Last year, around this time, I took off for the mountains of central Japan. During that trip, I spent a few nights in Takayama, one of my favorite destinations in Japan.
Takayama is a small city that sits at the edge of the Central Japan Alps. Takayama was renowned in the Edo Period (1603-1868) for its carpenters, whose skills can still be enjoyed in many of the well-preserved buildings in the old town section known as Sanmachi.
Sanmachi runs for six or seven blocks, a few streets north of the river. The district is a delight to explore – a collection of old merchant homes and sake breweries dating mostly from the mid-1800s. Many are now shops, restaurants and small museums, though there are still a few breweries in this area. Look for the cedar ball (called a sugidama) hanging over the door. The ball – green with new cuttings – is hung when the sake first begins production. When the ball turns brown, it’s a signal that the sake is ready to be consumed. One or two breweries offer free tastings.
Numerous small museums can be found in the old buildings, but not all are worth your time (and money). One that is is the Kusakabe Folk Museum (¥500). Rebuilt after a fire in 1879, this old merchant home is an architectural joy, with wooden beams, cedar pillars and latticework around the windows. In the interior courtyard, your entrance ticket entitles you to free green tea and a sweet. The exhibits are labeled mostly in Japanese only but the informational pamphlet provided is fairly detailed.
Bookending the Sanmachi are two worthwhile sites. Both are a few blocks away from the ends of the street but it doesn’t take long to detour to them. I’ve already written about the Takayama Jinya governmental building on the opposite side of the river (the train station side). On the entirely other end of the street and a few blocks towards the mountains is the Yatai Kaikan (¥820).
Takayama holds two major festivals, one in the spring (April 14th and 15th) and one in the fall (October 9th and 10th). Each takes place in a different half of town, the area around the Hachiman shrine hosting the autumn festival. On the two days of the festival, a mikoshi (portable shrine) carrying the deity of the main shrine is paraded around town, followed by nearly a dozen (yatai). You can see these floats in the Yatai Kaikan next to the shrine, as well as watch a video (Japanese only) of the event itself. At the shrine, take a look at the ema (prayer plaques) for an idea of what the festival entails.
There’s plenty more to the Sanmachi to explore and half the delight of that street – and Takayama in general – is taking your time and poking your head into shops, museums, temple gardens and whatever else catches your fancy.