If you like to escape the constant hustle of big cities, you should definitely make a stop in the Japanese Alps. With snowcapped mountains towering up to 3.000 meters around you, the Alps are rightly called Japan’s rooftop. Here you can pleasantly spend your time hiking through forests (check our tips for Kamikochi) as well as visiting old charming towns such as Takayama. To end your tiring but satisfying day in a Japanese onsen, a natural hot spring. Hiking boots on and off you go!
Takayama: history at the feet of the Alps
Takayama is one of the more important cities in the region, situated at the south-western side of the mountain range in the Gifu prefecture. In its old and small streets lined with typical Japanese wooded houses, you’ll feel like you’ve been travelling back in time. The city center isn’t that big, but Takayama has enough to offer for a day (or two). Overall, there’s a nice and relaxed atmosphere, although you can suddenly be surrounded by a big flock of loud Spanish tourists. Luckily, a couple of meters further on you’ll breathe in the cool and fresh mountain air again.
Squeezed between the local souvenir shops and ryokans you’ll find another worthwile attraction Takayama is known for: the sake breweries. Thanks to the pure mountain water and high quality of rice, Takayama produces some well-respected sake. Of the original 56 breweries, there’s only a mere six left. You can visit them for a tasting and they’re easily recognizable by the big balls of cedar branches hanging above the entrance.
Also worth visiting is the Hida Village, just outside of Takayama center. It’s a kind of open-air museum displaying old houses that were literally moved here from neighbouring towns. Here you can learn a lot about the ancient ways of life of this Japanese region. If you’re into history, it’s a really interesting stop for an hour or two. Hida Village is a 30-minute walk from the city center or can also be easily reached by bus from the terminal.
Recommendations to eat and drink in Takayama
The super tender Hida Beef is everywhere in Takayama. In every street and on every corner you’ll find a restaurant offering this rather expensive delicacy. However, as our trip through Japan had been quite costly at this point, we went hunting for cheaper alternatives serving delicious food. These are the ones we found:
- Gyoza Sohonzan: Hidden away in a little alley, you’ll be welcomed with a loud yell by the slightly coo-koo, yet funny chef. The gyoza’s are tasty and plenty enough to fill a normal stomach. What’s more, you’ll be ordered to make a drawing which will be put on the wall of fame next to tens and tens of other drawings. It sounds like a cheesy touristy trick, but the absurdity of it all makes it a place not to skip.
- Jak(u)son: The second you enter this place, you’ll be warned that they serve curry and curry only. But let that be the best reason to come here! Japanese curry is a tad sweeter than the Indian or Thai versions, and definitely just as delicious. You’ll be seated on a tatami and the staff will explain the list of options available, as there’s no English menu available. Enjoy your delicious meal while Neil Young is singing approvingly in the background.
- Teuchisoba Ebisu: The buckwheat noodles here are handmade since 1898. You can eat them cold or warm, both just as tasty. If you’re on the lookout for a cheap lunch, this is your perfect pitstop.
- Kaza Craft Pub: Takayama has a surprisingly high number of bars for a town this small, but this hotspot is surely one to visit. This pub is located in a quiet street and serves coffee, locally brewed beer and a whole range of sake. The very friendly owner is a sake-sommelier and speaks fluent English. What better combo to learn more about your soon to be favourite Japanese drink?
Our hotel in Takayama
We slept in a ryokan called Shakunage no Hara, where an old little lady gave us a warm-hearted welcome. This spot got good reviews online, but we weren’t a big fan overall. The tatami in our room smelled unpleasantly and breakfast (a slice of toast and a cooked egg) wasn’t on par with the Japanese standards we got used to. If you’re really on a budget, it’s still a good option though. Otherwise, we would recommend to check one of the new hostels popping up around town.
Getting to Takayama
Takayama is very easy to reach with the Hida Wide View train departing from Nagoya. This track is included in the JR Railpass. From here on you can travel on to Hirayu and Kamikochi by bus. You can also reach Takayama by bus via Matsumoto (1,5h), passing huge dams and cliffs.
You can read part 2 of our trip through the Japanese Alps with a stop at Kamikochi here.