Japan, without a doubt, is one of my favourite travel destinations on the planet. It’s a country that has everything you could ask for – amazing culture, friendly people, beautiful landscapes, delicious food and hidden history tucked away in every street.
Last year in November I had the opportunity to head back to Japan for a couple of weeks, but this time I added Hida-Takayama in Gifu Prefecture to my itinerary. Officially the city is known as Takayama, but is generally referred to as Hida-Takayama in order to avoid confusion with the other Japanese cities that share the same name.
I’d never been to this part of Japan before, the central mountainous alp region, and I was glad to finally have a chance to check it out. Fortunately, I speak Japanese, so heading off the beaten track away from the major tourist areas of Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka didn’t pose too much of a challenge. I always tend to find as well that communicating with locals let’s you in on some of the well-kept secrets of an area or city.
From what I noticed while here, the town seemed very popular with Japanese tourists, and foreigners were much harder to come by. Naturally, this means English is also much harder to come by, so if you are thinking about a trip into the mountains to Hida-Takayama it might be a good idea to get a good phrase book under your belt. In Japan, a little bit of consideration and effort to learn a few phrases in Japanese will earn you MAJOR brownie points with the locals.
After staying in Matsumoto the previous night, I caught a highway bus to Hida-Takayama with a couple of friends who I was travelling around with. It took the best part of two to two and half hours to arrive, but the scenery along the way as we traversed up and down, and around and around the Japanese Alps was absolutely spectacular.
As it was nearing the end of November, winter was well and truly on its way, especially in this part of the country. However, remnants of autumn still hung in the air; reddening maple leaves, yellowing gingo trees and cool but (mostly) clear skies.
In one sense Hida-Takayama is like any other Japanese city. It has its newer parts, with its not so appealing architecture (think generic apartment blocks and supermarkets…) but on the other hand it has managed to maintain many elements of pre-modern Japan.
The main tourist district of the city is focused around this well-preserved historical centre. The one major shopping strip is set in a traditional Japanese street, with the Miyagawa River flowing close by, and human-powered rickshaws clankering and bumping along the streets.
After spending a few hours in the traditional part of town browsing the traditional products, foods and souvenirs, we were starting to feel the rumbles of hunger gnawing at our stomachs. We each settled on having a steaming hot bowl of famous Takayama ramen to take the chill off and warm ourselves up, all the while experiencing a food that the city is quite famous for.
Feeling content with a stomach full of warm noodles, we decided to tackle the Higashiyama Walking Course (東山歩行道 Higashiyama-hokoudou) in the low hills behind the city. The walking course is essentially a temple and shrine hop – over the course of an hour’s walk we visited more than 10 temples. Most of them are located just a staircase away from one another, so you do get a good bit of exercise climbing up and down the stairs while visiting the various sites along the way.
While I only spent a night here in Hida-Takayama it was well worth the trip, even if only for the stunning views and scenery during the bus ride from Matsumoto! We were planning to go onwards from here to Kanazawa but unfortunately all the buses were sold out (we didn’t prebook). This meant the following day we had to make the trip back to Matsumoto again to finish our journey, but with the beautiful Japanese scenery, it was hardly a drag.
If you are thinking about taking a trip into central Japan or The Alps around Nagano and Matsumoto, I would highly recommend adding Hida-Takayama to your list of places to visit. It’s not so out-of-the-way to make the trip nonviable and history and scenery is well worth your while.
And there are plenty of onsen and hot springs around this way too…if you’re still not convinced.