The first time I came to Japan, it was on a two-week, whirlwind tour that doubled as a sociology course under Washington & Jefferson College. Takayama (高山), a city nestled in the mountains of Gifu prefecture, was one of the places we visited, and I primarily remember it as a place of “firsts.”
It was in Takayama that I got my first glimpse of the Japanese Alps, so impressively craggy and beautiful that you can’t help but wonder, “Did I somehow get on the wrong train and end up in Switzerland?” It was the first time I stayed at a 旅館 (ryokan, traditional Japanese inn) and donned a 浴衣 (yukata, informal cotton kimono). It was the first time I wandered off down the streets of Japan, without having the voice of our tour guide in my ear or a map to tell me where I was. It was the first time I ventured into an 温泉 (onsen, public hot spring bath).
I’m ashamed to admit that it was also the first (and last) time I got lured into a restaurant on the premise of an English menu. After spending an exorbitant amount on “pizza toast” that ended up being a sorry-looking piece of bread covered in ketchup and fake-tasting cheese, my friend and I high-tailed it as quickly as we could to the nearest ramen joint.
What sticks out the most, though, is that it was the first time in Japan that I damn near froze my feet off. (Since moving to Aomori, this has become a much more regular occurrence.) If you translate it literally, “Takayama” means “high mountain,” and the weather in winter is pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Living through Aomori’s winter has sort of made me scoff at most other places, but at the time, the snow and freezing temperatures of Takayama were an unwelcome change from the brisk chill of Tokyo.
That being said, seeing the Japanese Alps in the winter is pretty spectacular. The ryokan at which our group stayed had an outdoor onsen, and soaking in a steaming hot bath while looking out over snow-covered mountains that were illuminated by moonlight remains one of my favorite “this is the life”-type memories of Japan.
For history buffs, Takayama is heaven. The 飛騨民俗村 (Hida Minzokumura, Hida Folk Village) is an essential experience. It’s a recreation of a traditional mountain village and an excellent example of the typical A-frame houses that are seen up in the mountains. I wish I could spout lots of information that I learned on our tour here, but unfortunately, the thing that sticks out most in my memory is how cold my feet were. Nonetheless, it’s one of those sights that provides a cool juxtaposition of the modern parts of Japan, like Tokyo, and the pockets of traditional life.
Takayama is also famous for its yearly festivals: 山王祭り (Sanou Matsuri, held in April) and 八幡祭り (Yahata Matsuri, held in October). Both of these are similar in that they feature a parade of large floats, called 屋台 (yatai). Yatai are really intricate and usually sport lacquer ware (for which Takayama is famous), mechanical dolls, and lanterns. We weren’t there during either of these festivals, but we still got to see the floats at the 高山や大会館 (Takayama Yatai Kaikan, or the float exhibition hall).
And if you’re the sort of traveler who can’t leave somewhere in Japan without a really cute kawaii souvenir, Takayama’s got you covered there, too. By far the most popular omiyage are the faceless 猿 (saru, monkey) dolls that can be bought in any color or size you could ever hope for.