As for places to see, the main problem is that they are in different areas of the town, so it’s best to have a car or bike (that can be easily rented from outside the station) to get around. I started off with a stroll around the centre of Takayama. There are some very pleasant old streets (Ichinomachi, Ninomachi and Sannomachi). Along these streets (in particular Sannomachi) are old teahouses, inns, dye houses and sake breweries. It’s the sake breweries that I particularly remember – not just for the latticed windows and doors that preserve their natural state, but mostly for the wonderful smell that lingers around the area. Walking around that part of the city really is like stepping back in time and experiencing something that would have been the norm only a few decades ago in several Japanese cities.

However, when I then went onto the Hida Minzoku-mura (on the other side of the railway line), I stepped back another few decades. This ‘folk village’ is a collection of old traditional farmhouses. The buildings are not that different to those seen in many European countries a few hundred years ago, and in late winter with snow lying around and a bitterly cold wind, one really got a feel for how hard life must have been then (I saw a similar one many years later in Ueno-mura also). There are also some demonstrations of traditional skills at various times that add to the experience.

After that I went back to the central area of Takayama and briefly looked around at some of the other sites. When I went some of the floats were on display, the others are in a museum. There are also several lovely temples that are linked by a special route. I decided to go to a few of them, from some of them I got very good views of Takayama, and by then the sunset over the mountains.

There are so many other places that I did not see, such as the Takayama City Provincial Hall and the Archaeology Museum, but I saw enough to give me a good impression of the city, and make me feel that I would like to return there again one day.

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