Takayama (高山), sometimes called Hida-Takayama, is located in Gifu Prefecture's mountainous Hida region. Takayama ranks highly for travelers looking to add rural tourism to their list and has attractions that can not be found anywhere else in Japan.
From Tokyo, the ride alone is a refreshing experience. Arriving at Takayama station, the tourist center outside the train station will help you get started with multilingual staff and materials available for free. There are several souvenir shops right across the street from the station for your Gifu souvenir shopping including the mascot pictured above in multiple colors. An adjoining bus station grants passage the most popular destinations including onsens, caves, ski resorts and more.
A short walk (about 10-15 minutes) or a bus ride will take you to the iconic old streets of San-machi. This historic area was the merchant center of Takayama Castle hundreds of years ago and the buildings have been preserved remarkably. Today tourists walk along the famous street to find restaurants, shopping and temples. At night it is quite calming with lanterns lining the streets, illuminating your path. The street food is a must and includes Hida-gyu (Gifu prefecture high quality beef) and Mitarashi dango (dango covered with a sweet soy sauce glaze and a distinct burnt fragrance). There are also numerous museums and traditional Japanese shops in the area, easily found by street signs or walking maps.
Outside the city you move from historical significance to natural beauty. If you are headed skiing or snowboarding, you will find at least seven ski resorts within twenty minutes of Takayama ranging from family friendly to extreme sport. There are several local sake breweries in the area with tasting tours from January to March. Accommodation options include western style, hidden Ryokans in the mountains and lodge houses popular with families and tour groups.
I stayed at the lodge house Shakunage. Inside are cozy rooms in Japanese style with futons and a kotatsu to keep you warm. The staff was equally warm and guided me around the premises showing the bathhouse, communal room for meals and more. The meals were memorable and included a large variety of items and dishes made with fresh, local ingredients and recipes. The meals were served in an open room and I quickly made friends with the people around me.
The next day after breakfast we traveled to a large ice cave, Hida Daishonyudo. A walking trail inside the cave leads you past giant stalactites, expansive caverns, underground rivers and waterfalls and even a sake brewery. During winter there is an extraordinary experience as you emerge and discover a valley filled frozen blue formations of ice over 30 meters high. Nearby is a free arts and crafts museum with many beautiful pieces. As part of our tour, we found several sleds waiting for us near a hill and the kids started sledding and crashing down the slopes. The rest of us walked over to an open area and had some fun creating ice blocks that were stacked into a large igloo house where we took some photos.
For lunch, we stopped at a place called Yada-Nabe which doubles as a local craft center. There was a traditional mochitsuki experience where we all gathered around a large wooden bowl and took turns pounding rice into mochi with a heavy wooden hammer. Inside we had nabe to warm us up and ate the freshly create mochi with kinako powder as a sweet dessert. Locals in wintry regions like Takayama also use mochi as a decoration due to the lack of color and flowers during the winter months. Our guides showed us how to make hanamochi by dying mochi into bright colors and wrapping small pieces around branches. The branches are tied together and make a colorful decoration resembling a flowering tree. This makes a nice take-home souvenir to go along with the memories of exploring Takayama.
Major attractions around Takayama:
Mount Norikura A dormant volcano nearly 10,000 feet (3026 meters) tall located to the east of Takayama. Buses available from Takayama station take visitors to the summit.
Shin-Hotaka Ropeway and Okuhida Spa Resort The ropeway is over 3,200 meters stretching across the Northern Alps. Okuhida spa is famous for its outdoor baths offering views over the alps. Includes both segregated and mixed bathing.
Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village An open air museum of approximately 30 traditional farm houses with the distinct architectural style of the Hida region. Known as "the village hidden in the leaf", the village sits on a hillside over Takayama valley surrounding a large pond.
Takayama Festivals Takayama hosts one of the three biggest Shinto festivals in Japan. Festivals are divided into Spring and Autumn events famous for large, ornate floats that start moving around after dusk and are covered with hundreds of lanterns and puppets.
Takayama Jinya A historical government building that has been restored and now functions as a public museum. Located near the main shopping district of San-machi.
The cheapest way to get to Takayama is to reserve the bus from Shinjuku to Takayama. For a quicker route take the bullet train (opening March 14, 2015) from Tokyo to Toyama. From Toyama take the JR Takayama line direct to Takayama station.