Chris and I arrived in Takayama after a very long train ride from Tokyo (you can read my Tokyo post here!) Admittedly, we missed a connecting train because we read the train schedule incorrectly which bumped our travel time up from 4.5 hours to 6 hours. Soooo yeah...avoid doing that. We planned on taking a Shinkansen without realizing that it was fully reserved! It was a simple oversight that cost us a couple of hours, which brings me to my first tip: Before taking a Shinkansen, make sure there are non-reserved seats available. Most of them have non-reserved seats, so for the most part it shouldn't be an issue, but just wanted to mention it! Takayama is up in the alps and quite the opposite from Tokyo. We were only there for 2 days, and we both felt our minds and bodies starting to relax after the eccentric madness of Tokyo. Takayama is quiet, authentic, set in the mountains and really tells the story of old world Japan. There are no Starbucks or H&Ms here. It's true to it's origin and it's quite obvious the moment you arrive. Here is how we spent our time.
Day 5: Tuesday, May 16
We arrived late afternoon following a lengthy travel time and immediately settled into our Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese Inn and something you MUST do during your time in Japan. It's honestly the best way to really immerse yourself into the culture. When you arrive at your Ryokan, you have to take your shoes off at the door, and wear the slippers they provide for you. Ryokans have tatami-matted rooms, onsens (hot spring baths), and you have the option to be served a traditional Japanese dinner (Kaiseki) in your room which is a very special experience. Not all Ryokan's are exactly the same, (some may not have an onsen at all while others have an outdoor onsen) but it's the general idea of how what to expect. We stayed at Ryokan Tanabe, a mid-range accommodation, which is located right smack dab in the middle of Takayama, the perfect place for home base with limited time. Our dinner was at 6pm, so we walked around prior to that to get a feel for the town. We passed through San-machi, the old streets, and made an effort to see the Yoshijima Heritage House, but it was closed.
Once we got back, we changed into our yukatas to wear around the Ryokan right before dinner – one for Chris and one for me! As first timers, we learned how to wear them the correct way from the Japanese woman who runs the Inn. She also prepared our dinner in our room, which was incredible. The spread was ridiculous - so much food prepared in ways I've never seen before, with touches of flowers and other textures that really made the meal an artistic masterpiece.
After dinner, we relaxed in the onsen. If you've never experienced an onsen before, let me lay it out for you. First, an onsen is essentially a nude public or private bath, and incredibly relaxing. If you're lucky enough to have a room with a private open-air bath - well, I'm jealous. But you also don't experience bathing nude publicly with strangers which is super awesome (don't worry, there are male onsens and female onsens). You're given your Yukata and a little bag (filled with a toothbrush, small towel, etc) and you wear it into the onsen. When you're inside, you strip down to nothing - carrying in only the small towel from your bag that you'll eventually place on your head while bathing. Before you get into the onsen, you will sit down Japanese style and wash yourself clean in a bath. Then, you walk into the onsen and relax, placing the towel on your head. For me, the water was often too hot so I'd spend about 10 minutes max and then shower off and get back in my Yukata. I was also often alone or with one other person, so it was never that scary. It's really awkward at first, but before I knew it I was stripping down with ease and strutting nude into onsen like a pro. You will love it, I promise.
That night, we decided to get a drink at Red Hill Bar. We also realized that not a lot was open on Tuesdays in Takayama. We arrived around 4:30pm and EVERYTHING was closed - so we were surprised that Red Hill was even open. A quirky little bar, we exchanged travel stories with a lovely couple sitting next to us and drew pictures in a coloring book for the owner. It was nice to just sit back and have some sake.
Day 6: Wednesday, May 17
We woke early, still partially jet-lagged (yep, it takes a minute!) and wandered through the Miyagawa morning market. A very quaint and charming market, we purchased a few small souvenirs and ultimately had breakfast at a little coffee joint at the very end of the market road. Sarubobo dolls are everywhere because they are considered to be good luck even though they look a tad like small demons. Naturally, I swooped one up for my keychain. The market is awesome because it's right on the river, so you can stroll along leisurely and not worry about a damn thing. Later in the day, we strolled through San-machi again as we didn't have a lot of time when we arrived. It's an incredibly charming street filled with storefronts and doorways styled in ways that almost made me cry. Seriously, precious.
Since this was our only full day in Takayama, we wanted to explore as much as we could. I'd heard about the Hida Beef, a must try and a town favorite. So we made sure to pick up a dough ball from a street vendor filled with delicious beef on our journey. And yes, it was deeeelish.
Since we were in the alps, Chris and I were really feeling outdoorsy and we were due for a hike. Since we didn't research Takayama that much before arriving, Chris instinctively found a path that lead through the castle ruins and up to the top of a hill. It was really calming to do some forest bathing and declutter our minds. When we reached the top, we were able to look out onto the town with the mountains in the distance. We actually never found the castle ruins, but that wasn't our goal (I don't think they exist). For us it was just a peaceful stroll to get away for a bit.
On our way down, we did some souvenir shopping and popped into a few stores. We passed The Paper Cut gallery by chance and fell in love with the artist's work. Truly intricate and thoughtful. We ended our day with a good nights sleep and mentally prepped for our stop to Shirakawa-go in the morning before heading to Kanazawa.
From the moment we started planning our trip, I was dying to make a stop at Shirakawa-go. This historical village looked so charming in photos, and I wanted to experience the real deal. As a stop from Takayama to Kanazawa, it made perfect sense on our path – and you only need a few hours. Unfortunately, we didn't book our bus tickets in advance (so yeah...book bus tickets in advance!) and a lot of the bus times were sold out. However, we got lucky and were able to stop in for 2 hours. Even though it wasn't a lot of time, it was totally worth it.
The village does have a good number of tourists walking around, for good reason. While we were there, we immediately felt rushed due to our lack of time and we knew we couldn't miss the bus to Kanazawa so we kicked it into high gear and did everything we wanted to. For us, it was mostly gazing in awe at the traditional gassho-zukuri farm houses. Gassho-zukuri means "constructed like hands in prayer" after the hands of Buddhist monks pressed together in prayer. We traversed around and took a ton of photos of the houses and overall scenery, then did a mild hike up the the Shiroyama Observatory Deck to take in the breathtaking view of all of the houses.
There are a few other things I would recommend doing that we didn't get to, like visiting the Wada house (over 300 years old!) to get an inside look at the thatched-roof gassho-style houses. After our visit, we continued to Kanazawa via bus, about a one hour trek from Shirakawa-go.
Chris and I really loved our time in Takayama and Shirakawa-go. It felt so untouched and relaxing, and very much needed after a wild spin through Tokyo. After our trip, we did go back and reconsider our route and if we should have gone to Kanazawa before Takayama - but either way, Takayama is just a little bit further out of the way if you are working with time constraints.
If you'd like to see where our journey started, take a look at my Tokyo post! And as always, please see below for Takayama/Shirakawa-go tips as well as general Japan tips! Thanks for reading and have a great 4th of July weekend!
• Most places are closed in Takayama on Tuesdays. It was ghost town when we arrived around 4pm on a Tuesday. After doing some cursory research, it appears that Tuesday is not a great day for perusing Takayama! Luckily we were only there for that night and had dinner at the Ryokan, plus Red Hill bar was open!
• Plan your bus times early if you plan on going to Shirakawa-go. Chris and I were in a bit of a bind when we found out there was only one bus time available to get to Shirakawa-go from Takayama, and one time from Shirakawa-go to Kanazawa which left us with only two hours. Inquire before you get there or book it immediately when you arrive!
• Always carry yen. Chris constantly had a pocket full of yen because we'd always encounter a souvenir shop, vending machine or anything else that only accepted yen. If you take a bus, they ask for exact change (even though it isn't necessary) so it's nice to have it on hand.
• Taxi doors close themselves. Do not try to close a taxi door, they are automatic and the driver will be confused if you close them yourself.
• Do not tip! You will only confuse your driver, waiter or whoever else that you believe is tip worthy and you might find someone chasing after you to give you your money back.
• Drinking and eating on the go is not a part of the culture. In Japan, you won't see anyone walking around with a Starbucks coffee and a donut. Everyone takes the time to sit down and consume their meal or drink.
• Chopsticks. Never leave your chopsticks sticking straight up in your rice bowl. We avoided chopsticks sticking straight up in general, in any meal.
• Public transportation > taxi. The trains in Tokyo are your best mode of transportation. They are faster than taxis and cost effective. When choosing a hotel, I'd recommend staying in one near a train station. That way, you can zip around easily. If you will be traveling around Japan and not staying in one location, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass.
• Give and receive with two hands. In Japan, everyone hands things to you with two hands. You should accept what they hand you with two hands, and offer with two hands.
• Choose your shoes wisely. My trusty Fit Bit informed me that I was walking around 20k steps a day, which is around 10 miles. I brought a pair of New Balance and Adidas sneakers, as well as Cole Haan loafers for dressier occasions. In my opinion, heels are a huge waste of luggage space.
• Don't do too much in one day. When you're in Tokyo, you want to do it all. I get it. You've traveled far and you've got a solid itinerary to get through. Spoiler alert: Tokyo is huge and everyone who's ever been there undoubtedly has a list of things they didn't get to do. I urge you to not do too much in one day. It's draining and instead of focusing on a few things, you're just running to get to the next without appreciating the moment. We ran into so many travelers who were just exhausted and you could tell they were in checklist mode. Plan enough so that you have the things you really want to do, but leave room for flexibility and down time so that you are experiencing local life instead of tourist life.
• Get up early for touristy attractions. Crowds are real and if it's hot, the heat is not something you're going to want to face at midday. Early mornings = fewer crowds, pleasant weather, better photo opps, and more time in the day for other things.