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A winter retreat to Takayama

written by Nick Reid July 24, 2017
A winter retreat to Takayama: traditional Takayama street lined with snow

Our Shinkansen bullet train to Takayama rushes through the bellies of mountains, past snow-weary evergreens and rice fields resting under sheets of pure, white snow. Small alpine towns race by and a turquoise river emerges every so often and guides us through to the mountainous Gifu region. After two weeks of exploring Japan’s vibrant and chaotic cities, Takayama’s crisp mountain air and quaint charm offer perfect respite for our over-stimulated minds. The neon lights of Tokyo and Osaka feel worlds apart from what is becoming one of the most popular rural destinations for adventurers in Japan. And it’s easy to see why.

A taste of Takayama

Takayama is famed its biannual Festival, the Takayama Matsuri, held in Spring (April 14-15) and Autumn (Oct 9-10) each year, and the town sees a growing number of tourists flock to its historic streets on the back of it. But the festival isn’t Takayama’s only draw; there’s plenty to keep a visitor enthralled even if a trip doesn’t fall within festival dates.

A winter retreat to Takayama: the Hida River flowing through snowy Takayama

The Hida River flowing through snowy Takayama

On arrival we see snow blanketing the roofs of beautifully preserved Edo period (1600 – 1868) buildings in Sanmachi, Takayama’s old town. The smells of Gohei Mochi (grilled rice cake in sweet miso sauce) and charred meat float through falling snowflakes and crisp alpine breeze. Local craft shops and cozy coffee houses are sprinkled throughout the Old Town alongside art galleries, museums, and shrines. Peeking into traditional homes, it’s even possible to see what life might have been like for previous generations.

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After snacking and shopping through Sanmachi, we venture into one of Takayama’s historic sake breweries. Many of these long-standing establishments have been making sake for hundreds of years and have managed to hang onto their Edo period charm. Takayama’s cold climate and crystal-clear mountain water have created the perfect conditions for brewing sake, and it’s the ideal location to sample Japan’s signature tipple. The Harada Sake Brewery is a recommended stop; for just 100 yen, you’ll get an ochoko sake cup and 14 different varieties of sake to sample. And just to further lift your spirits, you’ll get to take the cup home as a reminder of the visit.

A tour of times past

A winter retreat to Takayama: 'gassho-zuriki' farmhouses in Shirakawa-go

‘Gassho-zuriki’ farmhouses in Shirakawa-go

One of Takayama’s most interesting attractions is our next destination, the Hida no Sato Folk Village. Just a short bus ride away from the main town, Hida no Sato is an open-air museum exhibiting 30 ‘gassho-zuriki’ farmhouses. These authentic structures were built in the Edo period and relocated from their original locations in the surrounding Hida region to form the display. ‘Gassho-zuriki’ translates as ‘hand-prayer construction’ which is just what the steep wooden frames of the farmhouses bring to mind. Our winter visit saw thick covers of snow clinging to the village’s sloped roofs, transforming the thatch structures into white peaks in a winter wonderland.

Inside each you’ll find traditional tools and utensils that would have been used during everyday village life, and if you pay a visit to the Hida Takayama Crafts Experience Centre, you can attend a workshop on local handicrafts and souvenirs. With the clear weather, the Japanese Alps rose above the village and swept us up into humble village life.

To see gassho-zuriki farmhouses in their original setting, you can take a day trip out to UNESCO World Heritage-listed Shirakawa-go and Gokayama where ancient homesteads still stand just as they did 250 years ago. Ogimachi is the largest village in Shrirakawa-go and probably the easiest to reach from Takayama.

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Real restoration

After a day of exploring, we’ve worked up an appetite. Fortunately, the Gifu region is renowned for its produce. Hida-gyu, Hida’s signature beef, is famed throughout Japan for its marbled texture, tenderness, and flavour. Paired with high-altitude seasonal vegetables from the morning’s market and accompanied by Takayama’s high-quality sake, it’s a great representation of a typically fine local meal.

As the day ends, we retire to our traditional ryokan inn for a soak in the warm and nourishing waters of the onsen hot spring to contemplate the rich history and culture of Takayama and the Gifu region. Rested and relaxed, we leave Takayama refreshed and ready to venture onward.

Take in six of Japan’s most iconic destinations including traditional Takayama on a small group adventure to the Land of the Rising Sun.

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