A Quick Guide to Takayama Japan
I’ve been to Japan before, I’ve done the basics. I’ve sung my fair share of amusing 90s classics while drunk from vending machine tinnies. I've shopped till my little feet screamed 'no more'. I've chased Geisha's around the old streets of Kyoto. So this time, I wanted to do something a little different.
In the heart of Japan, surrounded by the Japanese Alps is Takayama. A quaint little town that still holds its heritage and architecture from the Edo Period (1603-1867).
I’ve never heard of Takayama before. And most people I talk to about it, have never heard of it either. It’s small, well, in Japanese standards. And it's the perfect town to get out of the busy Japanese cities and into an authentic, rural side of Japan.
So here's a quick guide to Takayama Japan.
HOW TO GET THERE
If you plan on getting out of Tokyo, you definitely need to pick up a Japan Rail Pass before you arrive.
They cost AU$360 for the 7 day consecutive pass. I know it sounds like a lot of money, but it costs the same amount to take two trains – a return trip. And once you've activated your pass, you can use it in Tokyo on the JR metro lines.
To get to Takayama you need to take a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, and then a rural train from Nagoya to Takayama. The trip takes around five hours. But the scenery is pretty great along the way. To organise a return trip, you need to visit the JR centre who can activate your card and book your seats. They're really helpful in these centres so ask questions! And don't be freaked out if they ask for a photo of you, I'm assuming it ends up on their website or Facebook page.
Budget/Mid-range: K’s House
K's House has it all. Technically a hostel, it also offers private rooms. It's wonderfully clean, offers a kitchen and communal space, and has very helpful staff. You'll often find K's House all over Japan.
A dorm room with a shared bathroom will put you back AU$40 a night.
Treat yo’ self: Ryoken Asunaro
If you're planning on experiencing Takayama with someone special, then I'd highly recommend treating yourself to a ryoken experience. A ryoken is a traditional Japanese Inn. And Ryoken Asuaro is some serious shit! This place is way more than a hotel, it's a whole experience – from a traditional breakfast, to a traditional room, to bathing in the traditional bathhouse.
Asunaro is run by a beautiful team who really make you feel like family. You might even catch the husband and wife team down at the morning markets.
WHAT TO DO
There's no way you can go to Takayama and not see the old town. It's an absolutely charming array of preserved building that date back to the Edo Period (1600-1868), at a time when the city was thriving with merchants. It's the perfect spot to be transported back in time and see what Japan may have been like thousands of years ago. I don't know about you, but I find that kind of stuff fascinating!
Who doesn't love a good morning market! Along the river, shops open their doors and tents are assembled to welcome the crowds. You can find just about anything at these markets. I personally loved the fashion stores. There's some really interesting clothing being made in Takayama – it's less about fashion, more about comfort and ease of the garment. Start the day with a wander and see what catches your eye.
The first time I had sake was the last time I was in Japan. At 19, we didn't know much about quality over price point, we bought the cheapest bottle of sake we could find. As you can imagine, it tasted the way it sounds. This time with Josh pulling me along, I had a taste of a few different types of sake at two old (ancient even!) breweries, and I was pleasently surprised!
You can tell which buildings are sake breweries by the large balls of cedar branches (known as sugidama) handing over entrances. You'll be surprised how many there are in this little town!
KAWASHIRI SAKE BREWERY Making two to four year old fermented sake. 68 Kamininomachi, Takayama
HIRASE SAKE BREWERY The oldest sake brewery in Takayama. 82 Kami-no-ichi machi, Takayama
There’s something magical about mountains. So I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get up above the clouds. From Takayama station, you can purchase yourself a ticket that takes you on a two hours bus ride through scenic mountain villages to the Shinhataka Ropeway. Two cable cars up and you'll have a picture-perfect panoramic view of the Northern Alps. You can also hike the area – depending on the time of year.
If bathing naked in front of strangers doesn't make you feel anxious then I'd definitely recommend getting off the bus at one of the onsen towns and experiencing a traditional outdoor bathhouse – also known as an onsen.
WHERE TO EAT
Takayama is a considerably small town in the grand scheme of Japan, so eating can be a little difficult and places fill up fast. Be sure to get the hotel staff to book a table for you.
Eating in Japan isn’t cheap. I see a lot of people complaining about the prices and honestly, they’re pretty comparable to Australia. You’re going to spend around $35 for a meal and a drink.
I had such an incredible experience at Heianraku. Such a great experience that I wrote all about it. This little restaurant is owned and run by a beautiful husband and wife team, Hiroshi and Naoko. They instantly make you feel so welcome, and the food, oh the food! It was the best meal I ate during my two weeks in Japan – paricularly good for a vegetarian.
Must try: the dumpling/gyoza's
It's surprising, but despite the fact that Takayama is kind of in the middle of nowhere, Centre4 Hamburgers do a mean burger. They have plenty of meat and veg options, and a pretty great craft beer list to match – well, compared to everywhere else at least. And no judgetment, eating burgers in Japan will come as a nice treat after eating nothing but rice and noodles.
Who would've thought ice cream would be a thing in the middle of rural Japan? Not me, that's for sure. But surprisingly, it's hard NOT to find ice cream. The places that sell it, give it away by placing rediculously large plastic ice-cream cones out side of their shops. And they're surprisingly not too creamy, so you don't feel bloated or sick to your stomach after a cone.
Must try: Peach flavour