If you are looking to immerse in a charming historic town in the ‘Japan Alps,’ plan an escape to Takayama. Read on to learn about 12 unique things to do in Takayama, including dining, shopping and sightseeing highlights.
Many refer to the town as Little Kyoto. This lovely, enchanting city of 90,000 people, dating from the Edo era, makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. Located in the Hida region of the Gifu prefecture, Takayama exudes a warm and historic character we haven’t encountered many places in the world. Read on to learn more about what to do in Takayama.
1. Time travel in Old Town Sanmachi Suji
Wandering the Sanmachi Suji District and marveling at the beautiful historical buildings dating from 1600-1868 is one of the top Takayama sightseeing highlights. Exploring specialty gift shops, sake breweries, and little restaurants that reside in old merchants’ homes will take you back to another era. The workmanship and contrast between the light and dark details in the Takayama old town provide photogenic subjects in both color and black and white.
Spending hours soaking in this area’s vibe, comprised of three long, narrow, pedestrian lanes (Ichi-no-machi, Ni-no-machi, San-no-machi) is delightful. While listening to the water gurgle through the canals and photographing the bicycles and lanterns lining the lanes, it’s easy to lose track of time.
Adding to the character is the aged wood and sliding doors of these historic, two-story homes. After the shops close and crowds disperse at 5PM, it’s even easier to imagine this town hundreds of years ago.
Staring through a window displaying Ninja armor and weapons will transport your imagination to the former Samurai era.
2. Sample sake at one of Takayama’s eight breweries
While walking along the streets, look for the large white sake barrels (sakadaru) or large balls made from cedar branches (sugidama) above the doorways. Takayama is famous for sake. And, rightly so, since they’ve been producing it for hundreds of years!
Eight breweries reside in this quintessential town. Interestingly, the color of the sugidama indicates how the sake is maturing. Green = freshly pressed sake and brown = matured sake. Make sure to check out the size of the beams used in these buildings. They are massive!
TIP: Although we didn’t have time to try it, Harada Sake Brewery comes highly recommended. 100 yen ($1 USD) allows you to sample 12-14 different types of sake.
3. Shop for exquisite textiles and accessories in Sanmachi Suji
While we often find that tourist-driven towns sell a lot of identical, cheaply made items, this is not the case in Takayama. The Sanmachi-Suji area has shops offering embroidery, wallets, jewelry, purses, chopsticks (hashis), and pottery. Not only are these items beautifully made, but they are also unique as many are found nowhere else in Japan.
If you are looking to knock out some holiday shopping, these gifts also pack down easily. Based on our two days of wandering, here are some of our favorite finds:
Hida Sashiko (Address: 60 Katahara-Machi Kamisanno-machi)
This shop offers meticulously embroidered wallets, pouches, placemats, coasters and bags. The artisans use an elegant hand-stitching technique, Sashiko, which means “little stabs,” that dates back to the Edo period in the late 19th century. This craft originally developed as a technique to repair or strengthen clothing.
We loved the striking geometric designs created using various colored threads on indigo-dyed fabrics. After learning that the indigo will change colors as it ages, leading to interesting and varied gradations within the fabric, we opted to buy a number of pieces.
Maruhyaku Inden (Address: 58-Kamisan-no-machi/Yasugawa Street – across from 7 Eleven)
Supple leather wallets, purses, pouches and eyeglass cases made from deerskin and elaborately decorated with lacquer in a variety of designs are on display. This 400-year old Japanese craft is known as Inden. Interestingly, Samurai armor was decorated by skilled artisans using this magnificent and durable art form.
4. Personalize ornate chopsticks & choose natural stone jewelry
- Yuzen – This store offers ornate chopsticks in a variety of lengths and styles. You can even opt to personalize it with your name, which only takes a few minutes. Did you know that men’s and women’s chopsticks are different lengths?
- Deko Boko Dou – An adorable jewelry store that sells a variety of accessories made from natural stones. I purchased a lovely blue tiger’s eye bracelet meant to instill calmness and aid with decision-making – both of which are areas I can always use help!
5. Indulge in local tasty treats and shop for souvenirs at the Miyagawa morning market
Spending a couple of hours at the quaint, open-air Miyagawa morning market is a wonderful way to consume tasty treats while searching for unique textiles and souvenirs when you visit Takayama.
ADDRESS: 60 shops and stalls can be found between the Kaji Bashi bridge and Yayoi Bashi bridges.
HOURS: 8AM-12PM December to March & 7AM – 12PM April to November
Morning market favorites
- Senbei – home-made rice cracker. Flavors and colors differ based on how long the cracker has been soaked in soy sauce.
TIP: We prefer the lighter senbei crackers as they taste less salty.
- Owara Tamaten – an incredibly tasty Japanese sweet made from egg, honey, sugar and sake. This marshmallow like treat will melt in your mouth.
- Taiyaki – toasted warm fish-shaped cake filled with red bean paste, custard or chestnut. We enjoyed watching the owner create these delicacies.
TIP: Our favorite flavor is chestnut.
- Sarubobo – a “Lucky Monkey Baby” – these faceless Japanese amulets were made by grandmothers during the long winter season in this agricultural area as a good luck charm for children. Since they are considered lucky mascots for the Hida Takayama Japan region, you’ll spot them outside many shops and restaurants. While the most typical color is red, they come in a variety of colors. Each color denotes a different meaning.
TIP: These make great stocking stuffers or team gifts, with a fun back story.
- Bags – a reversible bag made from old kimono material and a reusable shopping bag with a Japanese wave design were two great finds. Not only did I use them throughout the trip, but I have also used them daily since returning home.
TIP: If you don’t see the color or design you are seeking, be sure to ask the shopkeepers to see more as they typically have others in bins under the counter.
6. Visit Takayama Jinya – a beautifully preserved 17th century building
After visiting the Miyagawa market, head to Takayama Jinya and see the Jinya-mae market, which sells fruits, vegetables and pickled foods. Then, explore the museum at Takayama Jinya. This former government building houses old documents and maps that you can peruse before enjoying the lovely gardens after. Since this is the only building of its kind remaining in Japan, it’s one of the Takayama sights worth a stop.
ADDRESS: 1-5 Hachiken-machi, Takayama city, Gifu
COST: 430 Yen
HOURS: 8:45AM – 5PM
7. Revel at the Takayama festival floats
If you are visiting during either of the Takayama festivals, know that you’ll be one of 250,000 attendees. Taking place April 14 – 15 and October 9 – 10 each year, the festivals showcase 12 elaborate hand-pulled floats, dating from the 17th century. Booking accommodations and transport well in advance is key. People travel from all over Japan to view the ornately carved wood and metalwork of these masterpieces – four of which have marionettes.
If your visit doesn’t coincide with one of the festivals, you can still enjoy four of the floats from the fall festival at the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall. In March, July and November, the four floats on display are rotated. Given the elaborate nature of the designs, the floats are one of Takayama’s must-sees.
ADDRESS: Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan 178 Sakura-Machi, Takayama City
COST: 900 Yen
HOURS: 9AM – 5PM (March to November) & 9-4:30 December to February.
8. Explore the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine
After viewing the floats, continue with your historic exploration of Takayama and stop by this Shinto shrine dating from the fifth century. Wander for 30 minutes and lose yourself in the tranquility of this shrine and the surrounding woods.
While this is a quiet place most of the time, during the autumn float festival, the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine attracts up to 1 million visitors!
HOURS: Always open
9. Appreciate the Yoshijima Heritage House workmanship
Dating from the early 1900s, this former sake brewery (denoted by the huge cedar ball known as sujidama hanging over the entrance) displays marvelous details that architectural buffs will enjoy. Massive wooden beams were used to design the house. The house is brightly lit as a result of the panels and windows throughout. Spend 30 minutes wandering this former merchant’s home to enjoy the simple but beautiful design aesthetic.
COST: Adults: 500 Yen, Students: 300 Yen
HOURS: 9AM – 5PM (March to November) & 9AM – 4:30PM (December to February). Closed Tuesdays December to February.
10. Sample culinary delights at Takayama restaurants
This family business, run by Hiroshi and Naoko, is now one of our favorite places in the world – we loved it so much we ate three of six meals here!
ADDRESS: 6-7-2 Temman Cho
HOURS: 11:30AM – 2PM for lunch and 5PM – 9PM for dinner. Closed on Tuesdays.
Founded in 1963 and located on the first floor of their home, you will be welcomed like family at this quaint establishment that seats only 16 people.
TIP: Since it’s a small restaurant that is often full, make sure to stop by and make a reservation when you arrive or email their Facebook page.
The menu is not only flavorful and healthy, but also offers great options for meat lovers and vegetarians alike. They have a creative menu that allows you to point to images to identify allergies/food restrictions.
The tofu steak with tamago (egg) is delicious
Heianraku menu highlights include:
- Homemade drinks: Umeshu – A divine plum wine that Naoko started producing in June 2016 – this ended up being my favorite in all of Japan. Red Perilla – a tasty non-alcoholic drink made from shiso. She has a limited supply of each depending on how much she harvests each season, so hopefully it will be available when you visit!
- Vegetarian dishes: Koro Imo – tiny cooked potatoes. Tofu Steak – deep-fried tofu with tamago (egg) underneath. Curry ramen – noodles and veggies in curry soup. All of their creations are extremely flavorful.
- Meat dishes: Hida Miso ramen with pork or chicken. Nikudanngo – sweet and sour meatballs. Yaki gyoza – grilled pork dumplings. Karaage – deep-fried chicken.
- TIP: Order a variety of dishes to share to maximize variety. Also, make sure to try their homemade dried mixed chili powder. I sprinkled the unique flavor combination on every dish!
This Takayama restaurant is one where you can indulge in Hida beef, which is one of five types of Wagyu beef. Kobe beef is another type of Wagyu. Derived from black-haired Japanese cattle raised for 14 months, the beef has intense marbling and a high percentage of unsaturated fat, making it melt in your mouth.
TIP: Try Hida beef prepared yakiniku style (Japanese BBQ).
ADDRESS: 6-8 Tenmanmachi
HOURS: 11AM – 9PM
11. Pamper yourself with a stay at a Takayama ryokan
If you are interested in experiencing a ryokan, Takayama is a great place to treat yourself. A ryokan is a Japanese Inn. Rooms have shoji screens, tatami mats and futons. We stayed at Oyado Koto no Yume, which is designed in the traditional Japanese house style. I highly recommend splurging on this type of Takayama accommodation over hotels or hostels.
Only a three-minute walk from the Takayama train station, it’s super convenient. Reserve via booking.com.
TIP: Make sure to take advantage of the yukata/kimono they offer during your stay. They’ll even have someone come to your room to help you put it on and tie the belt.
We found relaxing and reflecting in the private onsen, which is fed by the Hida Takayama Hot Spring, to be one of our favorite experiences. It is a fitting way to pamper yourself and unwind in this magical town.
TIP: While Ryokan Oyado Koto no Yume, also has a public onsen, I recommend making a reservation to use their private onsen for 40 minutes at least one evening.
COST: 1100 Yen Adults
HOURS: 4PM – 10PM
Opt for half board and treat yourself to breakfast, made with local, seasonal ingredients. The presentation is gorgeous and the offerings are expansive. Miso beef with mushroom, pickled mountain vegetables, and fish were crowd pleasers amongst our family.
12. Take a day trip to Shirakawa-go – a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A visit to Shirakawago is an absolute must do. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, this town from the 17th century is an incredibly unique place to spend a day wandering amongst the 114 homes. These thatched roof farmhouses known as Gassho – zukuri, which means clasped hands or praying hands, are beautifully constructed.
Interestingly, they are designed this way to ensure the heavy snowfall slides off them. Constructing these grass/thatched roof costs $100,000 per side and takes 150 people to do it! They must be replaced every 10-20 years.
TIP: To experience the village all lit up at night, visit during the Winter Illumination festival held in January/February each year and to spend a night in one of the farmhouses. Reservations fill up fast so book well in advance.
To gain a greater appreciation for the construction and the fact that no nails are used in the roofs, be sure to visit at least one of the following historic homes: Wada House, Kanda House or Nagase House. Venture up to the attic to where silk worms were raised.
COST: 300 Yen per house
HOURS: 9AM – 5PM
TIP: If you are a photographer, I’d recommend visiting on your own with the Nohi bus rather than with an organized Shirakawago tour. While the tourist bureau indicated we only needed a few hours to explore, we spent six hours and still wanted more time. Make sure to venture up the hill for a lookout point with a panoramic view of the village.
COST: 4400 Yen for a 4-hour tour or 4000 Yen for a round-trip bus ride from Takayama bus station (1 hour each way)
Traveling to this tiny mountain hamlet is a short four-hour train ride from Tokyo and just over three from Kyoto to Takayama. Passing through the Gifu mountains, you’ll see Mt. Fuji, forests, rivers, and waterfalls along the picturesque journey. The Hida Wide View train you will board from Nagoya to Takayama provides spectacular views of the surrounding landscapes and great photographic opportunities. We particularly enjoyed this segment of our Japan travel.
- Download the Hyperdia app to check train schedules.
- Is a JR Rail Pass worth it?
- Since we traveled from Tokyo to Takayama to Kyoto to Tokyo, we found the the JR Rail Pass to be cost effective. Research costs here.
- TIP: Save money and book ordinary cars. We opted to pay a premium for green cars, but the ordinary cars are just as nice and plenty spacious.
- Reserving seats is especially important if traveling during holidays, weekends or busy times. If you purchase a Japan Rail pass, reserve seats for all of your train rides the first day you arrive in Japan. This will save you lots of time the rest of your trip!
- TIP: Try to minimize your luggage size. 22 inch carry-on size will fit in the overhead storage areas. Anything larger than that will need to be stored in the luggage area when you board, which has limited space.
To get to Takayama from Tokyo (4 – 4.5 hours):
- Reserve seats on the 90-minute Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagoya.
- Secure seats on the 2.5 hour EXPRESS train (1 hour faster than the local train) from Nagoya to Takayama Station.
To get to Takayama from Kyoto: (3.25 hours)
- Reserve seats on the 30 minute Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto to Nagoya.
- Secure seats on the 2.5 hour EXPRESS train (1 hour faster than the local train) from Nagoya to Takayama Station.
We loved Takayama so much that we are already plotting our next return visit!
If you enjoyed my Takayama travel guide and found it helpful to identify what to see in Takayama, please leave a comment below.