When I started planning my route through the Japanese Alps, there were a ton of articles with suggestions on where to go and what to do, but a lot of them lacked details to help me make an educated decision on where to stop. However, one thing that immediately put Takayama on my radar was the promise of tasty beef.
So I put it on my itinerary and I went not knowing what to expect.
And I’m so glad I did.
Takayama turned into one of my favourite discoveries during my time in Japan. There is something just so charming about the city and there is a surprising amount of things to see and do. I spent a full 24 hours which was enough to see everything, but I wish I had spent another night there as a way of slowing down and so I could enjoy more of that delicious Hida beef!
While the official tourism board offers itinerary suggestions of various durations on their website, here are some of the highlights from my time in Takayama.
Note: This post contains affiliate links meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!). However, note that I paid for everything I mentioned in this post and would not recommend something if I did not enjoy it. You can see my full disclosure policy here.
Enjoy the train ride there
Getting to Takayama is half of the adventure and fun as the only train connection to Takayama, the Hida Express takes you through the beautiful mountains. When I went in March, much of the route was still covered in snow which made for mesmerizing winter scenes of snow-covered forest and rivers taken in through the huge train windows.
I’m not sure if the whole route is like that, but the segment that I took from Toyama to Takayama was so gorgeous. However, be aware that this train, unlike the Shinkansen, only runs every couple of hours and if you don’t plan your trip accordingly, you may find yourself waiting at the train station for a while.
Wander Through Sanmachi-dori
You can’t visit Takayama and not take a wander through the Sanmachi, or Old Town, area. This street and the adjoining streets of Ichinomachi, Ninomachi and Sannomachi are full of traditional wooden merchant houses that date back to the Edo period. Some even refer to this area as a small Kyoto set in the Hida mountains and I can definitely see the resemblance between the quaint streets of Gion in Kyoto and the Sanmachi area.
Reminiscent of its yesteryears, today the streets are lined with shops filled with more modern interpretations of food, sake and crafts.
Be sure to pop into one of the sake breweries for a taste. The one I went into, Harada Sake Brewery, had a variety of sake types available for you to taste for the very low price of 200 yen, and you get to keep the taster cup too. For this non-drinker, even tasting just half of them had me buzzing. Turns out I like the dryer types of sake as opposed to the fruitier varieties.
Eat some Hida beef
Tasting Hida beef was the whole reason I even ended up in Takayama and getting my fill of it was high on my priority list while in the city. Throughout the streets of Sanmachi-dori you will see shops and stalls selling beef items from Hida beef nigiri to Hida beef croquettes to Hida beef skewers. Lines tend to be long, stretching down the street, even during the off season when I was visiting.
There are numerous restaurants that offer different preparations of the beef from steak to sukiyaki (served in soup) to yakiniku (grill it yourself) which is what I ultimately went with. My meal at Maruaki came with a bowl of rice which perfectly matched the fatty and melt in your mouth deliciousness that was the beef. More to come on this experience soon!
Visit the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall
Did you know Takayama is home to one of Japan’s most famous festivals, the Takayama Matsuri? I definitely didn’t when I arrived there. Takayama Matsuri is held twice a year over two days in April and in October. Large ornately decorated floats (known as yatai), are moved through the streets of Takayama followed by a procession of people in Edo period costumes accompanied by traditional music.
While I missed out on experiencing the festival in person, 4 of the 11 yatai from the October festival are on display inside the Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan (高山祭屋台会館) or Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. The floats are on rotation so you may see different floats on your visit.
See Nikko in Takayama
Nikko is a city north of Tokyo famous for its numerous shrines which has earned it UNESECO World Heritage status. I was considering putting it on my itinerary but it would have involved going out of my way. So it was a happy coincidence that I could, in fact, visit Nikko – just in miniature form. While, not the same, it did give me a taste of what I would have seen in Nikko. An adventure for another time.
Entrance to Sakurayama Nikko-kan is included in the price of your ticket to see the yatai above. There isn’t a ton to see, but the novelty of it is fun.
Experience the morning market
Get a taste of Takayama at its morning markets. There are two to choose from: one along the banks of the Miyagawa River and the other outside the Takayama Jinya. Stalls sell vegetables, pickles, and fruits – all things that are prized in this region of Japan. If you’re an early bird like me, the markets open quite early at 6.
There weren’t many stalls open when I walked through much to my disappointment as I was hoping to get breakfast at the market. When I returned later in the day, there were more options available, but in the end, I only picked up some apple slices.
Takayama is great for Japanese souvenirs
Usually, I don’t buy souvenirs preferring to have my photos as my souvenirs, or if I do, they then to be of the edible variety. However, in Takayama I was tempted by a variety of things.
Beef and sake isn’t the only thing that is well known in Takayama. The region’s people are well known for being experts in carpentry and you can see this reflected in the many shops that line the streets of the Old Town. I found this one shop that had painted trays full of scenes relating to the area. Scenes like sake making or of the mountains, but when I decided to turn back and purchase one, they had closed and didn’t open again before I had to leave for my next destination much to my disappointment. Instead, I picked out a leaf shaped wooden tray which I currently use to hold rings and other small knick-knacks on my side table.
Otherwise, you can pick up a variety of foods from the area as a souvenir. With the number of smaller (dare I say craft) sake breweries in the area, picking up a bottle or two would make a really easy and unique gift. There are also a variety of beef jerky and other preserved foods with beef in them that you could take home.
I had also stumbled into a small shop that was manufacturing its own miso on site. They had some to taste and the rich umami flavour of the miso was so different from any other kind of miso I’ve had. It was so full of flavour. I wanted to take home a pack, but with an overflowing bag already, adding another kilo of miso was probably not a good idea. I still think about that miso though!
Other Things To Do
Since my visit, to help visitors gain a better understanding of the city and its history, the tourism board has started offering free guides in English. These guides will take you around the old city and main sightseeing areas explaining the attractions and history of the city. I wish this was available during my visit because I would have totally taken them up on the offer!
One attraction I missed out on was visiting the Takayama Jinya (高山陣屋) which served as the local government office during the Edo period. At one point, there were over 60 similar buildings in Japan, however today, the only one that remains is the one in Takayama. The building was in use from 1692 – 1969! The amount of history its walls have seen is astonishing!
For many, Takayama is used as the launching point for those wanting to visit UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawago. If you’re headed to that site, I definitely recommend making a stop in Takayama either before or after visiting Shirakawago. If you’re not going (why not?!), then I’d definitely suggest making the trek out to Hida Folk Village (飛騨の里, Hida no Sato), a open air museum that has a number of traditional thatch roof houses on display similar to those found in Shirakawago.
Where to Stay
While in Takayama, I stayed at K’s House Takayama Oasis. Note that there are two K’s House in the city, the one I stayed at and K’s House Tayakama. I went with the one with the oasis in its name because who wouldn’t want to stay in an oasis on their travels? Much like the K’s House I stayed at in Hakone, I found the hostel to be extremely comfortable and enjoyed that I had my own little pod to make my own. The hostel also wasn’t very busy and I only shared my room with one other girl.
On your trip to Japan, consider getting out of the large cities and visiting the Japanese Alps, particularly Takayama and its surrounding areas. It’s a beautiful place filled with delicious foods, drinks and history. And if you can manage to be there during the Takayama Matsuri festival, then all the better.
P.S. Must Have Eating Experiences in Japan & Temple Hopping in Kyoto, Japan – Hits and Misses