Recently when I was slowly making my way back to Tokyo from Komatsu up in Ishikawa Prefecture, I had the shocking revelation that I’ve yet to feature the famous town of Hida-Takayama on this blog. Despite using a photo of the village’s iconic Nakabashi Bridge as my header image for close to a decade now, I somehow neglected to write about Hida-Takayama. While I could, of course, explain away my oversight, I doubt you’re interested in hearing the excuse that my visit predated my time as a content creator. So, without further ado, allow me to rectify my mistake and introduce you to one of the top spots in central Japan.
Frankly speaking, many of you are likely already aware of Hida-Takayama by now. In recent years, the town and its traditional buildings have skyrocketed in popularity with international tourists. All things considered, one could say that Hida-Takayama easily ranks as the prime candidate for travelers wishing to add a rural element into their itineraries. Thus, given that so many people come to Hida-Takayama for its beautifully preserved buildings and its historic character, it’s really hard to say that it is a “hidden gem” anymore like when I first visited.
Historically, Hida-Takayama was one of a few places that were under the direct control of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period (1603–1868). Thanks to the region’s dense forests, this portion of the country was considered to be one of Japan’s most economically important places. The high quality of the timber and other resources from this natural environment attracted many master craftsmen over the years and even now Hida-Takayama’s traditional crafts are considered to be top tier all throughout Japan. As you’ll see in a later section, the town also offers ample opportunities to try your hand at these crafts too.
One thing I do need to note though is that Hida-Takayama really has grown to become one of Japan’s most popular semi-off-the-beaten-path locations. Thus, you really are going to need to go out of your way to avoid the crowds. One suggestion might be to overnight in one of Hida-Takayama’s traditional ryokans. By lodging in one of these Japanese-style inns, you can get an early start on the day and hopefully get a chance to see the traditional buildings of Hida-Takayama before the legions of both foreign and domestic tourists descend upon the town.
By the way, I’ll opt to use the term Hida-Takayama throughout this article for consistency but many other sources just refer to this hamlet as Takayama (meaning “High Mountain” in Japanese). Given that the name is used for many places all throughout Japan though, this can get incredibly confusing. Thus, I’ll elect to stick to the moniker of Hida-Takayama when referencing this town in the Japanese Alps but keep this in mind if you do any research on your own.
How to Get There
Let’s pause for a second to cover some key logistics. Seeing as Hida-Takayama is located in the mountainous Hida region of central Japan, you’re going to need to take a JR limited express train to get here. These depart both from Nagoya and Toyama Prefecture so the journey to this northern part of Gifu Prefecture will largely depend on where you’re starting the trip from. For most tourists, Nagoya will be where the journey commences but those up in Hokuriku should know that they can come down via Toyama Station too.
In my case, I was coming back to Tokyo from Komatsu when I recently revisited Hida-Takayama. Regardless of which way you approach though, you’ll want to defer to a service like Jorudan to help you calculate the most efficient means of travel. Your final destination will be Takayama Station. From there, many of the points of interest are located within 5–10 minutes walking distance. Alternatively, you can also make your way around by bus too should that be preferable.
Speaking of buses, while I cannot comment on them personally, I’ve read online that there are direct bus services that run from Tokyo. All in all, it seems that the trip will take somewhere around three hours or so. This might be a good option for those of you coming directly from Tokyo but make sure that you can get there on the day prior to your Hida-Takayama adventures so that you can get up and going before too many travelers arrive for the day.
The Hida-Takayama Old Town
The main allure here is by far the area where the Hida-Takayama “old-town” vibe from the days of yore has been best preserved. Found on the eastern side of the city by the Miyagawa River, this is exactly what people envision when they say that they want to visit this part of Gifu Prefecture. There’s a lot of things to do here so to make things as simple as I can, I am going to opt to include a full list of all the spots along with a link to a Google Map.
- Takayama Jinya
Found toward the southern end of Hida-Takayama’s old town district, Takayama Jinya was once the former local government office. From here, officials dispatched by the Tokugawa shogunate would manage the everyday activities of the city during the Edo period (1603–1868). From what I remember, it seems that the complex was actually in official use until a decade after the conclusion of World War II. Now, it is open to the public as a museum. Entry will cost you a few hundred yen, but it’s definitely worth it.
- Sake Breweries
Nearby Takayama Jinya, you’ll find some amazing local sake breweries. One of these offers sake sampling for just a mere 450 yen. Just get yourself a small tasting cup and then get in line. As you wander through the historic streets of Hida-Takayama, keep your eyes out for these sugidama (balls made of cedar branches) that hang over the entrances of almost all sake breweries in Japan as this will be a tell-tale sign that you’ve found one!
- Morning Markets
Hida-Takayama is home to a pair of morning markets that rank among the best in Japan. The first of these takes place right outside of Takayama Jinya, but the better of the two is known as the Miyagawa Morning Market and can be found along, you guessed it, the Miyagawa River. While you check out the beautifully preserved buildings of Hida-Takayama, be sure to swing by one of the street vendors hawking their edibles and wares at the Miyagawa Morning Market.
- Takayama Castle
Truth be told, there is no longer actually a fortress in Hida-Takayama. However, the former grounds of where the local castle once stood are still there for intrepid souls to explore. Especially during the months of autumn, the natural environment of this hilly part of Hida-Takayama is a great way to get a picturesque glimpse of Hida-Takayama from above the hustle and bustle of the city.
- The Walking Course
From the ruins of the castle, you can walk along the eastern edge of Hida-Takayama. This is an excellent way to experience the quieter side of the town. The walking course will take you past a number of temples and eventually put you out near an interesting museum about the history and culture of Hida-Takayama.
- Yatai Kaikan
We’ll get to the Hida-Takayama Festival in a second but know that this facility is just what the doctor ordered if your time in the city doesn’t happen to coincide with the annual fun. Inside this exhibition hall, you’ll find the autumn festival’s eleven floats on display for you to check out. Adjacent to the Yatai Kaikan, there is also the Nikkokan which showcases impressive models of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine.
Of course, a major part of the allure of Hida-Takayama is just experiencing the historic townscape itself. Thus, I suggest that you budget for ample time to just meander about the town while experiencing this part of Japan. Be sure to sample some of the heavenly Hida beef as well as many of the other street foods while in Hida-Takayama. These all use local produce like soy sauce, mountain vegetables, etc., and are therefore a great way to feel a deeper connection with the town. To wash it down, give the local green tea a try too while you’re at it
The Hida-Takayama Festival
No exposé on Hida-Takayama would be complete without thoroughly featuring the town’s biannual festivals. Held in the spring and then again in the fall, this pair of celebrations collectively ranks as one of the top three festivals in all of Japan alongside Kyoto’s Gion Festival and the Chichibu Night Festival. As a result, the events almost always draw a huge crowd and this means that as travelers visiting Hida-Takayama, you’re going to need to plan well in advance if you want to find accommodations anywhere near the city. Additionally, you’ll also want to secure your transportation too if needed.
The collective Hida-Takayama Festival is broken into two celebrations. The first one is known as the Sanno Festival and takes place on April 14th and 15th, just after the cherry blossoms have started to fade. The spring festival is hosted by Hie Shrine (which is located nearby the site of Takayama Castle) and takes place in the southern sections of town. Thereafter, the Hachiman Festival takes place nearby Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine in the northern half of town from October 9th to 10th.
Both of the two festivals have similar schedules and attractions. Regardless of whether you go during spring or autumn, you’ll see the likes of karakuri performances and the festival floats displayed at the aforementioned Yatai Kaikan being pulled about as well as the sanctuary in charge’s mikoshi (portable shrine) being carried around. All things considered, the real highlight of the Hida-Takayama Festival is the evening events so plan on staying in the city at least until 8:00 or 9:00 PM.
If you want to learn more about the Hida-Takayama Festival but happen to be visiting the region during another time of the year (a high likelihood), you can get a sense of what you’re missing out on over at Matsuri-no-Mori. Located outside of Takayama’s city center, this facility does everything and anything that it can to recreate the experience of the two festivals that this old town in central Japan is so well known for.
Hida-no-Sato Folk Village
Regardless of when you visit, one other spot to add to your itinerary is Hida-no-Sato Folk Village (sometimes also known just as “Hida Folk Village” in English). Located on the outskirts of the city, this open air museum exhibits around 30 or so buildings from the Hida region of Japan. Many of the private houses and other domiciles on display here date from hundreds of years ago and were moved here in 1971 for safekeeping. All exhibited buildings at the Hida-no-Sato Folk Village have been carefully preserved and are all open for guests to explore.
Especially if you don’t plan to go to Shirakawa-go or Gokayama, the Hida-no-Sato Folk Village compound is a great way to experience the charms of the Hida area. Here, you’ll find the iconic thatched roofs that have made the likes of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama so popular in recent years. Be sure not to miss the Hida-Takayama Crafts Experience Center, where you can participate in a number of hands-on workshops too.
Getting to this wonderful add-on to Hida-Takayama is a bit of a pain. While it can be reached on foot from where Takayama Station is located, it’s easier to make use of the local bus services to save time. The Sarubobo Bus has two departures per hour with a ride over to the open air museum costing you 100 yen or so each way.
Don’t Miss Hida-Furukawa
All of the above should keep you pretty busy but if you have some extra time and want to explore a bit more of the region, I suggest you swing by Hida-Furukawa. Located only around 15 minutes or so to the north of Takayama Station by train, Hida-Furukawa is far more laid back than the now-popular town of Hida-Takayama. Like with its cousin though, Hida-Furukawa has a nicely preserved old town as well as a famous festival. While not a “must visit,” it’s a great complement if you have some more time and want to take it slow.
Should you opt to extend your stay in this part of central Japan, you’d do well to at least check out Hida-Furukawa’s canal. Technically named the Seto River, this stream often pops up on social media due to the fact that many carp reside in its waters. The most picturesque section of the canal area is lined by old storehouses with white walls making for a really charming and quaint visual of what Japan would have looked like centuries ago.
Other Nearby Attractions
Thanks to its location in the Northern Japan Alps, the Hida-Takayama area actually allows for many easy additions. Which you will want to explore depends largely on what direction you approached Hida-Takayama from to begin with. For example, if you want to soak away the worries of the world in one of the region’s many hot spring baths, Gero Onsen is not too far down to the south. Pictured above, this hot spring town is one of Japan’s best and makes for the perfect complement to Hida-Takayama for those of you heading down to Nagoya.
Alternatively, you can also head deeper into the mountains and explore an area called Okuhida. This extremely remote region epitomizes getting off the beaten path, and those who look to explore this rural part of the Northern Japan Alps will be treated to relaxing onsen and a spectacular natural environment. Okuhida is home to a number of hot spring hamlets such as Hirayu Onsen, but honestly, I don’t have the space to really do it justice here. Do some research on your own since transportation can be tricky here.
Lastly, know that Hida-Takayama is also a great home base to explore the likes of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. There are handy bus services from Takayama Station, meaning that you can check out either of these two villages. Both are collectively considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but Shirakawa-go is starting to suffer from overtourism these days. Thus, I suggest you go to Gokayama if you are hankering for a more authentic experience.
Until next time travelers…