Roadtrip to Gifu: En route to Takayama (Pt. 1)

Have you ever wondered what is there between Tokyo and Kyoto, especially on the west side? The old and the new capital are 461km apart, so there are a lot of places worth visiting in between. Most people are familiar with Nagano and Niigata prefectures for their many ski resorts. Interestingly, if you look at a morphological map of Japan, you will realize that below Nagano there is a mountain range called ‘Japanese Alps’. The Alps are a thick mountain wall separating horizontally Nagano and Toyama prefectures. Starting from the plain of Matsumoto and heading towards the Alps, you can go up all the way to Kamikochi (at 1500m elevation), and then down to the other side, arriving at the hidden gem of Takayama. Hidden among mountain peaks, at 550m above sea level, Takayama used to be an isolated but rich merchant town, that got the fancy nickname “Little Kyoto in the Alps”.

The distance from Kawasaki to Takayama by car is approximately 5 hours. The bulk of the distance until Matsumoto in Nagano can be covered fast, however the later part of crossing the Alps takes a lot of time. The route starts by heading down in Kanagawa, with Mt. Fuji dominating the front view. Turning west, mountain peaks of the South Alps as well as Mt. Yatsugatake appear, leading to holy lake Suwa. This lake is famous for formations appearing on its surface when it freezes in the winter, which are considered to be markings of gods walking on the lake. Unfortunately, due to climate change this phenomenon might not appear again in the future.

The South Alps near Kofu
Mt. Yatsugatake
Going up towards Kamikochi
Houses on the Japanese Alps

When leaving Matsumoto city towards Kamikochi, be sure to stop at Kobayashi’s fruit market and buy some famous Nagano apples. There were so many varieties to choose from, at amazingly cheap prices. And yeah, we stopped both en route from and to Tokyo, their apples were THAT good. Also, during winter on cold days, be sure to regularly look outside the car; snow monkeys may come closer to the road in order to get warm. We saw a cute monkey couple hugging each other, sitting on a wooden pole next to the road.

Kobayashi fruit farm near Matsumoto

After a lot of dams, more dams, dangerous curves, more curves, you reach the highlands of Takayama (高山). The town of Takayama and the village of Hida are the centers of the general Hida area. The towns maintain even now a traditional style for buildings, with wood being the main material. A couple of modern buildings catch your eye for their architecture, specifically the train station and the local Juroku bank. Takayama town features a river, reminiscent of Kyoto’s Kamo river, two popular morning markets, a long shopping street and numerous temples and shrines. Both markets usually open at 7:00 or 8:00, depending on the month and have small tents with local products and handmade decorations. I visited Miyagawa Morning Market (宮川朝市), which takes place daily on the east bank of Miyagawa river. The market starts from Tenaga-Ashinaga bridge, past the skeletal wooden Gyojinbashi (行神橋) and continues all the way until the folk museum. I tried tiny taiyaki, a type of puff shaped as the fish ‘tai’, with the unique twist of Japanese mustard spinach inside the custard filling.

If you happen to be a meat-lover, Hida beef (飛騨牛) is critically acknowledged and for many is considered superior to Kobe beef. There are numerous butcher’s shops as well as yakiniku restaurants in Takayama, although the prices might discourage you. To get an idea, a pair of hida beef nigiri, namely some rice topped with a thin slice of beef, costs ~800yen ($7.5). Alternatively, you can try amazing texmet at Eviltex, or cheaper but filling yakiniku of local pork and beef at Tenaga Ashinaga.

You have already seen the words Tenaga-Ashinaga twice in this post and I can guarantee that you will see it many more times when visiting Takayama. Tenaga means ‘long-armed’, while ashinaga means ‘long-legged’. It refers to a pair of statues with the respective characteristics, located on either side of the bridge in the middle of the town. Among the various demons and spirits in Japanese folklore, one category of yokai is the long-leg tribe and the long-arm tribe. Sometimes, members of both tribes work in tandem in order to catch fish. Other times, they bring bad fortune to the ones they meet or bad weather to the towns they pass through.

Nevertheless, the mascot of the area -because everything in japan NEEDS a mascot- is a monkey without face, called Sarubobo. His kimono, hands and legs are spread, so he looks like a flying squirrel. Apparently, bobo means baby in the local dialect and saru means monkey in Japanese, so that makes him a cute baby monkey. A lot of times he is seen wearing a ninja-style scarf around his head, so I assume Sarubobo is also a ninja. You can find charms and other souvenirs depicting Sarubobo all around Hida and Shirakawago area.

Our hotel had a strange fixation with the royal family of Great Britain. A showcase at the lobby had memorabilia from all British royal weddings in the recent past, as well as a full collection of Encyclopedia Britannica. There is a general feeling of affluence and elegance in the town, with wooden statues and carefully selected details adding to the decor of the city. Since Takayama was difficult to access in the past, with all the mountains surrounding it, it managed to formulate a unique culture of its own. By being a merchants’ stop, facilitating exchanges between the west side of the Sea of Japan and the east side of Gifu and Nagoya, Takayama rose to prominence. During the Edo period, it did not belong to a feudal lord, but rather was put under the direct control of the Shogun. The quality woodwork all around is the result of generations of skilled carpenters, getting trained in the city.

The night alleys, though, are a completely different story, and they follow the common japanese style. A vertigo of colors, letters, fancy fonts and smells, hits you as soon as you step foot in the Ichibancho.

Apart from food and sake, there are a couple of interesting activities available at the night alley. You can try your luck in Japanese archery or Kyudo for 400 yen or pretend to be a ninja in the ninja cafe. Other notable activities are to walk casually around and inside the wooden structures in the old city or to enjoy the local specialty of Takayama ramen. Takayama is famous for the homonymous biannual festival involving wooden floats. If rural Japan is what you want to experience, here it is. However, if tradition is what you are looking for, it would be best to shift your focus towards the heritage village of Shirakawago, some 40 minutes to the south. I will tell you more about Shirakawago in my next post. Until then, enjoy all the pictures from Takayama here.

Note: My dear friends Dyah and Sabina deserve credit for some of the photos in this post.

Other posts from this trip

Roadtrip to Gifu: Charms of Shirakawago (Pt. 2)

Central Japan can be described loosely as being a synonym to traditional villages, full of snow. The most popular one is, uncontestedly, Shirakawago (白川郷). The name refers to the traditional, preserved old-town of the village Shirakawa, located in the valley…

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