Honjin Hiranoya takes my breath away the moment I step into the wide-open expanse of the fresh-smelling tatami reception area. This is no ordinary ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) but a luxury destination in its own right. The only problem being the competitor for the travellers’ attention is all the other wonderful things to do in Takayama itself.
On this trip, I discovered that winter in Japan offers so much more than skiing in the city of Takayama, which is in the Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. Takayama’s old district is filled with Meiji-era inns, Kura houses (treasuries built of mud bricks and resistant to fires) and the old courthouse. The Takayama Jinya, a historic government house, built in the 17th century is a famous landmark in Japan and the only remaining office of its kind in the country.
- 12 Things to do in Takayama
- 1- Take a photo at the Nakabashi Vermillion Bridge
- 2- Go Sake tasting
- 3- Visit a Kura House
- 4- Visit the Yatai Kaikan Museum
- 5- Soak in Honjin Hiranoya’s Onsen
- 6- Explore The Markets
- 7- Step Back In History At Takayama Jinya
- 8- Go On A Museum Crawl
- 9- Stroll Around Shiroyama Park
- 10- Do The Higashiyama Temple Walk
- 11- Taste Local Food
- 12- Go Shopping For Sarubobo Dolls
- 13- Visit the Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine
- Best Time to Visit Takayama
- How To Get To Takayama
12 Things to do in Takayama
So as time is of the essence, I tear myself away from the exquisite tatami rooms and charge out the door into the brilliant sunshine to explore. Here are the top things to do in Takayama.
1- Take a photo at the Nakabashi Vermillion Bridge
The Nakabashi vermillion bridge beckons, and we stop there to take some pictures of ourselves, as we are clad in traditional winter gear provided by the Honjin Hiranoya.
The outfits consist of a yukata, over which you wear a heavy long blue robe topped by a padded sleeveless vest.
On our feet, we have a pair of geta (wooden sandals) overtabi (socks specially designed to wear with thongs).
You might think this is not warm enough to keep you warm when it’s 3 degrees Celcius outside with lots of lying snow piled up around.
But you might be surprised to discover that the winter geta has an almost invisible plastic see-thru shield to protect your toes from getting wet.
This walking tour will take you to some of the main sights in the city.
A JR Pass of the Takayama region is a useful resource to explore.
2- Go Sake tasting
We clip-clop happily around the neighbourhood admiring the traditional houses and often stop for sake-tasting at the sake breweries.
During the Edo Period (1600 to 1868), Takayama was a town of merchants, and the legacy of that era can be seen in its lovely architecture.
Sannomachi Street is packed with historic buildings that house shops, coffee shops and sake breweries.
3- Visit a Kura House
Kura houses are my favourites and they are easy to spot: their exteriors are always plastered and painted a brilliant white with their interlocking, fire stopping doors, painted black.
As these depositories of family heirlooms are no longer needed since houses these days are not so prone to catch fire, they have been lovingly converted into boutiques, cafes, spas and art galleries.
4- Visit the Yatai Kaikan Museum
Hida – Takayama is home to one of Japan’s most important celebrations, the Takayama Matsuri.
Festivities are held twice a year but if you can’t be there for the Sanno Matsuri (April) and the Hachiman Matsuri (October), you can see the 17th-century floats at the Yatai Kaikan Museum.
During the 17th century, wealthy merchants in Takayama poured money into the arts and crafts of the region, paying artisans to create beautiful floats to be paraded in spring and autumn.
Designs grew in complexity as competing tycoons tried to outshine each other.
The Yatai Kaikan (Takayama’s Festival Floats Exhibition Hall) is located on the grounds of the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine.
5- Soak in Honjin Hiranoya’s Onsen
After a full day of sightseeing, the Honjin Hiranoya’s Onsen beckons.
The ground floor Onsen is not only divine, but it offers unexpected luxury Shiseido products.
All private Onsen have shampoo, conditioner and shower gel at every shower station but here the products are first class.
I put a hair masque after I shampoo, gather my hair up in a ponytail with the holders provided, wrap a hot wet towel around my head and step into the hot springs.
It is with regret I have to tear myself from this blissful environment, but a special kaiseki dinner awaits at one of the private rooms. To say it was exquisite is an understatement.
Don’t miss an incursion into their Kura Spa, an onsen inside a Kura house right across the street from the main building.
How much more Japanese can it get?
6- Explore The Markets
Takayama’s markets are full of atmosphere and where you can see farmers selling their produce.
The markets are also perfect for hunting for Japanese snacks to take home as gifts.
The city’s two main markets are Jinya-Mae Morning Market at the Takayama Jinya building and Miyagawa Morning Market beside the Miyagawa River.
Takayama’s markets operate daily from 8 am to noon (November to March) and 7 am to noon (April to October).
7- Step Back In History At Takayama Jinya
The Takayama Jinya was the headquarters of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period (from 1692 to 1871).
As it’s now a museum, a visit to Takayama Jinya is a step back into history
The complex consists of the main building, which has offices, conference rooms and an interrogation room, along with a storehouse that dates back to the 1600s.
The storehouse is a showcase with historical maps, town plans and other documents of the region’s rulers.
8- Go On A Museum Crawl
Takayama may be a small city but it doesn’t lack museums, which are a showcase of Takayama’s culture, history and arts.
Visiting Takayama’s museums is a great way to stay warm if you’re visiting in winter and to keep dry on a rainy day. Here’s a list of museums to go to:
- Takayama Showa Museum – Discover the delights of the Showa Period (1926 to 1989) in this recreation of a historic town, complete with houses, restaurants and interactive exhibits.
- Takayama Museum of History and Arts – Takayama Hakubutsukan is the place to learn about Takayama’s culture and history.
- Fujii Folk Museum – Housed in a traditional building with a lovely gate, the museum has historic household objects that tell the story of the city.
- Takayama City Archives Museum
- Hida Archaeology Museum – Hida Minzoku Kokokan is also on Sannomachi Street and is an excellent example of Edo architecture, complete with an old well.
- Hirata Folk Museum – Hirata Kinenkan was once the home of a local candle maker but is now a museum with displays of items from the past.
- Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall
9- Stroll Around Shiroyama Park
In the heart of the city, a few steps away from bustling Sanmachi Street is the green and leafy Shiroyama Park.
The park has several temples and walking trails, including a path to Takayama Castle Ruins on the top of the hill.
If you do make it up to the top, the view of the snowcapped mountains of the Japanese Alps is stunning.
10- Do The Higashiyama Temple Walk
Higashiyama Temple Walk is a trail that connects a dozen temples and shrines, from Soyuji Temple to Eikyoin Temple.
The shrines along this walk – the Higashiyama Hakusan Jinja Shrine and Higashiyama Shinmei Jinja Shrine – are set in beautiful forest settings.
Doing this walk is a great way to soak up the history and culture of Takayama while getting away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
11- Taste Local Food
The cuisine of Takayama is influenced by the Kanto and Kansai regions of Japan.
The food is fresh, and Sanmachi Street is Takayama’s main street for local food and snacks.
Try sushi with Hida beef, which is as famous as Kobe beef in Japan, and fresh seafood caught daily.
Okonomiyaki is a savoury Japanese pancake filled with meat, seafood and cabbage and topped with ham and eggs.
12- Go Shopping For Sarubobo Dolls
If you’re looking for a local gift for family and friends, pick up a few Sarubobo dolls, which are dolls that grandmothers and mothers make for their grandkids.
They are considered good luck charms and come in five colours:
- Blue – for luck at school and work
- Green – for good health
- Black – to ward off bad luck
- Pink – for a life full of love
- Yellow – to attract wealth
13- Visit the Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shrine
Join the 1.5m people who visit the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine each year and marvel at its lovely architecture.
The mystical shrine was constructed during the rule of Emperor Nintoku (413 to 439AD).
If you’re planning on visiting the Yatai Kaikan Museum, do take the time to enjoy the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine too.
Best Time to Visit Takayama
Takayama is a year-round destination that is steamy in summer (June to August) and cold in winter (December to February).
If you had to pick one month, October is a time when the weather is warm, and the sun is shining.
How To Get To Takayama
If you’re visiting Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, take the JR Tokaido Line to Nagoya and change trains to the Hida Wide View Express Train.
The train ride between Nagoya and Takayama takes two and a half hours.
Buy the five-day JR Takayama-Hokoriku pass for unlimited rides between Nagoya, Takayama and Hokuriku as well as bus trips to Shirakawa-go and Shin-Takaoka Station.
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