The town that time forgot
Takayama is a small town of 60,000 souls nestled in the “Japan Alps” in northern Gifu prefecture. In olden days, Takayama was snowed in for most of the winter and that may be why the ruthless modernization that swept most of Japan had less of an effect here.
Whatever the reason, Takayama is held forth today as an example of “old Japan” and given its relative closeness to major tourist magnets like Tokyo and Kyoto, it has become something of a tourist mecca itself. In other words, don’t expect to have Takayama to yourself. Touristy? Sure, but no more so (perhaps less so) than, say, Italy’s San Gimignano. The place retains its small town charm and is well worth a visit.
Those in search of “lost Japan” will want to make a bee line for Takayama’s Sanmachi Suji district, on the east bank of the Miya-gawa River, in the heart of the old part of town. It’s a commercial district that, quite understandably, takes advantage of the bustling tourist traffic. Fortunately, the traditional low-slung wooden streetscape has not been covered over with plastic and neon excrescences and, for the most part, the souvenirs on display are tasteful examples of local crafts.
Sanmachi Suji has other shops that, while they appeal to the tourist, are not specifically aimed at them. Look for the large basket-like kegs hanging over doorways. They mark the sake breweries that dot the district. Even if sake isn’t your thing, it’s worth stepping inside, if only to breath the heady aromas and wander among the sake vats. Also worth a visit are the miso shops, inevitably crowded with shoppers eager to sample the wares. Bubbling pots of fresh miso are surrounded with small paper cups and you should feel free to help yourself. Of course, if you are moved to take home some miso paste, you’ll find a variety of attractively wrapped packages ready to go.
The district is also home to a surprising number of museums, devoted to everything from local history, to traditional Japanese toys, to wild birds, to art. It would be easy to spend several days exploring their treasures. Always busy during the day, Sanmachi Suji is a great place to visit before and after the shops close, when you can savor the undeniable aura of an earlier era.
A more studied evocation of old Japan can be found at the Hida Minzoku-mura, or Hida Folk Village, on the outskirts of town. Here have been assembled, and restored, traditional rural structures from the surrounding Hida region. The hilly and wooded setting is suitably bucolic and, at places, affords lovely views to the distant mountains from which the Japan Alps takes its name.
Somewhat on the model of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia, or Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts, this is a “living” folk village and in various houses that once belonged to local farmers, you can watch artisans as they practice their traditional crafts. The structures on display range from humble outbuildings to substantial homes of prosperous farmers, to village halls and warehouses. Spending several hours here will give you an excellent feel for country life of a century or so ago.
Admission to Hida Mura is 700 yen; the site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Since it’s too far to walk, consider renting a bicycle to get there. We picked some up near the train station for about 1,300 yen per person and then used them to get around town for the remainder of the day.
Takayama is world-renowned for two festivals that mark the alpha and omega of rural life. In April, the Sanno Matsuri Festival marks the planting season and, in October, the Hachiman Matsuri Festival celebrates the harvest. These shindigs swell Takayama’s population to 250,000, so careful planning and early booking is essential if you’d like to take them in.
The highlight of the festivals is the procession of elaborate floats, or yatai, through the streets. Each one is the creation of a separate guild and, over the years, the guilds competed to create the biggest bombshell of a float ever. The result is a treasure trove of towering structures, some dating from the 17th century, featuring flamboyant carving and colors and beautifully costumed dolls displayed in curtained niches. Some yatai feature marionettes that are technical marvels.
During the year, the yatai are stored in yatai-kura, tall, odd-looking structures that you’ll probably notice as you stroll around town. These storehouses are closed to prying eyes, but if you’re visiting Takayama between festivals you can still get an idea of what you’re missing by visiting the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall.
There, for the 800 yen admission fee, you can walk around four representative examples of the float maker’s art. The floats themselves are protected behind glass in a towering central room. The viewing platform snakes around and upward, offering a far better view than you’d get during the hectic festival itself. Of course, the floats don’t move and the puppets don’t dance and spin, but then you can’t have everything. What you do get is an impressive look at an amazing example of folk artistry at its highest level of expression. The Hall is open from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and the glossy brochure you receive makes an excellent memento of your visit.
Our stay in Takayama also provided us with an interesting example of a phenomenon Kerr touches on in “Lost Japan,” namely the way the Japanese blend the hyper-new with touches of the old and quaint, and their apparent ability to focus on the latter while totally ignoring the former.
We had chosen the Uenoya Minshuku (0577-32-3919) on the basis of a photograph in a Japanese guide to lodgings. It showed a charming corner of what, for all the world, looked like a quaint old Japanese inn. When we arrived, we discovered that, behind the lovely old facade of the place, the corner shown in the photo was just that — a corner. The rest of the inn was antiseptically hyper-modern and faceless, almost institutional. The walls and carpeted floors were uniformly beige. The plastic and metal doors to the rooms seemed hermetically sealed and it was easy to imagine they led to cryogenic sleep chambers aboard some intergalactic craft.
That’s not to say the place wasn’t nice. It was. The accommodations were spotless and comfortable in the minimalist Japanese style. The service was friendly and efficient. The Japanese-style breakfast was delicious. There were even tiny ofuros (hot baths) in the ultra-modern bathrooms down the hall. But we had clearly stepped directly from nineteenth century Japan into twenty-first century Japan when we crossed the threshold. The rate was 5,820 yen per person, including breakfast, when we visited.
This article is based on a visit in April of 1999. Prices and other information were accurate as of that date.