Takayama, Japan: Big City, Little City, Sake Box

Takayama, the last stop on our Japanese adventure, was our chance to get away from the big city hustle of the Japanese mega cities and enjoy some quiet small-town living in the Japanese Alps. Or so we thought. Even though this picturesque mountain town has a population under 100,000, centuries old wooden merchant huts and thatched folk houses, this little city is actually the biggest city in Japan! No way!

View of Takayama from the hill: Could this really be Japan’s biggest city?

Ok, so a few technicalities…Takayama is the biggest city in Japan based on surface area. And this is only after February 2005 when a number of nearby towns and villages were merged into Takayama. So it now has an official surface area of 2,177.67 km sq. “Ah ha!”, you might say if you know your world size surface areas,”but Tokyo has a surface area of 2,187.66 km sq. making it the largest city surely!”. Well, listen here you little surface area know it all, the City of Tokyo ceased to exist on the 1st July 1943 when it was converted into a special metropolis. So whilst we thought we were heading to a quiet little village, we were actually heading to the biggest city in Japan.

Thankfully when you are in the town it doesn’t feel anything like a big city. The town itself is easy to walk around and the old wooden merchant huts, old temples and forest covered mountain ranges makes for plenty of picturesque strolling opportunities. And strolling seems to be the favourite activity within Takayama as tourists from near and far ascend on mass to visit the old fashioned streets within the old town enjoying local delicacies and the plethora of free samples.

Old wooden merchant huts dating from the Edo Period line the old town streets

A beautiful town where every house looks stunning

One of the best delicacies of the area is sake which has been produced here for over 400 years. Utilising top quality rice and fresh mountain water supposedly makes for superior sake and there are still six traditional sake breweries within the old town. These can be spotted by the big sake barrels outside and a hanging ball of cedar branches (a sugidama) which indicate whether the sake is ready (a brown sugidama means it’s ready to drink). We found a nice little sake brewery and enjoyed a few samples of their fresh brews. A fantastic way to spend an afternoon whilst meandering the streets.

Big headed Rob enjoying his sake
The brewers tasting notes

For our second day we decided to explore more by completing the walls which appear on all the tourists maps of the town. We chose to do the Kitayama Walking Course first which goes up a hill on the north west side of the town taking in the Kitayama park, Ayuzaki castle ruins and views of the town. This walk started well and we made it to the top of the mountain/hill with ease. At the top we followed the path around the side of a cafe and into the Kitayama park where we looked out for Castle Ruins. Unfortunately from here there didn’t seem to be any signage and despite following the only path we saw we didn’t see any ruins and came back out the other side of the cafe that we had previously past. This wasn’t meant to happen. So we followed the road down the other side of the hill back into town.

Approaching the hill

Back in town we saw signs for the Circular Tour of Historic Spots and followed these in the hope for a more successful walk. Again, the walk started well and we got to see some nice temples. But then the signs got a bit strange as, forgive me if I’m wrong, but on a circular walk directional signs shouldn’t point you in three different directions. It was clear that walks were against us that day so we decided to do what the walk designers had obviously done prior to designing these walks and go try some more sake. Nice.

Historical spot
Traditional building and landscaping
Ermmm…what does a Japanese circle look like?!

There was then one more sight we wanted to see whilst in Takayama which was the old folk village with traditional thatch roof houses. It was a short walk out of town but this time we had more confidence in getting there thanks to Google Maps.

Rice paddies for sake I hope
Stunning countryside

And get there we did – woohoo… however… it turns out that next to the folk village there is a micro-brewery for Hida beer. Well this is interesting. Folk Village or Hida Village?? Hmmm. Well, below you will see a photo of a thatched Japanese folk house taken from the Hida beer car park and then a photo of us drinking Hida beer. I’ll let you decide what this means happened to our tour of the folk village.

Traditional Hida thatched house
Craft Beer…always a winner

Whilst our walks were not successful in a traditional sight-seeing sense, we were more than happy with there end results. Despite being the biggest city in Japan Takayama turned out to be the perfect escape from big city life and a great place to just stroll around and enjoy what you find – especially if you like sake and beer!

From Takayama we headed back to Tokyo where we met back up with Moto, our first couch surfing host, for a few beers before spending the night sleeping on the floors of Tokyo airport. The end of our Japanese adventure, but Japan will remain in our hearts forever. Thank you Japan; time for Thailand…

Cheers Moto
Sometimes traveling takes its toll
Bedding down for a lonely night at the airport
Bye Japan…Thailand here we come!

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