Rich with culture, history and fresh mountain air, this popular getaway spot is the gem of the Japanese Alps.
Tucked away in the northern alpine region of Gifu Prefecture lies one of the country’s oldest and most well-preserved cities: Hida Takayama. Literally translating to “tall mountain,” Takayama (“Hida”—a reference to the area’s traditional province—was informally added to help differentiate the city from other places in Japan) lives up to its name with its high-altitude position and generous surface area. Historically largely isolated due to its mountainous location, the area has retained a distinctly traditional feel—lending its visitors the perfect chance to step back in time.
There are seemingly endless opportunities to immerse yourself in traditional Japanese culture and history in Takayama. A short walk from the central train station, JR Takayama, the city’s beautifully preserved old town waits to welcome you, showcasing buildings and houses that date all the way back to the Edo period (1603–1868). Explore the handful of quaint streets by foot or rickshaw and you’ll find shops, cafés and sake breweries that have been operating for centuries. For the full experience, rent a kimono—or a kamishimo (a formal clothing set worn by Edo-period samurai) for men—and browse the streets in style.
In the mood for entertainment? There’s no shortage of it among the venues offering insight into traditional music, dance, arts and crafts, and ceremony etiquette. Watch a drum performance or try your hand at playing the shakuhachi, a traditional bamboo flute. Enjoy a tea ceremony or learn about shakyo, the art of copying Buddhist scripture with the intention of clearing the mind. Find yourself transfixed by a kabuki performance or take a lesson in traditional Japanese dance. Ryokan Kaminaka, the central hub of Japanese performing arts in Takayama, is so popular that visitors must book weeks in advance.
Breathe it in
But nothing combines the rich cultural context of Takayama with its stunning mountainous backdrop quite like Hida no Sato, or the Hida Folk Village. An open-air museum established in 1971, the village features more than 30 traditional buildings, preserved and relocated from various parts of the former Hida province. Framed by lush greenery or snowy peaks depending on the time of year, structures like past villagers’ homes, logging huts and that ched-roof farmhouses feature centuries-old architecture, tools and utensils and can be explored inside and out. In cooler months, the buildings’ wood-burning fireplaces are lit each morning, making the experience that much more authentic and memorable.
And if all of the previously mentioned walking and wandering just isn’t enough, there are plenty more ways to get your steps in. Visitors to Takayama aren’t typically coming in search of a big-city vibe—rather, the beautiful mountains, hills and trails surrounding the city are one of its main draws. Hike or ski to your heart’s content depending on the season, or enjoy a peaceful stroll along Higashiyama Yuhodo, a pleasant 3.5-km walking course that passes more than a dozen temples and shrines plus wooded hills, parks and the ruins of Takayama Castle. The course is the perfect way to get a healthy dose of fresh air and indulge in the gentle sounds of nature before returning to the lively city centre for dinner and sake.
Plan your visit
With four distinct seasons, the allure of the great outdoors and all of its traditional charms, Takayama is unsurprisingly popular with tourists—both Japanese and international. But with so much to offer, the city isn’t limited to any one season when it comes to visitors.
Mild spring weather, cherry blossoms in bloom and the popular Sanno Matsuri (spring festival) make April a great time to experience the region. But October is equally enticing with its vibrant foliage and Hachiman Matsuri (fall festival). Visit in winter and make sure Okuhida Hot Spring Village—the largest collection of open-air onsen in Japan, with some of the country’s most majestic mountain scenery—is high on your list! And, of course, you can bask in the festive spirit of Takayama in any season with a captivating performance by the city’s legendary karakuri ningyo (mechanical puppet dolls) at the Karakuri Museum.
Year-round—with its historic architecture and natural wonders, its outdoor markets and traditional breweries, its friendly locals and soothing break from Japan’s megacities— Takayama stands ready to delight the senses.