• Takayama: a gentle little town in central Japan

I’d never heard of Takayama before visiting Japan last year. To be honest, my previous knowledge about Japan’s geography was fairly limited (it probably still is), and all I knew was I wanted to see Mt. Fuji and visit Tokyo and Kyoto. Not much of a plan, is it?

I had barely studied my Japan guide-book and felt quite confused about what I’d be doing and seeing for the next couple of weeks. Luckily, after a short stop at the excellent Tourist Information Office at Narita airport, I was set. An extremely efficient and helpful lady who spoke very good English gave me itinerary suggestions, maps, brochures, and all sorts of tips and valuable information it would have taken me hours to obtain by myself.

This was just further confirmation that it often pays to visit local tourist information offices, even if I’m the first one to overlook them in my travels.

Since I would be travelling from Tokyo to Kyoto, this lady suggested, I should definitely spend a couple of days in Takayama, a small town which lies roughly in between, in the region commonly known as the Japanese Alps.

(All photos are © Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you’d like to use them).

Traditional Japanese construction, Takayama

Takayama is a small town that no traveller with an interest in Japanese culture should miss. If, on top of that, you’re also a photography lover, as I am, you’ll find visual inspiration at every turn.

Hida Kokubunji temple, Takayama

Not surprisingly, I found many tourists roaming the streets of Takayama. Most of them were local, which I’ve always found to be a good sign. Despite it being a popular destination for the Japanese, the streets were not packed, and I had no problem enjoying the sights at a leisurely pace.

Torii gate, Miyagawa River

Torii gate at shrine, Takayama

For a relatively small town, Takayama boasts an incredible collection of temples, shrines, museums and traditional shops and houses, all within walking distance. In addition to this, there are plenty of accommodation and eating options for most tastes and budgets. I only spent two days in Takayama, but I could have easily stayed twice as long in this quiet, delightful little town.

Bridges over Miyagawa River, Takayama

San-machi Suji street, Takayama

Woman standing at stall, Takayama

Most of the interesting sights are found east of Miyagawa River, in the historic district of San-machi Suji (suji is actually Japanese for “district”). There’s a morning market on the river banks every day, where local farmers sell fresh produce.

Cat scultpture on banks of Miyagawa River, Takayama

In San-machi Suji you will find a host of shops, restaurants, museums and private houses built in traditional Japanese style. Other than the architectural style, what struck me the most is the Japanese flair for the clean-cut, understated elegance displayed in every shopfront and house façade.

Shopfront, Takayama

Shopfront, Takayama

Bar front, Takayama

Wood and iron handicrafts, Takayama

Museum at San-machi Suji district, Takayama

Façade of restaurant, San-machi Suji, Takayama

The shops sell all sorts of handicrafts and food, including local delicacies such as the excellent Hida beef (see also this post where I talked about the delicious Hida beef stew I had in Takayama).


Beef jerky packets

Food shop

Pickled vegetables

Traditional Japanese sweets

Among the shops and restaurants you will find many sake breweries with their distinctive sake (rice liquor) barrels displayed out front. For a small amount of money you can taste different varieties of sake, and of course buy a bottle if you want to.

Sake barrels at shopfront, San-machi Suji, Takayama

Japanese sake bottles on display

Sake barrels, Japan

Everywhere you go in Takayama, you will find some intriguing faceless cloth dolls called sarubobo (“monkey baby”). Typical from Takayama and its prefecture, they were traditionally given by mothers to their daughters as lucky charms to ensure a happy marriage. On the second photo, all the dolls except the one at the bottom are hung in a folded position, with their four limbs all tied up. If I remember correctly, this meant that they had been brought as offerings to the temple.

Sarubobo dolls, Takayama

Sarubobo dolls at Hida Kokubunji temple

I run into quite a few charming scenes on the streets of Takayama, like these children in strollers, or this handsome couple on a bridge over Miyagawa River. In fact, they were models posing in a photoshoot for a campaign to promote Takayama in the national press.

Children in carts

Couple dressed in traditional Japanese costumes

Looks great, doesn’t it? However, this is not all that Takayama has to offer to the curious traveler. Stay tuned for part two of this post, where I will show you some of the many temples and shrines of Takayama that have earned it the nickname “little Kyoto”.

As always, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and share this post if you liked it.

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