Nestled within the beautiful Hida Mountains, the historic city of Takayama is an easy one to explore, taste and fall in love with.
Two nights was all we allocated for this Gifu Prefecture gem – which was just enough to get a good feel of the town – but a third night would have allowed us to explore a bit more outside the centre.
Modern Takayama is nothing much to look at, I must be honest, but it’s what’s at street level and in its historic precinct that grabbed our attention.
This town is known for many things – like traditional carpentry, pottery, lacquerware and some pretty smashing sake breweries, to name a few.
Hida Kokubun-ji Temple and pagoda – 1-83 Souwamachi
Numerous temples and shrines can be found throughout the town, such as Hida Kokubun-ji Temple – built in 746 by Emperor Shomu. Aside from the main temple – Japan’s oldest Jodo Shinshu sect temple – there’s a three-storey pagoda, Bell Tower Gates and an impressive gingko tree over 1200 years old.
In the city’s east is a string of temples and shrines, where you can leisurely stroll along the signposted Higashiyama Walking Course to see them all. The area was modelled on Kyoto’s Higashiyama temple district, thanks to the local clan chief Nagachika Kanamori. The path also leads through beautiful forest and some cemeteries.
Daioji Temple – 67 Atagomachi
Harada Sake Brewery – 10 San-no machi
Takayama’s historic town is found east of the Miyagawa River, along the beautiful streets of San-no machi, Nino-machi and Ichi-no machi. The streets are lined with old latticed wooden buildings containing shops, restaurants, homes and sake breweries and are a delight to explore, despite the swarming tourists.
Getting there very early in the morning is advisable, should you wish to get photos without the hoards.
Thanks to Takayama being known for its many edibles, there are more than enough shops offering food souvenirs to take home. Pickled vegetables – in particular radishes – are big business here, and many of the stores let you sample just about any of them.
Soft creams may not be unique to Takayama, but they sure are part and parcel to visiting Japan. The green tea is divine!
The good old FamilyMart convenience store chain is a great one to drop into purely for their inexpensive food and bottles of wine. Even sake! The sushi, sashimi and onigiri is cheap and delicious and perfect to take on train journeys. There are even desserts like the trifle parfait topped with set custard.
Soft creams at Kadokuwa – 1 1 0 Kamiichinomachi
Dessert parfait from FamilyMart Takayama Ekimae – 6 Chome 3 8
Hida beef, or Hida-gyu, is virtually unavoidable in Takayama. This black-haired Japanese cattle breed is considered one of the best and rivals Kobe beef and other varieties of wagyu.
The beef is prepared in many ways – from nigiri, grilled over coals, shaved and added to soups, made into croquettes, burgers, steamed buns and more.
There’s a tiny kiosk tacked onto Sukeharu restaurant on Ichi-no machi where you can sample some tasty little Hida beef menchi-katsu (¥230). These piping hot croquettes are filled with beef and sweet onions and can be very addictive.
There’s also Hida gyuumen, which are steamed buns filled with sweetened beef. You see them all over town, so they’re never too far away.
Hida beef minchi-katsu – Sukeharu kiosk 19 Ichi-no machi
Hida gyuuman from Kihachiro – 29 Ichi-no machi
Sweet black sesame cracker
Soeur Café – 35 Honmachi
In the centre of town is Honmachi Dori, a commercial street filled with food stores, restaurants, clothes shops and a few cafes. It’s here where we stocked up on some rather delicious rice crackers at a shop selling all sorts of foodie things.
The friendly lady offering samples of the crackers won us over. What an angel. Her miso wafers and shards of black sesame crackers are incredible! Check the map for location, as I have no name for the store.
Nearby is Surugaya Supermarket, a fascinating place for local food goods, fresh meat, seafood and fresh produce. How could you resist those freshly roasted sweet potatoes at the entrance!
Soeur Café can also be found on Honmachi – a really nice spot that backs onto the river. The coffee is decent enough, they do Houji milk tea, waffles, scones and sandwiches. The pumpkin cheesecake seems to be a popular choice, and that gorgeous apple crumble pie tempts you as you pass the counter. Just ask for a slice that isn’t microwaved until soggy. I would have preferred it at room temp.
For an excellent espresso, I’d look no further than Traveller Coffee House on the main drag of Hanakawacho. Their specialty coffees and teas are the drawcards to this small, modern cafe, the service is friendly, they have a few snacks, local gifts and info on the area.
Traveller Coffee House – 58 Hanakawacho
Right by the bridge where Honmachi intersects Route 158 is a tiny kiosk that sells two things – both of which are rice-based snacks on skewers.
There’s the char-grilled, paddle-shaped gohei-mochi which is brushed with a sweet miso-based sauce called afurae, or the chewy skewered balls of mitarashi dango. The ones in Takayama are different from others as they use soy sauce on it, rather than sweet soy. The gohei-mochi was by far our favourite!
Mitarashi dango & goheimochi kiosk – corner Honmachi & Route 158
Market-goers have not one, but two markets to browse in Takayama – both of which kick off in the morning.
Miyagawa Morning Market runs the length of the street between Kaji-bashi and Yayoi-bashi (bridges) and it’s lined with shops and stalls selling pickles, local crafts, fresh produce, grilled rice cakes and so much more.
It’s a great spot to sample plenty of local goodies like those ubiquitous pickled vegetables, many types of miso paste, genkotsu ame (fist candy), piping hot takoyaki, pickled and preserved fish, custard cream taiyaki and golden cubes of tamaten.
Those that like an eggy-flavoured marshmallow would be all over the tamaten – which is dipped in a glaze of egg, honey, mirin and sake before it’s fried on a hot-plate.
Miyagawa Morning Market – Shimosannomachi
On the other side of the river is the smaller Jinya-mae Morning Market; somewhere that’s more about local produce and handmade crafts.
The turnout wasn’t all that great on the morning we dropped by, thanks to morning snow, but there were some stalls worth seeing.
Pickled veg and miso pastes were out in full force, as were some apples, eggs, crafts and colourful woven Japanese slippers.
Jinya-mae Morning Market – see map for location
iCafe – 1 Chome-22-2 Showamachi
So aside from nibbling on snacks and street food, what else did we chow on?
For breakfast, there’s early-opening iCafe at the train station. You can dive right into the beef buns that are steaming away in traditional wooden steamers on the counter, or go for an English muffin set meal (¥600) that includes some jam and a drink.
There’s a vegetarian option of chilli beans or a meatier Hida beef black curry with rice, plus some boozy drinks to get you going.
My middle-aged knees didn’t cope too well with the tatami-style floor seating at Nogawa Soba, but that didn’t matter as it was all so delicious. The Hida beef udon (¥1400) is divine and the perfect antidote for a wintry Japanese day. The mixed vegetable tempura (¥880) is a bit on the excellent side, too.
Nogawa Soba – 4 Chome-14 Shinmeimachi
It may be a tad touristy, but Kajibashi in the centre of town does serve up some very tasty food. The gyoza (¥400) is spot on and the Hida beef tendon stew with rice (¥650) is a beautifully textured bowl of umami goodness.
Takayama noodle (¥690) is unique to the area, so slurping on chicken, soy sauce and dried sardine broth filled with Chinese-style noodles, roast pork, pickled bamboo shoots, nori and Hida leek was a given.
Kajibashi Restaurant – Honmachi, 3 Chome – 6 2
Heinraku is the perfect place to experience homely Japanese hospitality and some really good food. The husband and wife team behind it – Hiroshi and Naoko – make you feel right at home in their cosy restaurant, which has being going since 1969.
Getting in early or making a reservation is a good idea, as there are only eight counter seats and two tiny tatami-style tables on offer.
Naoko hands out complimentary koro-imo (tiny potatoes simmered in soy and sugar) to nibble on; a perfect gesture as we got comfortable.
The menu is as compact as the restaurant and changes fairly regularly. We went for the delicious gyoza combo (¥1000) which includes a draft beer; so that was starter and drink sorted!
To follow, it was some pretty standard karaage (¥750) and some amazing nikudanngo (¥750) – or sweet & sour meatballs with cabbage.
For dessert – two milk puddings (¥300); one black sesame and one almond – both incredible.
Heianraku – 6 Chome-7-2 Tenmanmachi