Offering a perfect contrast to the urban landscape of Tokyo, a visit to Takayama provided a wonderful interlude before we made our way towards Kyoto. The trip on the bullet train was a lovely experience in itself, with many of the views presented to us being nothing short of postcard-perfect.
Sleep. Aside from wanting to explore a few different parts of Japan on this trip, I also wanted to experience a few different accommodation styles and Takayama seemed like the perfect place to sample a traditional ryokan. As we were only going to be staying for a couple of nights, I didn’t mind spending a little extra to stay somewhere special. So even though I managed to find a discounted rate, I wouldn’t say our choice of accommodation was cheap, but it was pretty wonderful.
The Ryokan Koto No Yume is tucked away in a side street just a couple of minutes walk from the train station and it offers all you’d ever want from a traditional – albeit luxurious – Japanese inn. Nothing was too much trouble for the staff (even catering for my early morning running habits and our late-night in-room massage requests), the breakfasts were wonderful, and the beds seriously comfortable. The private onsen facilities available just added to the indulgence of our stay.
Top tips – A private onsen, the option of in-room massages, and the best scrambled eggs of your life. These are the things available if you stay at Ryokan Koto No Yume.
See & Do. On our first afternoon of wandering we dutifully followed our tourist map and headed towards ‘old town’ – a part of Takayama which features beautifully preserved buildings and houses dating from the Edo Period. We spent a few minutes walking around and while it’s all very pretty, it was a little too crowded and focussed on attracting tourist dollars for us to get much enjoyment from the experience.
Initially I’d planned to take a day trip to Shirakawa-go to see the traditional farmhouses with steep thatched roofs (some of which are reportedly more than 250 years old), but given our limited time it will be something to do next time. Another planned activity I had to cross off my list of ‘must do’ experiences was a visit to Squirrel Forest, as unfortunately it was squirrel breeding season so they wouldn’t be ‘available’. Something we did do lots of was walking – happily criss-crossing the Miyagawa River which flows through the village – pausing here and there to watch the koi fish swimming about.
It was lovely to visit the Kokubunji Temple which was just a couple of minutes walk from our ryokan. Peaceful and beautiful, the temple grounds also feature an ancient Ginkgo Biloba tree. For those interested in people-watching and market goodies, there are two early morning markets which take place each day at separate locations in Takayama – the Jinya-mae Market and Miyagawa Market. We had a quick wander through the Miyagawa Markets, and while it was nice to see some of the local produce and crafts on offer, we’re not really market people so we continued on.
Braving the cool morning air, I went for a run before breakfast each day and loved seeing the locals out and about for a walk, sweeping their shopfronts, practicing tai chi and otherwise preparing for the day ahead. It was a wonderful way to see the town in a different perspective. I didn’t follow a set path, just made up my own roughly 5km circuit around the edge of town.
Top tips – Temples are quietest in the morning. Soak up the best of the village away from the tourist attractions.
Eat. We were spoilt for choice when it came to cafés in Takayama, but we did find two favourites which we returned to several times during our stay (both are located close to each other on Honmachi Street). Coffee Don is a cosy family-run café, frequented by locals and featuring a great range of coffee and light meals. Lovely hand-written English language menus are available to make the selection process a no-brainer. As like much of Japan soy-milk based coffees are difficult to come by, so I took to having my coffee ‘Americano’ style – which meant that it was often very strong and very hot – a favourite coffee combination.
It was at Coffee Don’s that I enjoyed the best strawberry jam toast of my life, so a serve of that to accompany your caffeinated beverage comes highly recommended. While Coffee Don has a dark interior with a classic old-fashioned style, my other favourite coffee house – Café Soeur – is all light and modern minimalism. Roughly opposite Coffee Don, Café Soeur looks over the Miyagawa river and has a menu of light snacks and hot and cold beverages (the menu also features English translations). Most often I matched a cup of tea with a homemade apple & cinnamon scone. Yum!
Because we started the day with breakfast at our ryokan and followed up with a decent morning tea, we rarely bothered with lunch, so of course by dinner we were often ravenous. Thankfully each night Heianraku fulfilled our need for sustenance with a range of fantastic vegetarian options. While not exclusively a vegetarian restaurant, a separate menu (with English translations) is available to cater for vegans and vegetarians. The owners are lovely and provide a warm and friendly atmosphere, with the option of traditional Japanese dining. I tried the Yaki Tofu (local tofu teriyaki with mushroom sauce) and Yaki Miso (grilled vegetables and egg with miso sauce) and they were both delicious.
Top tips – Not all stores open before 11am, but Coffee Don will meet your morning caffeine requirements. Dine at Heianraku for lunch or dinner and be sure to try the homemade ginger ale.
Shop. A village well known for its local artisans, there are lots of lovely stores to visit which feature independently produced items such as art, stationery, pottery and wooden crafts. Given that we had more travel yet to do and didn’t want to risk damaging a fragile piece, we didn’t succumb to much retail temptation in Takayama. However we did come close to putting down some serious money at Tomenosuke – an incredible pop culture collectible store / museum. With an admission fee of 500¥, you are then able to wander the store and take as many photos as you like. With a great range of figurine sets and many rare items, you may find it difficult to leave without making a purchase. Who knows, maybe the ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ figurines we came close to making our own will still be there next time?
A purchase we did make was an ocarina from local master Gamei. We’d actually encountered him the previous evening as we happened upon him recording some music in his store after closing time. Hearing that beautiful music carried to us on a gentle breeze was a magical moment, so it was wonderful to pay him a visit the next day and have him give the Mr a quick in-store lesson.
Top tips – If you’re interested in movies / pop culture / figurines, be sure to visit Tomenosuke and pose away with props and replicas.
Speak & Read. We had no trouble making do with our limited Japanese language skills here. Many people spoke or had an understanding of English, most stores had English signage, and the cafés and restaurants we visited had either a separate English menu, or translated options. The locals are incredibly friendly, and passing them on the street or encountering them in cafés they were often tickled pink if we at least attempted to say hello in Japanese.
Top tips – If you head out for a run, be sure to wish the locals a good morning as you pass by.
Transport. The majority of Takayama is easily accessible on foot, and given that it’s generally flat you won’t have to extend your fitness too far. Takayama can be most efficiently reached via bullet train, with the train station not all that far away from the centre of town and most accommodation options. You can hire a bicycle or join a bus tour to reach nearby attractions if desired. Speaking of facilities more generally, the train station only features squat toilets, with western style public toilets available in selected locations throughout the town.
Top tips – Walking around without agenda and without a map is a real joy (just be sure to know how to orient yourself back home again).
For a taste of small village living with an urban edge, Takayama is a perfect Japanese destination. I can only imagine how beautiful the town looks during the snowfalls of winter or the cherry blossom season of spring. I’m very much looking forward to a return visit. You’ll find a guide to my Tokyo experiences here, and next week I’ll cover the week I spent in Kyoto.