On the Gifu-ken side of the Central Alps in an area known as Hida, the busy tourist town of Takayama (高山), 110km northeast of Nagoya, was once an enclave of skilled carpenters employed by emperors to build palaces and temples in Kyoto and Nara. Takayama’s appeal today lies in its old merchant houses, small museums, tranquil temples and shrines clustered into a compact area. An easy day-trip is Furukawa, a mini version of Takayama, but generally minus the crowds. Takayama can also be used as a base from which to visit the picturesque Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama valleys, where three villages of A-frame thatched houses have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
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Takayama’s main tourist draw is the San-machi Suji, but if you have more time there are also worthwhile attractions west of the train station, in particular the Hida Folk Village.
With its old white-walled storehouses by the canal, sake breweries and temples decorated with intricate woodcarvings, charming Furukawa (古川) is like a compact version of Takayama, without the crowds. The sleepy riverside town comes alive during its annual spring matsuri. You can see what the festival is like at the Hida Furukawa Matsuri Kaikan (飛騨古川まつり会館), five minutes’ walk west of the station. Here you can inspect three of the nine yatai, as well as watch a three-dimensional film of the festival and a computer-controlled performance by one of the puppets decorating the yatai. Local craftsmen work here, too. The drums used in the festival are in an open hall on the square in front of the main hall. Also on the square is the Hida Craftsmens Cultural Hall, or Hida-no-Takumi Bunkakan (飛騨の匠文化館), which has displays highlighting local carpenters’ art and skills, showing how buildings are made from jointed wooden beams without the use of nails. A ¥1000 ticket covers entry to both museums.
Immediately south of the square is the Shirakabe-dozō district, where a row of traditional storehouses stands beside a narrow, gently flowing canal that is packed with carp. From here, a five-minute walk east along the canal will take you to Honkō-ji (本光寺), an attractive temple decorated with the intricate carving and carpentry for which the town is famous. From the temple, return to the town centre along Ichino-machi-dōri, where you’ll find the two-hundred-year-old candle shop Mishima (三嶋); a candlemaker gives regular demonstrations. On this street, you’ll also find Furukawa’s two sake breweries – Kaba (蒲) and Watanabe (渡辺); both will happily let you sample their products whether you buy or not.
One of the region’s liveliest annual festivals, the Furukawa Matsuri (April 19 & 20) celebrates the arrival of spring with grand parades of wonderfully decorated floats (yatai). The highlight is the Okoshi Daiko procession, which starts at 9pm on April 19 and runs until about 2am: led by over a thousand people carrying lanterns, hundreds of men, clad only in baggy white underpants and belly bands, compete to place small drums, tied to long poles, atop a portable stage that bears the huge main drum, which is all the while being solemnly thumped. The men also balance atop poles and spin around on their stomachs. Extra late-night trains and buses run on festival days between Takayama and Furukawa. The yatai and mikoshi processions happen during the day.
Hida Folk Village
West of Takayama Station are a few more worthwhile sights, the best of which is the Hida Folk Village, or Hida Minzoku-mura (飛騨民俗村), twenty minutes’ walk from the station, in a lovely hillside location overlooking the mountains. This outdoor museum of over twenty traditional buildings gathered from the Hida area is fascinating to wander around, especially if you’re not planning on visiting the gasshō-zukuri thatched houses of the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama districts.
The main entrance is roughly 600m uphill, past the first car park and old houses, opposite a row of giftshops. You’re free to explore inside the houses, many of which have displays of farm implements and folk crafts relating to their former owners. The four old houses next to the ticket gate offer a chance to see real artists working at traditional crafts such as lacquering and woodcarving; those at the bottom of the hill comprise the Hida Folk Museum, but are little different from those in the main village. If you don’t fancy walking or cycling to the museum, take a bus; they run to the village every thirty minutes during the day. The Hida-no-Sato Setto-ken discount ticket includes return bus fare and entrance to the village.
On the road up to the Hida Folk Village, you’ll pass the elegant and modern Hida Takayama Museum of Art (飛騨高山美術館), which contains a wonderful glass collection and Art Nouveau interiors. Near the entrance is a beautiful glass fountain by René Lalique, which once stood in the Paris Lido; further on, the collection includes lustrous objets d’art by Gallè, Tiffany glass lamps and the interior designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Vienna Secessionists. The museum also has a pleasant café.
With its golden roof, topped with what looks like a huge red snooker ball, you can’t miss the enormous Main World Shrine, roughly 1km west of Hida Folk Village. This is the headquarters of the Sūkyō Mahikari sect, which combines elements of Shintō with Buddhism and was founded in 1959 by businessman Okada Kotama, after he claimed to have received “revelations” from God. Inside, check out the shrine’s stupendous architecture, built like a stage set for a cast of thousands and including a bizarre replica of Mexico City’s Quetzalcoatl Fountain and two vaguely Islamic-looking towers.
The morning markets
Every day, from 7am (6am in summer) until around noon, Takayama has two morning markets (asa ichi), which are well worth getting up early to attend. The fruit and veg market is held in front of the jin’ya, while the larger, more tourist-orientated market is strung out along the east bank of the Miya-gawa, between the Kaji-bashi and Yayoi-bashi bridges. Here, apart from pickles and flowers, you can buy local handicrafts, including sarubobo, the little fabric baby monkeys seen all over Takayama, grab a coffee or locally brewed beer, and sample the sweet marshmallow snack tamaten.
The Hida area has been well known for its sake for over 400 years; at one time there were some 56 breweries in Takayama. Now there are just six functioning ones in San-machi Suji – Hirata (平田), Harada (原田), Kawashiri (川尻), Niki (二木), Hirase (平瀬) and Tanabe (田邊), all easily spotted by the balls of cedar leaves hanging above their entrances. Winter is the main sake-making season, and between mid-January and the end of February each brewery takes it in turns to provide a free tour of their facilities – check with the tourist office for details.
Sakurayama Hachiman-gū and Higashiyama Teramachi
Five minutes’ walk northeast of the Kusakabe Mingeikan is Takayama’s main shrine, Sakurayama Hachiman-gū (桜山八幡宮), dating back to the fourth century. Here you’ll find the Takayama Yatai Kaikan, the entrance charge to which includes the Sakurayama-Nikkō-kan, a hall displaying a dazzling one-tenth-scale replica of 28 buildings from Nikkō’s Tōshōgū shrine, where a computer controls the lighting to reproduce sunrise and sunset.
It’s also worth checking out the enjoyable demonstration of automated karakuri puppets in the Shishi Kaikan (獅子会館), on the south side of the shrine. A video of a shishi (mythical lion) dance, common to festivals in the Takayama area, is screened at regular intervals during the day, and you can also see many lion masks and musical instruments used in these dances.
Following the narrow Enako-gawa southeast, towards the hills from the Sakurayama Hachiman-gū, will bring you to the tranquil Higashiyama Teramachi (東山寺町) area, where thirteen temples and five shrines are dotted among the soaring pine trees and linked by a pleasant walk that goes over the river to Shiroyama-kōen. This wooded park stands on the remains of Lord Kanamori’s castle, destroyed over three hundred years ago; you can still trace the donjon’s foundations on the top of the hill. The route is signposted and you can pick up a map from the tourist information office.
Around ten minutes’ walk from the station, on the east bank of the Miya-gawa, is the San-machi Suji (三町筋) area of dark wooden merchant houses dating from the mid-nineteenth century. The quarter’s main three narrow streets are most evocative at dusk, when the crowds have thinned. During the day, you’ll have to negotiate your way through rickshaws and tourists pottering in and out of craft shops, cafés and sake breweries.
Before you cross the Miya-gawa, drop by the town’s feudal-era government complex, Takayama-jin’ya (高山陣屋), at the end of Hachikenmachi-dōri, five minutes’ walk southeast of the station. This small-scale palace, originally built in 1615 and the only building of its kind left in Japan, was the seat of power for the Hida area’s governor, appointed by the shogun. Most of the buildings seen today, including a torture chamber and a rice storehouse, date from reconstruction in 1816, and the best way to explore them is to go on one of the free guided tours in English (around 45min).
San-machi Suji has a plethora of small and generally uninteresting museums. The best is the handsome Kusakabe Mingeikan (日下部民芸館), the home of the Kusakabe family, dating from 1879, and an outstanding example of Takayama’s renowned carpentry skills. In the shaded courtyard between the main home and the storehouses, now stocked with folk crafts, you’ll be offered a refreshing cup of tea and a rice cracker.
Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1995, the picturesque villages of the Shirakawa-gō (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) areas, northwest of Takayama, were among the many fabled bolt holes of the Taira clan after their defeat at the battle of Dannoura. Until the mid-twentieth century, these communities, with their distinctive, thatched A-frame houses, were almost entirely cut off from fast-modernizing Japan. The damming of the Shō-kawa in the 1960s, together with the drift of population away from the countryside, threatened the survival of this rare form of architecture called gasshō-zukuri. In 1971, local residents began a preservation movement, which has been so successful that the trio of villages – Ogimachi in Gifu-ken, and Suganuma and Ainokura in neighbouring Toyama-ken – is now in danger of being swamped by visitors. It is still worth braving the crowds to see these remarkable thatched buildings, in idyllic valleys surrounded by forests and mountains, but to feel the full magic of the places, arrange to stay overnight in a minshuku in a gasshō-zukuri house.
The last of the three World Heritage Site villages, and perhaps the loveliest, is AINOKURA (相倉), 4km further north of Kaminashi. The bus will drop you on the main road, a five-minute walk from the village, which nestles on a hillside and will not take you more than an hour to look around – make sure you hike up the hill behind the main car park for a great view. You could also while away a little more time in the Ainokura Minzoku-kan (相倉民族館; daily 8.30am–5pm; ¥200), a tiny museum of daily life, including examples of the area’s handmade paper and toys.
Appealing as it is, Ainokura’s charms can be all but obscured as you battle past yet another group of camera-toting day-trippers. To experience the village at its best stay overnight, making sure you reserve well in advance – they don’t like people just showing up here. Seven of the gasshō-zukuri offer lodging, including Nakaya (なかや) and Goyomon (五ヨ門). If you’re just visiting for the day, Matsuya (まつや), serving soba, tempura and sweets, is a friendly place for lunch and they’ll look after your bags while you wander around.
If you’re heading to Ainokura from the Sea of Japan coast, take a train from Takaoka to Jōhana (城端), where you can pick up the bus to the Gokayama area.
In the shadow of the sacred mountain Hakusan, OGIMACHI (荻町) is home to 114 gasshō-zukuri houses, the largest collection within the Shirakawa-gō area of the Shō-kawa valley. Many of the thatched houses were moved here when threatened by the damming of the Shō-kawa, and this makes for rather a contrived scene, not helped by the major road that cuts through its centre, bringing a daily overdose of tourists. Even so, this is a real village, populated by families living in most of these houses, farming rice and other crops in the surrounding fields.
Gasshō-zukuri means “praying hands”, because the sixty-degree slope of the thatched gable roofs is said to recall two hands joined in prayer. The sharp angle is a way of coping with the heavy snowfall in this area and the size of the houses is the result of generations of the same family living together. The upper storeys of the home were used for industries such as making gunpowder and cultivating silkworms. The thatched roofs – often with a surface area of around six hundred square metres – are made of susuki grass, native to the northern part of the Hida region (wooden shingles were used in the south), and have to be replaced every 25 to 35 years.
Since it can cost ¥20 million to rethatch an entire roof, many of the houses fell into disrepair until the government stepped in with grants in 1976, which enabled the locals to keep up their house-building traditions. The local preservation society decides which buildings are most in need of repair each year and helps organize the yui, a two-hundred-strong team who work together to rethatch a roof in just one day. Despite these initiatives, however, there are now fewer than two hundred examples of gasshō-zukuri houses left in the Hida region.
Route 156 along the Shō-kawa valley tunnels through the mountains, running for the most part alongside the frequently dammed river as it meanders north. Some 10km from Ogimachi, the road passes the quaint hamlet of SUGANUMA (菅沼), featuring nine gasshō-zukuri, beside a sharp bend in the river. Pop into the Gokayama Minzoku-kan (五箇山民族館), made up of two houses, one displaying artefacts from daily life, the other detailing the production of gunpowder, made here because the remote location allowed the ruling Kaga clan to keep it secret.
Some 4km from Suganuma, the modern village of Kaminashi is worth a stop to inspect the Murakami-ke (村上家), one of the oldest houses in the valley, dating from 1578. The owner gives guided tours around the tatami rooms, pointing out the sunken pit beside the entrance where gunpowder was once made, and finishing with spirited singing of folk tunes accompanied by a performance of the bin-zasara, a rattle made of wooden strips.
Takayama’s festivals and Yatai
Takayama’s two famous festivals are the Sannō Matsuri (April 14–15) and the Hachiman Matsuri (Oct 9–10), when eleven huge elaborate yatai (floats), adorned with mechanical dolls (karakuri), are paraded around town, a spectacle that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. If you’re not in town for the festivals you can still view four of the yatai at the Takayama Yatai Kaikan (高山屋台会館), a large exhibition hall within the grounds of the shrine Sakurayama Hachiman-gū (櫻山八幡宮). At least once a year all eleven floats and the golden mikoshi (portable shrine) are displayed inside the huge glass case that you wind your way around at different levels so you can see all of the decoration closely. Many of the floats date from the seventeenth century and are usually stored in the tall storehouses (yatai-gura) that you’ll notice around Takayama.