Places in Japan: One Fantastic Day in Historic Takayama

Reesan from loneleeplanet has started up a new blogging festival called J-Festa to showcase the best of Japan, and this month’s theme is “Places in Japan.” I thought I would use the opportunity to feature a place that I visited last summer. At the time, I was taking advanced Japanese classes at the Kyoto Consortium for Japanese Studies, and as part of the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS), I was given a free one-week Japan Rail Pass. Those of you who have been to Japan know that this is an *amazing* opportunity. With a Japan Rail Pass, you can go pretty much anywhere in the country, and you can even ride the famous shinkansen bullet trains (though not the very fastest class). The only catch?

I only had 36 hours to make my trip.

You see, CLS had already planned a packed itinerary for us that included mainstays such as Hiroshima, Miyajima, Tokyo, and Kamakura, so we only had a little bit of free time with which to use our rail passes.

So, I decided to visit Takayama, one of Japan’s best preserved “traditional” towns and a place I had been wanting to see for quite some time. Takayama was established in the late 16th century as the castle town of the Kanamori clan and came under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1692. The current town still retains the layout from the Kanamori period, and it has over a dozen museums featuring elements of traditional life, as well as a number of sake breweries, markets, and other interesting sights. Although Takayama is a pretty small place, and I was only there for a day, I saw so many interesting things that I could easily fill a half a dozen posts with my photos and stories. So, I’ll try to hit the highlights and give you an overview of what this great place has to offer.

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After a quick trip from Kyoto to Nagoya, I connected to the JR Takayama limited express line. The train ride through the mountains of Gifu was simply gorgeous (although fast trains and low light don’t make for particularly good photographs.) Much of our journey took place along the river, and we got to see a number of pretty dams and waterfalls.

I arrived in Takayama after nightfall and made my way to my accommodations for the evening. Instead of staying in a typical hotel, I decided to stay at the Zenkoji Temple Inn, a real, functioning branch of Nagano’s famous Zenko-ji temple that had been converted to include hostel style accommodations.

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When I arrived, I was escorted through a long hallway surrounding a courtyard garden to a very cute Japanese-style private room. My favorite thing about the room was the shapes of the various windows—the one on the wall to the right (not visible) was shaped like a crescent moon. When I woke up in the morning and the room was dark except for these windows flooded with white light, it made for quite the atmosphere.

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Anyway, if you’re looking for a reasonably priced and atmospheric place to stay (and don’t mind communal bathrooms and the like), I’d recommend this place.

When I woke up in the morning, I went straight out to explore the town. I was particularly keep to visit some of the asa-ichi (morning markets) that take place every day from 7 am until noon. I went to the Miyagawa Morning Market along the east bank of the Miyagawa river. Local farmers sold produce and other handmade items, and there were also a number of shops selling local souvenirs.

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The most interesting of the souvenirs was the saru-bobo (literally, “baby monkeys”), dolls of colored (typically red) fabric with pointy limbs and featureless faces. In earlier days, grandmothers in this then-impoverished town used to make these kinds of dolls for children. Since they hoped for the happiness and good health of the children, local vendors tell you that you too can be happy, if you have one of these dolls.

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One of the key highlights of Takayama is just walking down its streets, which are still lined with traditional low-roofed buildings. You can look at the homes of former merchants, many of which have been restored, or you can wander into museums featuring a wide variety of work by local craftspeople. The two shots below were taken at the Hirata Folk Art Museum, a restored house filled with everything from carvings to pottery to antique hair decorations.

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Being the museum enthusiast that I am, I also visited two more museums, the Takayama Matsuri Yataikaikan and the Nikko-kan, both of which reside on the grounds of a hillside shrine called Sakurayama Hachimangu. The Takayama Matsuri Yataikaikan displays a rotating selection of the yatai (floats) used in the annual Takayama Matsuri (Festival). Some of these floats date back to the 17th century and feature incredibly ornate carvings, lacquer, and metalwork. Some also feature mechanical puppets that perform complicated tricks and routines.

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I have to say that I found the Nikko-kan incredibly impressive. Nikko is a very famous Japanese city located about 140 km north of Tokyo, home to Nikko Tosho-gu, a Shinto shrine that houses the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Takayama’s Nikko-kan houses a one-tenth scale replica of this incredibly ornate 28-building temple complex. It took 15 years and 33 carpenters to create this replica during the Taisho era (1912-1925). The replica was shown in various parts of the United States after World War II and at the Aoi Exposition in Okazaki in 1987. After that, the replica was designated to be stored at the Sakurayama Hachimangu shrine “eternally” by the owner’s will.

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And just to take things one step further, the Nikko-kan has a computerized lighting system that reproduces the day from sunrise to sunset at Nikko. It’s almost like really being there!

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Having made a pretty good attempt at seeing things in Takayama proper, I then caught a bus out of town to Hida-no-Sato—also known as the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village—a huge open-air museum of almost 30 traditional farmhouses built in the unique architectural style of Japan’s mountainous areas.

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This area’s signature architectural style is the thatch-roofed gassho-zukuri, which look utterly unlike the structures you see most other places in Japan.  Gassho-zukuri means “clasped hands,” and these buildings have very steep roofs designed to allow rain and snow to fall straight off, preventing water from getting through and preventing the thatch from getting too wet and beginning to rot. The buildings that now reside in the Hida Folk Village used to be separated by miles and miles—they were transferred from their original locations to the open-air museum for preservation, so they reflect a number of different styles. Visitors can actually go inside most of the buildings, which are filled with displays of traditional tools or crafts.

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After a couple of hours wandering around the open-air museum, I took the bus back to town and concluded my time in Takayama by sampling one of its famous foods: Hida-gyu (Hida beef). You’ve heard of the wonderfully delicious Kobe beef, right? Well, Kobe beef is just one type of wagyu, several breeds of Japanese cattle genetically predisposed to intense marbling and a high percentage of unsaturated fat. There are five different areas that are home to the major breeds of wagyu, and Hida is one of them. I’m a huge fan of yakiniku (bite-size pieces of meat grilled meat, or “Japanese barbeque”), so I decided to have my Hida-gyu yakiniku-style. Here’s a shot of my dinner, pre-grilling:

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Makes me hungry just looking at it!

And with that, you have the story of my very quick, very productive, and very fun 36-hour excursion to Takayama. If you’re looking for a bit of the traditional, and you’d like to see something a little less common (or if it’s really hot and you’re looking for someplace a few degrees cooler than the Kansai region), I’d really recommend this place. It’s small, but it’s packed with quaint and interesting things to see and do. I was really impressed with how tourist-friendly it was—even if you don’t speak any Japanese, you’ll be fine. Things are well marked, and even if the locals don’t speak English, they’re incredibly friendly and seem to genuinely want all of their tourist to have a good time. (You can imagine how important tourism is to this area.) If I had more time, I would have spent more time in the museums, checked out a couple of the sake breweries, and maybe gone out to surrounding places like Shirakawa-go.

Or, if you’re on the other side of Honshu, Kanazawa is another traditional town that really gives you a feel for “old” Japan.

J-Festa

The rest of the featured entries for July’s J-Festa are now posted here.  Check it out for interesting articles on 27 other places in Japan!

I’ve also submitted this post to Travel Photo Thursday, another fun blogging showcase that I recently stumbled upon. Happy blogging!

Note: This post was Freshly Pressed on July 22, 2011. Thank you all for stopping by–I look forward to reading your comments and to checking out your blogs!

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