"Takayama has a lot of charm with its traditional wooden buildings, arts and crafts and morning farmers' market. And on top of all this there is even a religious cult to visit!"
Alastair Donnelly - Director
Situated more than 2000 ft above sea lea level and surrounded by the brooding peaks of the Japan Alps, Takayama is a bustling market town. It was once the home of Japan’s most skilled carpenters and artisans, and the well-preserved streets and wooden houses on the banks of the Miyagawa River pay vivid testament to this fact. The buildings now house a multitude of craft shops and specialist food stores in amongst which you’ll find numerous sake breweries (open for tastings!) and museums covering all manner of things from mechanical dolls to the history of the Lion dance. Add in the friendly locals and wizened old women who bring their wares for sale at the two morning markets and it is no wonder that people fall in love with this place.
This generally quiet rural town is known throughout Japan for its vibrant festivals that shatter the peace twice a year. Tens of thousands of Japanese descend on the town in spring and again in autumn to join the celebrations as spectacular yatai (floats) are raucously paraded through the streets by locals in traditional dress. Even if you are not in town during the festival you can catch a sight of the yatai (floats) in the Yatai Museum or you may spot them being cleaned and repaired in town in one of the various storehouses.
Set amidst some lovely countryside in the hills overlooking the town, the traditional houses of the Hida Folk Village provide a great chance to see a side of Japan and everyday Japanese life which has all but disappeared. This remarkable collection of old “Gassho tsukuri “ (praying hands) farm houses, complete with thatched roofs and irori fireplaces, have been moved here from all around the Hida area where many faced destruction due to river damning projects. Painstakingly reconstructed by locals, you can sometimes watch these artisans at work as they care for the buildings and grounds and engage in traditional crafts.
Takayama is not, however, simply a place of tradition; glimmering in the sunlight across the valley from Hida village you will see the sweeping golden roof of Shukyo Mahikari cult’s main World Shrine, adorned in the middle with a huge red cherry-like ball. Pay a visit and you will be welcome to look around the kitsch interior complete with enormous fish tank, marvel at the mixture of religious iconography and enjoy a complimentary glass of sake on your way out. Opinion is divided on the sect. Are they a harmless, eccentric group of believers or do they have a more sinister agenda? However, after initial local hostility the Mahikari are largely forgotten about by Takayama residents.
The Teramachi district to the south east of the town centre is home to some more conventional temples and shrines and makes for a lovely afternoon stroll - the pine tree lined paths are quite well marked in English. And, after taking this walk, why not indulge in some of the local speciality cuisine? You’ll find lots of local soba noodles available, as well as the famed Hida beef, various hoba miso based products and the delicious mitarashi dango - rice balls dipped in soy sauce and roasted on skewers.