ESCAPE INTO THE MOUNTAINS OF HIDA TAKAYAMA

ESCAPE INTO THE MOUNTAINS OF HIDA TAKAYAMA

Five hours from hyper modern Tokyo lies a very different Japan: tranquil, rural and pristine. Takayama and Shirakawago are remote mountain towns and villages in central Japan untouched by modernity - but alive with their own quiet magic. Keep reading to learn about my perfect weekend here - to unwind and recharge and indulge in Japanese gastronomy and hospitality. 

The name Takayama (高山) means 'tall mountain’. Upon arriving, I was greeted by amazing mountain views and the soothing sound of water. Takayama is 5h from Tokyo by train (at least one connection is needed) or highway bus. I recommend bus as this is a direct bus and cheaper but requires booking in advance (2-3 weeks is recommended). Night bus is also available in the summer to save time. Takayama can also be easily accessed from Kyoto, Nagoya and Kanazawa - for full transport information, see Japan Guide and use Hyperdia to check train times.

There is a well staffed information centre at Takayama station/bus terminal where you can purchase bus tickets to Shirakawago and other nearby cities and store luggage in the lockers. From the station, head east for about 15 minutes and you will cross the Miyagawa River to the old town and morning markets.

There were lots of handmade soba shops around town - Ebisu Honten (手打ちそば恵比寿) came highly recommended.

There were a few bridges crossing the Miyagawa River which reminded me of Kyoto.

Start the day at the morning markets

There are two markets (within walking distance of each other): Miyagawa Market along the Miyagawa River and the Jinya-mae Market in front of the Takayama Jinya. Both markets open 6 to 12 and is a great place to mingle with locals and shop for local produce and flowers. I recommend stocking up on some fruits and vegetables, grabbing a coffee and eating some light snacks here but leave room for more substantive meals later in the day ;)

Miyagawa morning market

These freshly grilled senbei (rice crackers) were so fragrant! And who could go past the cute message ;)

Takayama Jinya - which had a morning market in front

The constant (and sometimes invisible) sound of water was music to my ears as I explored Takayama

Wander through Sanmachi (Old town)

I could feel the stress melting away as I walked into the beautiful and ethereal old town (“Sanmachi” 三町). The dark wooden houses with lovely facades are well-preserved and date back to the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868). Many of them are still lived in and others are sake breweries and boutiques selling quality craft and souvenirs. My favourite part was the lush and colourful climbing plants and flower pots decorating these houses and the little stream in front.

The historical district is the most touristy and crowded part of town – I recommend arriving here 9-10am to have these empty streets all to yourself (and the local grannies who meticulously water their flower arrangement)! From 10:30~11am onwards, the shops open so do hang around to indulge in some amazing food and shopping. See the dedicated food section below for my “must-eats”.

A sarubobo (さるぼぼ) is a Japanese amulet and doll that is the symbol of Takayama and the Hida region. They come in different colours (black means protection from evil). Red ones were common which represents healthy family and children.

I was obsessed with these blue flowers which kept popping up!

Japanese enjoy fruits in its simplicity and frozen mikan (mandarin) is a local delicacy.

This was a simple and refreshing snack while exploring (JPY100).

Take a cafe break

It was quite a hot day so it was a welcome refuge when I found 喫茶去 かつて in the old town. This cafe has a zen garden at the back and serve some great kakigori - the food and ambiance was just what I needed!

Can you spot the kakigori? It looks like it is grown from the moss…

The sound of water was a lullaby to me in my weary/zen state…

So much matcha goodness!

eat HIDA BEEF

I will be honest - I found out about Takayama and the Hida region through Hida beef. The crisp mountain air and pristine water in the Gifu region must do a lot of good for the cattle. There are many delicious varieties of wagyu in Japan and Hida beef from Takayama is considered one of the very best. 

What sets Hida beef apart from other wagyu is its muscle and marbling. While all branded A5 wagyu varieties feature intense marbling, Hida beef is considered by many to be the ideal wagyu. This is because the marbling appears not only on the tender steak cuts, but is also woven throughout other cuts as well (including the shoulder, flank and round). This coating prevents the juice and the aroma from escaping the meat and maintains the tenderness and juiciness of the meat.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy Hida beef - from street stalls to sit-down restaurants. Below is what I sampled (and enjoyed every bite of). I wish I had more time in Takayama because I would love to more of this wagyu…

Beef nigiri sushi from Kottesushi: There are a few stalls selling these and Kottesushi had a constant queue (which moved relatively fast) so I decided to follow the crowds (and no regrets!). The beef was gently broiled and came with different sauce/topping. The sushi came on a senbei plate which you eat at the end so there is no rubbish - a delicious and environmentally friendly end to this snack!

Beef burger from Center4 Hamburgers: There are a variety of burgers on the menu but definitely go for the Hida beef burger (made from 100% Hida beef) because you can definitely taste the difference. The Hida beef burger is limited in quantity to go early when they open for lunch.

Beef bun from Kihachirou: Kihachiro’s steamed buns with beef (“gyuman”) is like no other meat bun I have ever tried! The pillowy bun is steaming hot and filled with 100% juicy Hida beef. Apparently, this gyuman has won a few gyuman competitions. There are two locations (a testament to their popularity) and they also sell frozen ones for souvenirs but there is no substitute for having these fresh from the steamer! I also tried a gyuman from another shop and the Kihachirou one was definitely the superior one.

Beef croquette from Sukeharu: The soft, juicy Hida beef wrapped in a crunchy layer makes for an irresistale croquette. You will see alot of street stalls selling these pre-made but I recommend getting it from Sukeharu (well-estalished local butcher and their croquette has won a few awards). They deep fry it to order so it is super hot and extra juicy (there was so much juice left in the bottom of my croquette…!)

If I had one more meal in Takayama, I would have loved to try yakiniku at Maruaki Restaurant or Suzuya Restaurant. But now I have a (very good) reason to return, right?

I would come back just for these buns!

VISIT THE FAIRYTALE VILLAGE OF SHIRAKAWAGO

Takayama is a great base for exploring the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Shirakawago and Gokayama. It is 1 hour away by bus so can easily be done as a (half) day trip but I will save that for another post!

UPDATE: My post on Shirakawa-go is here!

VISIT AN ONSEN

What would a relaxing weekend in Japan be without some onsen time? Takayama is the gateway to Hirayu Onsen, a historic and beautiful onsen town 1h away (by bus). It was raining when I arrived but luckily the rotenburo (outdoor bath, 平湯民俗館 平湯の湯) had a roof covering. So I could take in sweeping mountain views and listen to the soothing sound of rain drops while soaking in hot spring waters that is said to have many healing properties.

I actually visited Hirayu Onsen after Shirakawa-go, as a stop before heading back to Tokyo (the bus from Takayama to Shinjuku stops here). But you can easily spend an overnight here for some extra R&R.

Where do you go to escape the city hustle and bustle? Let me know in the comments below!