This is the centre and where we are based to explore the rest of the Gifu Prefecture. Surrounded by the Northern Alps of Japan and known as Little Kyoto, it is a friendly town with a long and rich history, and home to the famous Takayama Festival, one of the big 3 most beautiful festivals of Japan. It is not a small town but the tourists areas are generally charted within a walking map, which can be found everywhere in various languages.
Old Quarters of Takayama – Historically Significant Traditional Building Preservation Area.
Known by the name Sanmachi, they consist of 3 streets in the centre of town that preserved much of the look and feel of the castle town as it was centuries ago. Old merchants’ houses, manufacturers and retailers of traditional and local Japanese food and crafts, sake breweries and famous Takayama snacks can be found here.
Almost all the buildings here are black or dark brown in color. There was a story to this black lustre. Takayama used to be a prosperous town where wealthy merchants lived and built their homes. They used the best quality timber to construct their houses, even though it was forbidden. So to cover up their illegal act, they painted their houses black with soot to make it look like low quality wood hence will go unnoticed by the authorities. Even now, newer buildings or renovated buildings are permitted to use only black or brown color so as not to ruin the harmony of the place.
Some characteristics of the Takayama old townhouse architecture – Latticed doors and windows gracing the housefronts (so people could not see inside), and the height of the first floor is often low, known as “rubbish upstairs”.
Sake brewery tour and tasting
Brewery tours are only open in winter, as sake is only produced in winter. I’ve done many wine tastings before, but this was the first time I did a sake tasting. 8 breweries in town take turns each one a week from January to February to open their doors to the public for the brewery tour.
Each brewery produces its own unique sake. You can tell that a building is a sake brewery by the giant ball hanging right at the entrance. A sugidama is made of Japanese cedar leaves. Traditionally, each time a new sake brew was created by the brewery, a new sugidama would be hung out as a signal to inform the public that a new sake is available for purchase. Green when new and gradually turns brown over time, the sugidama is easily recognisable at one glance if the shop has a new arrival or not.
24th Day Farmers Market
There are generally 2 morning markets in Takayama – the Takayama Jinya market and the Miyagawa Market by the river. However, our time of visit corresponded with the very special occasion “24th Day Farmers Market” , held only once a year, only on the 24th January. This is like “the place to be” for everyone on this particular day, all the vendors from everywhere will come out and sell their stuff and all the residents of Takayama and surrounding areas will come out and have a field day.
I’ve never seen so many people in Takayama before, until I came to this Farmers Market on the 24th. It was like the most happening event of the season! It was a cold day but the market was bustling with people and stalls selling all the cutest food stuff you could imagine. I had a field day myself taking pictures and trying to read and interpret what stuff they were selling at each stall. 😀
Things were rather cheaper than usual on this day at this market, I guess, people flocked to buy stuff like it was free of charge. There was a queue as long as the Kajibashi Bridge, from one end of the river bank right until the opposite end! Curious, I went to check out what they were queuing for. It was a butchery selling the famous Hida beef at half price! It was quite an unbelievable sight, people queing up the length of the entire bridge in cold weather for raw meat!
Bought a huge crate of gigantic strawberries the size of golfballs for Y1000. Was a real bargain. It was so sweet and juicy we already finished half of them while walking the market! Pop. Pop. Pop. So easy to eat!
Banana with chocolate fondue – like a Japanese version of a lollipop.
Grilled Iwana (river fish) on a skewer. I ate it like a cat, only left with a comb of the bone!
Cold weather + Hot yummy grilled fish = Great combination! 😛
The most famous souvenir of the Gifu Prefecture and especially in Hida Takayama, this faceless doll is almost like a superstar here. You won’t enter a souvenir shop without seeing this item. Available big and small in various colors with different meanings. Sarubobo means “baby monkey”, traditionally made by mothers to children as a protector to ward off evil spirits and to stave of epidemic diseases. In current times, it’s still being used as protective charms for loved ones or to wish for good marriages or safe childbirth.
Higashiyama Temple Area (Higashiyama walking course)
A walking course set in the eastern mountain foothills, the Higashiyama Teramachi district contains about 10 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines which are linked by a scenic hiking trail through a huge graveyard full of famous folks I suppose, as there was a separate Circular Route to tour all the famous graves in the area. In winter however, it was not advisable to hike this HIgashiyama trail due to the deep snow and icy paths in the area. Nevertheless, I was feeling quite adventurous (and snow excites me, yay! 😉 ), so decided to give it a go anyway.
As expected, the trail was covered in deep snow and ice, at some parts the trail totally broke off because the snow simply covered up everything, and the signage got buried in snow, so we have to follow our guts to decide on the forward passageways…
It was an interesting walk after all, more like a treasure hunt, holding a map hunting for temples partially covered in deep snow amidst the forest hills. Some temples were totally inaccessible, some we have to climb a bit in steep slippery icy slopes what used to be stairs in summer.
Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village)
A restoration of more than 30 typical old Japanese houses relocated here from various parts of the Hida region. A very interesting open air museum, with each house displaying farming tools, traditional straw apparels and accessories, sericulture apparatus and everyday utensils. Of course, museum attractions aside, the most interesting part to me is the complete white stunning scenery of the entire village complete with my all-time-favourite Japanese cat Totoro gracing the beautiful frozen lake with swan footprints on ice, and the significant lack of people compared to town just no more than 10 minutes away. If Japanese believe in Santa Claus, I would say this looks pretty much like (an oriental version of) a Santa Claus village. Hehe 😀 😉
In one of the gassho houses, when we entered there was a little tea party going on. It was part of the museum interactive activities I guess, an introductory experience on how traditional people cook and eat in a typical gassho house. We were invited (in Japanese language + body language 😉 ) to help ourselves to the various local pickles and tea, and sit on the floor around a fireplace in the middle of the house where the friendly hostess was grilling rice cake on a charcoal grill in the irori. We were then each served a piece of the hot, fresh and yummy rice cake. It was a nice warm break from continuous walking in the freezing weather outside. 🙂
Because of the thick snow and unpredictable weather in winter, they have umbrellas, snow boots and rope crampons which visitors could use freely. At night during the winter illumination, they even serve sweet sake and hot mushroom soup for every visitor, a great and delicious way to take a break and get warm in the chilly weather. How thoughtful of them! Another example of great Japanese hospitality. 🙂
Winter Illumination of Hida no Sato