Takayama (2½ hours north of Nagoya) is often called "Little Kyoto." Situated in a 500-meter-high basin surrounded by the Japanese Alps, it is one place in Japan that has managed to keep the look and feel of old Japan. Its nickname is reference to its large number of temples and the fact it is was modeled after Kyoto in 1586 by its founder, the daimyo Kanamori Nagachia. Unlike Kyoto, the town’s sights are concentrated in an area easily explored on foot and not spoiled too much by modern buildings and traffic jams.
Takayama is home to about 66,000 people and is a fine place to explore on foot. It features narrow streets lined with traditional sake cellars, miso shops, confection stores, well-preserved merchant houses, sake breweries, and charming antique shops. There is a museum with puppets and ornate floats and traditional houses with roofs that look like two hands joined in prayer.
Takayama can be reached on a pleasant train ride through the mountains. The area around Takayama is called Hida. It is famous for its beef (said to be as good as Kobe beef), traditional wooden houses, mountains, forests and farming communities. It receives quite a bit of snow in the winter time. The snow and mountains have isolated communities and helped them keep old traditions alive.
Websites: Hida Takayama hida.jp Maps : Tourist Map hidaho.hida-ch.com; Map Downloads hida.jp/english Hotel Web Sites: Takayama Hotel Guide takayama-guide.com ; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Takayama is accessible by bus and train from Nagoya (shinkansen) and Osaka and other Japanese cities. From Tokyo It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes by Tokaido Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to Nagoya. From there, take the Hida express train to JR Takayama Station, about 2 ½ hours. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Festivals and Markets in Takayama:
Large numbers of people show up in mid April and mid October the see the massive floats featured in the towns spring and autumn festivals. People come from April to October to enjoy the town's colorful morning markets at Takayama Jinya and the east bank of the Miyagawa River, which lasts from around 7:00am to noon.
Items on sale in the market include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, wild plants, traditional medicines, pickled vegetables, traditional Japanese clothes, paintings, crafts and small souvenir items. Most of the vendors operate in small stalls set up under white canopies. Most of the stuff they sell they either make or grow themselves. There are good buys on pottery, ornate sake bottles and porcelain hibachis. The side streets around the market are equally interesting. One sale here are more artwork, crafts and food items. Many of the shops are charming and crowded.
April 14th and 15th — “Sanno Matsuri” is a festival at Hie Jinja Shrine in Takayama that features gorgeous floats carried on the shoulders of floatbearers. Symbolizing the wish of farmers for a good harvest, the first day of the festival begins when the floats are taken from the storehouses and prepared for the procession. After a Shinto ceremony at Hie Jinja Shrine, the wooden floats, some hundreds of year old, are paraded through the streets. In the evening the procession continues with floats adorned with lanterns. Many people dress in Edo period costumes. On the second day. marionettes shows ate performed on three of the 12 floats. October 9th-10th — “Takayama Matsuri” at Hachimangu Shrine in Takayama is noted for its parade of colorful floats.
Sights in Takayama
Festival float Sights in Takayama are centered around San-machi Suji, the city’s old district which is concentrated around the streets of Ichino-machi, Nino-machi and Sanno-machi. Here you can find narrow streets and alleys lined with traditional wooden houses filled with shops, inns, sake breweries, restaurants, soba noodle shops, pickle stores, antique stores, and storehouses.
Designated as an "Important Cultural Property, San-machi has traditionally been the home of Takayama’s merchants and sake brewers, it looks almost exactly as it did 300 years ago and contains an excellent example of Edo period architecture as well as the oldest and largest rice granary in Japan. There are number of small museums and workshops where crafts are made using traditional methods. The sake breweries are identified by balls made of cedar leaves.
The most popular old house, Kusakabe Heritage House, contains a folklore museum with antique furniture and utensils. Located near the Miiyagawa River, is a wooden section with a two-story warehouse and one story residence with a partly earthen flood and exposed beams. Yoshijima Heritage House is another popular traditional house.
Shiroyama Park sits on the grounds that once contained Takayama’s castle. Only some foundations remain. The park is very pleasant and features good views of the Japan Alps. Near the park is Higashiyma Teramachi, a tree-lined esplanade with thirteen temples and five shrines. Some are reached by stone steps and surrounded by cedar trees. Around the town are forests and wooded hills that can be explored via numerous hiking trails that crisscross the area. In the Forest of Seven Lucky Gods you can see statue of the seven gods carved from 1000-year-old trees . The Squirrel Forest and Hida Wild Plant Garden contains 70 Japanese squirrels as well as squirrels from six other countries. The later has a ¥600 entrance fee.
Museums in Takayama
There are a lot of museums in Takayama. Many are concentrated around the San-machi and Suji districts within a few minutes of each other. Most are small and deal with a local craft. The main problem with the museums is that admission prices are very steep for the limited amount things you see.
The Festival Floats Exhibition Hall contains four of the eleven floats used during the festivals and a one-tenth scale model of Nikko’s 28-building Toshua Shrine. The Lion Mask Exhibition Hall houses a collection of 800 lion masks and drums and other items related to lion dancing. At regular intervals throughout the day videos are show of local folk dances and demonstrations are given of automation dolls.
Other museums include the Hida Archaeology Museum, Fuji Folkcraft Art Gallery, Hirata Folk Art Museum. Gallery of Traditional Japanese Toys, Takayama Museum of Local History, and Lacquerware Exhibition Hall.
Hida Takayama Hida Folk Village (30 minute walk from central Takayama) is a wonderful open air museum comprised of 30 traditional buildings, including rice storage houses and houses where traditional crafts are demonstrated. And farmhouses that were rescued from villages submerged by the Miboro Dam.
The park extends over a 99,000 square meters at the foot of Mt. Matsukura The houses are known for their steeply-pitched thatch roofs. Each has been preserved in its original state and often contains items owned by its original owners. The villages also included a kind of circular rice paddy unique to the region and a folklore museum and Museum of Mountain Life, with display of tools and utensils. Certain houses contain workshops, where demonstrations of woodcarving, lacquerware, the making of straw baskets, hats and sandals are given. The village is a nice place to spend several hours of the entire day strolling around. Website: Japan Guide japan-guide
Yoshijima Heritage House is a a nationally designated Important Cultural Property. It was built in 1907 by renowned traditional carpenter Isaburo Nishida as a house and shop for a sake merchant. There are many architectural elements worth noting: the large central pillar around which beams and pillars are structured to create a lofty foyer, the high windows that allow dramatic presence of light and shadow, and the rich tones of wood from varied polishing and use. Location: 1-51 Oshin-machi, Takayama-shi, Gifu 506-0851 +81-577-32-0038 Gifu]
Wood Craftsmanship Takayama
Yuka Matsumoto wrote in theYomiuri Shimbun: “It all began with a visit to a furniture shop in Tokyo. Stylish chairs with elegant curves, comfy dining tables-all simple wooden creations with a certain warmth that makes it seem as if they are quietly waiting for people to use them. I was fascinated by the beauty of Hida-brand furniture. How are these pieces made? My curiosity was such that it drove me to travel to Takayama, a central city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture. "Professional craftsmen called 'Hida no Takumi' have lived in this region since ancient times," said Hideki Takada, an executive director of the Hida Woodworking Federation-a group comprising local furniture makers. [Source: Yuka Matsumoto, Yomiuri Shimbun, January 27, 2013]
“I visited Museum Hida in Hida Earth Wisdom Center to find out more about the history of Hida furniture. Surrounded by abundant forests, ruins of villages from the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.) remain in the region. During the ritsuryo (legal code) system of government, Hida craftsmen were made to work for the central government instead of paying taxes. Every year, 100 craftsmen-10 from each settlement-were dispatched to work for a year in Nara, the centre of the political system back then. For about 500 years, from the the Asuka period (592-710) to the end of the Heian period (794-1192), Hida craftsmen helped build a number of notable works of architecture in Nara’s Heijokyo capital, including Kofukuji, Toshodaiji and Todaiji temples. "Hida craftsmen don't count on profit, but on making furniture respectably and deliberately. That craftsmanship has been passed down to Hida furniture makers today," Takada said.
“Furniture manufacturing came to the Hida region in 1920. Using the area’s abundant beech trees, a furniture maker, now known as Hida Sangyo Co., began making Thonet’s bentwood chair — which back then had been mass-produced in the West. Now, visitors can take a tour of Hida Sangyo’s factory and watch the process of bending wood. Young workers place steamed wood around a mould, which is then spun with machines to create curvy lines. The firm’s furniture is a bit pricey, but sells well. "After the Great East Japan Earthquake, Japanese people started looking for more valuable, authentic items as they began thinking more seriously on how to make their lives more fruitful," said Hida Sangyo President Sanzo Okada.
“In addition to beech trees, the company uses Japanese cedar to prevent deforestation. The cedar usually is considered too soft to make furniture with. But the firm hardens the wood through its special woodbending technique. Hopping from one furniture showroom to another around the city is fun. Kashiwa Mokko Co. deals with architectural material, Nissin Furniture Crafters Co. produces modern-looking designs, while Kitani Co. reproduces Scandinavian furniture. The Hida Woodworking Federation created Charter of Hida Design, and "Hida no Kagu" (Hida furniture) became a regionally based collective trademark, a symbol of sincerity for themselves and others.
“Walking around the city of Takayama, I could see the skillful work of Hida craftsmen all over town. Raven degoshi, or latticework, adorn walls as low roofs and long eaves created an elegant mood. A domain lord here who dedicated himself to the tea ceremony became familiar with the architecture of Kyoto and commissioned craftsmen to build a castle town modeled after the ancient capital. Along Sanmachi Street, one can see the delicate woodwork of craftsmen has been lovingly preserved. There, you can see the awe-inspiring kumiki (wooden puzzles) used in the Yoshijima Heritage House. There’s also the Kusakabe Folk Museum, which used to be the house of a business tycoon, and Takayama Jinya (Historical Government House) .For more information, call the Hida-Takayama Tourism and Convention Bureau at (0577) 36-1011 or the Hida Woodworking Federation at (0577) 32-2100.
Walking in the snowy city, I stayed overnight at an onsen inn that served local specialties such as Hida beef and hoba-miso yaki, a dish in which a miso, onions, shiitake mushrooms and other food are roasted on a magnolia leaf over a charcoal brazier or stove. The day I left the city, I stopped by a morning market and sampled pickled red turnips, another local specialty. "We farmers pickled it," said a female vendor as I bought a bag. "I'll pickle a good one for the next time you visit."
Shokawa Valley Region (west of Takayama) is a lovely rural area of Japan known for its lovely countryside and traditional rural communities and deep winter snows. So much snow falls in the winter that “overcoming snow” is a local motto. It is not uncommon for four meters of snow to fall in a single storm and 22 meters to fall in a season. These heavy snows and the mountains isolate this region from the rest of Japan and have helped keep local traditions alive.
The people of this region have traditionally been farmers and silkworm raisers. Now many rely on tourism. The Shokawa Valley is a bit hard to get to, requiring a car or careful attention to bus schedules. In the area are hiking trails, ski resorts, sports parks, hot springs. The highways that link the region to Takayama in the east and Kanazawa in the west have been built at considerable expense and feature some long tunnels and bridges.
Gokayama and Shirakawago lie in a mountainous areas that embrace 2,702-meter-high Mt. Haku. Until the 1950s the area for the most part was isolated from the outside world, especially in the winter when it receives some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan.
Thatch Roof Houses of the Shokawa Valley
The Showa Valley region is most famous for its traditionally grass-roof houses, which are known locally as “gassho-zukuri” (“gassho” means “praying hands,” a reference to fact that the unique roofs look like praying hands. Built through a communal effort, the traditional thatched-roof homes in the area are usually made of unpainted boards and waddle-and-daub walls without using a single nail. The steep praying-hands roof are designed the way they area or shed the heavy snows that fall on them in the winter. The name also indicates how devout the local people are. Most are followers of the Jodoshinshu sect of Buddhism.
The thatched roofs can be up to a meter thick and are hand woven from thick reeds that come from communal grasslands. They are woven into matts that are tied on to the beams of the house by straw ropes. No nails are used. Inside the houses it is very dark. The roofs extend almost all the way to the ground and windows are only at the front and back of the houses. The large houses are four stories high and include spaces for raising silk worms.
The thatched roofs are replaced every 30 or 40 years, with work usually being done in April. The work has to be done quickly so the house is not damaged by rain. As many as 500 people take part in replacing a single roof. Some people stand on the roof beams and put the thatch in place while others hand the thatch up to them. With so much labor involved, the cost of doing a single roof can be $200,000. About three or four houses are reroofed every year, with the generous Japanese government absorbing much of the costs.
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama: UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 According to UNESCO: “Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people's social and economic circumstances. [Source: UNESCO]
Putting on a new roof “The Gassho-style houses found in the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are rare examples of their kind in Japan. Located in a river valley surrounded by the rugged high-mountain Chubu region of central Japan, these three villages were remote and isolated, and access to the area was difficult for a long period of time. The inscribed property comprises the villages of “Ogimachi” in the Shirakawa-go region, and “Ainokura” and “Suganuma” in the Gokayama region, all situated along the Sho River in Gifu and Toyama Prefectures. In response to the geographical and social background, a specific housing type evolved: rare examples of Gassho-style houses, a unique farmhouse style that makes use of highly rational structural systems evolved to adapt to the natural environment and site-specific social and economic circumstances in particular the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses have steeply-pitched thatched roofs and have been preserved in groups, many with their original outbuildings which permit the associated landscapes to remain intact.”
The site is important because: 1) “Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are outstanding examples of traditional human settlements that are perfectly adapted to their environment and their social and economic raison d’être. 2) It is of considerable significance that the social structure of these villages, of which their layouts are the material manifestation, has survived despite the drastic economic changes in Japan since 1950. As a result they preserve both the spiritual and the material evidence of their long history.”
History and Traditions at Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
In the old days villager maintained communal grasslands by annually cutting and burning to provide grass for roofs. The communal grasslands that supply the thatch are disappearing. Many have been plowed over for farms. The roofs and warehouses provide a habitat for raccoons, tanukis, rat snakes, geckos and lizards. At the of the 19th century there were 1,800 gassho-style houses in 93 districts. Today only about 160 of these houses are left, UNESCO recognizes the area as a World Heritages Site not only because of the houses and scenery but also because of the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
According to UNESCO: The three settlements constitute important historical evidence in and of themselves. The villages have existed since the 11th century and each has a strong sense of community. Traditional social systems and lifestyle customs have sustained the Gassho-style houses and their associated historic environments. From the viewpoints of setting, function, and traditional management systems, the level of authenticity is high. [Source: UNESCO]
“While the conventional collaboration efforts by residents have functioned to maintain thatched roofs in good conditions, long-established Japanese restoration practices and principles are applied in cases in which deterioration necessitates major conservation work. Special attention is paid to the use of traditional materials and techniques, and the use of new materials is rigorously controlled. In view of the standardized modular construction of similar types of traditional wooden structures, reconstruction and replacement involve a minimum amount of conjecture. The Gassho-style houses retain their authenticity from the perspective of form and design, as well as materials and substance.”
Shirakawa-go (1½ hours by bus from Takayama) is a river valley with Japan's largest collection of gassho double-thatched-roof houses. Selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, it consists of a several villages with groups of traditional houses scattered over an area of several miles. The area gets quite crowded with tourists in the summer vacation season.
Ogimachi is main village in Shirakawamura. Centrally located across the Syoukawa River from the bus stop and parking lot where most visitors arrive, it has a largest number and densest concentration of grass-roof houses and is the best place to orient yourself. . Before you do anything else you should climb the Tenbodal Lookout to get a sense of what the whole area is like. Then spend a couple hours wander around the houses and enjoy them from the outside and then pick one or two and pay the ¥300 admission fee to check them out from the inside.
There are around 100 or so thatch-roof houses in Ogimachi and a 100 or so more scattered around near the village Most are still lived in or used as storehouses by local families. A half dozen have been converted into museums. There are all pretty similar to one another and visiting one is usually good enough. These include the Wada House and the Myozenji Temple Gassho House. Also worth a look are the Doburoku Matsuri Exhibition Hall, Tohyama House Folklore Museum, and Museum of Daily Life.
Gassho-zukuri Folklore Park (near Ogimachi) has the best collection of traditional buildings. Many of the 25 grass-roof housed were rescued during the construction of the nearby Miboro Dam. Several of the house contain craftsmen demonstrating woodworking, straw handicrafts, ceramics, and painting with Chinese ink. There are about 20 inns in the Shirakawa area. Most are in thatch-roof houses.
Websites: Shirakawa Village Tourist Site shirakawa-go.org; Japan Guide japan-guide JNTO article JNTO Map: Shirakawa Village Tourist Map shirakawa-go.org UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shirakawa is accessible by bus from Kanazawa and Takayama. There is no train service and many roads are closed in the winter. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Gokayama (20 minutes from Ogimachi by infrequent bus) also has unique double thatched roofs. Also selected a World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1995, it too is on a river valley with groups of houses scattered over several kilometers. In the old days the town was a source of gunpowder for feudal lords and secret peasant groups.
The gunpowder was made by mixing soil, grass and bacteria generated from urine. This mixture was placed in holes beneath buildings and left to ferment for four years or so and then was boiled with ash and water and filtered and boiled again until a concentrated form was derived. Some of the houses that secretly made gunpowder contain displays on the gunpowder-making process.
Gokayama is less developed and harder to get to than Shirakawago and doesn’t get as many visitors. About 100 people in 30 households live in the houses here. Many are company workers and farmers who make their living in something other than tourism. Their day-o-day needs have precedence over tourism.
For travelers who take the trouble to get to Gokayama the lack of visitors is a big plus. The town is friendlier and less superficial. The people in Gokoyama say that Shirakawamura is like a theme park and the thatch roofs are just a show. Gokayama has an interesting irrigation system. The upper stories of many of the houses has traditionally been used to raise silk worms. Washi papermaking has traditionally been an important local industry.
Most travelers with a car get off the bus at Nishi Akoa, where there is house used in making gunpowder. Three miles away is Suganuma, featuring a group of traditional houses and a folklore museum, with gunpowder displays. Kaminashi is the home of Murakami-ke House, built in 1578 and designated an important cultural property by the government. In Shimonashi you visit in the Gokayama Washi Production Center. About 30 minutes away by foot is the Gokayama Washi Production Center.
Websites: Gokayama Official Site gokayama-info.jp/en; See Shirakawa above. UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There : Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Preservation and Conservation at Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
According to UNESCO: Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma are rare examples of villages in which Gassho-style houses are preserved at their original locations and in groups, as they developed in the area along the Sho River. Although since the Second World War there has been a reduction in the number of Gassho-style houses in each village, the inscribed property includes clusters of all the remaining Gassho-style houses which allows each village to retain its traditional appearance and character. Moreover, there has been no significant change to the system of roads and canals and traditional land-use patterns including trees and forest, and agricultural land. The detrimental effects on the scenic landscape of a major highway construction less than one kilometer from Ogimachi and Suganuma has been reduced with plantings along the roadside and embankments, controls on bridge design and other protections for the view from Ogimachi Village. [Source: UNESCO]
”Each of the three villages – Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma – is classified as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. This classification requires, inter alia, the preparation of municipal ordinances and preservation plans for protection, restrictions on activities that may alter the existing landscape, authorization procedures, and the provision of subsidies for approved actions. Ainokura and Suganuma are also designated as Historic Sites under the 1950 Law, and proposed alterations to the existing state must be approved by the national government. In addition, a conventional collaboration system for maintaining Gassho-style houses has been retained by the residents.
”There are double buffer zones around each of the villages; an individual buffer zone surrounds each nominated property and a larger buffer zone that contains all three villages. Development pressures throughout the entire village of Ogimachi are controlled by the 2008 Shirakawa Village Landscape Ordinance, which was developed under the 2004 Landscape Law to reinforce the former 1973 Shirakawa Village Ordinance for the Natural Environment. Shirakawa Village must be notified of any proposed large-scale project, in order to confirm that the proposed work will fit in with the character of the historic and natural environment. Under the same ordinance, stricter regulations are imposed on the area immediately surrounding the World Heritage property of Ogimachi (471.5 ha) .
”The buffer zones immediately surrounding Ainokura, and Suganuma are protected as Historic Sites as mentioned above and as Gokayama Prefectural Natural Park under the Toyama Prefectural Natural Parks Regulations. In addition, further protection is provided under municipal ordinances implemented by Nanto City. All of these regulations and ordinances impose considerable constraints on any kind of activity that might be deemed harmful.
”Overall responsibility for the protection of the property rests with the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Government of Japan. Direct management of individual buildings is the responsibility of their owners, and all work is supervised as prescribed in the Preservation Plans. Routine repair work has always been carried out by the owners, and often through conventional collaborative efforts by communities, using traditional techniques and materials. The local and national governments provide both financial assistance and technical guidance. As fire is a major hazard for the property, elaborate fire-extinguishing systems have been installed in all three village zones. Fire-fighting squads of residents are also organized.”
Image Sources: 1) map Japan Guest Houses 2) Wikipedia 3) Ray Kinnane 4) Nagoya City site 5) Toyota 6) Aichi Expo 2005 7) Inuyuma City, 8) Meiji Mura, 9) Nagoya city, 10) JNTO 11) 12) 13) 15), 16), 17) Wikipedia, 14) Hida Takayama, 18), 19) Nanto City Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Updated in July 2020