Travelling around Japan is quite a different experience from travelling in other places. As a tourist, if you want to take a round trip to the Japan islands, you should definitely prepare an itinerary with the essential things you want to see and do. In this case, you should be aware that, as an incentive for tourism, Japan offers foreigners the opportunity to benefit from discounted train journeys. You can benefit from this through applying for a Japan Rail pass (JR pass) which will allow you travel free of charge for 7, 14 or 21 days. You should submit your application online at Japan-rail-pass.com before you enter Japan. Please be aware that although the JR pass means you do not pay any extra money for your train travel, you still have to book your journeys in advance as you cannot board trains without prior reservation.
In case you have a bit of extra cash available and not a lot of time to plan your travel, my advice is to book an operator tour guide. Although I like independent travel, in Japan it is really handy to travel together with native Japanese, especially outside Tokyo.
During my trip in Dec 2016 – Feb 2017, I did a round trip, mainly around the Honshu Island, which is the main island of Japan, the second most populous island in the world, after Java (Indonesia).
Travelling from Tokyo, I headed towards Takayama – a five hour journey by train, with a train change in Nagoya. The main reason to go to Takayama is the fact that the old town here has been preserved since the Edo period (1600 – 1868) and many buildings are authentic. It is one of the most visited rural villages/ towns in Japan.
Takayama is located in a quite remote mountain location and you will notice that temperature drops quite a bit, especially during the winter. Make sure you have appropriate mountain clothing.
There are many little Japanese inns (minshuku) where you can abode overnight. Most of them are quite old and traditional – real places of history and tradition. I stayed at minshuku Iwatakan – a Japanese style B&B with open air hot spring baths, rooms with tatami mats and futon beds. You can book this on booking.com.
Beside the very picturesque peisage, there are few things that you should have on your ‘must do/ must visit’ list in Takayama.
One of them is strolling around the morning markets – asaichi – which are on daily basis from 6.30 – 7 am. The Jinya-mae Market is in front of Jinya and the Miyagawa Market is along the Miyagawa River in the old town. They sell local crafts, souvenirs, fresh vegetables and delicious food and confectionery. The best thing to eat is the custard you can find at a stand in the Miyagawa river market – apparently this has been decorated with the medal for being one of the world’s best custards.
As souvenirs, you can get Sarubobo (baby monkey) dolls, which are traditionally crafted by locals to ward off bad luck and are specific to the region.
Close to the Miyagawa market you will find a spectacularly large torii gate across the Miyame-bashi bridge over the river, which is the first torii gate of the Sakurayama Hachiman-gu Shinto shrine, close to the Miyagawa river.
After you stroll around the markets, you should head off to the Kami-Sannomachi district. Sannomachi is a conservation area, dating from 1600 onward – with shop eaves from one end to the other of the charming streets. Little canals flow under the eaves of the old merchant houses. When I visited, snow was falling over the entire establishment and it was almost surreal. I found myself in a land of dreams, waiting for mighty samurai to show up behind the curtain of snow and fog. They never did, but I’m still dreaming about it…
Among food shops and stalls, there are many souvenir shops and sake and wine breweries. The breweries open to the public in January and February every year and you can taste sake abundantly for a dismal price – you buy your tasting porcelain cup for ¥50-100, which then you use for the entire tasting! And that is all you pay. I have greatly enjoyed the sake tasting I have attended: from light, fruity flavours (apple, apricot, plum) to smoky, stronger tastes, from very cheap sake to very expensive.You can recognize the old sake houses by the sugidama – little balls made of cedar wood, hung over the entrances. Enjoy the sake and the many confectioneries made with sake, including sake cheese cakes… Delish!
The food shops sell Hida beef skewers and dumplings and the best thing I have eaten in a while was Hida beef sushi – and I am not a red meat eater! The raw, fresh beef was amazing! Very similar to the Kobe beef, Hida beef is the speciality of this region and you have to try it because it tastes like nothing else you have ever tried.
When you finish visiting Takayama, go to the Takayama station and take the Sarubobo Bus (ten minutes ride) to the Hida Folk Village (Hida no Sato). This is an open air museum, with houses and memorabilia dating from the Edo period (there are over 30 houses which have been brought from around the Hida mountains and put together in 1971). The village is a live expression of the way Japanese used to live in the XVII and XVIII centuries. It is really pretty and pristine. The village has some houses (gassho-zukuri) from Shirakawa-go, village which is part of the UNESCO world heritage. The whole visiting trip to Hida no Sato will set you back only around ¥1000.
The only thing I have missed during my trip to Takayama was the Takayama Festival, which takes place twice a year, in the spring and in the autumn. Word is, this is one of the best festivals in Japan, so if you plan to visit soon, you are in luck!
I still have so many things to tell you about Takayama – the problem is I’m not sure they are real or not… I’m not sure if they were only in my dreams – so I would not want to deceive you. It is probably better if you go and see it yourself. And then you can make your own mind up… 🙂
Run fast, run strong, run free! See you next time 🙂
The Running Blogger