Today I’m sharing some of the best things to do in Takayama, Japan!
Located in the northern mountainous region of the Gifu prefecture, Takayama is the gateway to both the Japanese Alps and the famous thatched farmhouses of Shirakawa-go.
Plus, the city is worth a visit in its own right. When you visit Takayama you can walk down the streets of the old Edo district, feast on local cuisine including their world-famous Hida beef, stay in a traditional ryokan, visit countless temples and shrines, and so much more!
We spent a lot of time travelling in Japan’s Golden Triangle (Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka), however, Takayama was by far one of our favourite destinations and it made us want to venture a bit more off the beaten path during the rest of our travels in the country.
So without further ado, here are some of the best things to do in Takayama on your visit.
Things to do in Takayama
Walk down Sanmachi Suji
Takayama is the kind of place that’s best experienced on foot and Sanmachi Suji is the place to start!
Sanmachi Suji is Takayama’s historic centre and is made up of three streets: Ichi-no-machi, Ni-no-machi and San-no-machi.
This particular part of the city was once a bustling merchant town and today it is considered to be one of the best-preserved Edo districts in all of Japan.
Walking here will make you feel like you’ve been transported through time all the way back to the Edo period which dates from 1603 to 1868.
The buildings in Takayama’s old town are painted black just as they would have been during the Edo period, and even though some of the structures are over 300 years old, they are still in use!
The former merchant structures now house a sake brewery, traditional craft shops, and restaurants serving up local specialities like Hida beef and vegetarian cuisine.
Walking through Sanmachi Suji, it’s easy to see why this district has been nicknamed ‘Little Kyoto’.
We happened to visit on a rainy day, so we had the streets almost all to ourselves and it felt pretty magical.
Hike the Higashiyama Walking Course
One of the top attractions in Takayama is the Higashiyama Walking Course, which is a path that runs through Takayama’s temple town also known as Teramachi.
The course is 3.5-kilometres in length and it goes past numerous temples and shrines, as well as the ruins of Takayama’s former castle.
It takes about 2 hours to complete the walking course and enjoy the sights along the way.
My one tip would be to consider visiting Takayama in the shoulder season – spring or summer. We were there in the summertime and it was either hot and humid or raining buckets.
To be honest, I would avoid visiting Japan in the summertime based on personal experience!
Try Japaneses street food at the market
Takayama has two morning markets where you can enjoy some street food.
One is the Jinyamae Morning Market located in front of Takayama Jinya on the west side of the Miyagawa River; this one focuses on fresh produce with a few street snacks and souvenirs.
The other is the Miyagawa Morning Market on the east side of Miyagawa River, which begins just north of the Kaji Bridge; this one offers a larger variety of street food with a bit of produce, flowers, and souvenirs also added to the mix.
We went on our own do-it-yourself street food tour of Takayama focusing on the Miyagawa Morning Market and some of the adjacent streets.
Here is a list of some of the must-try Japanese street food in Takayama:
- Chestnut Ice Cream – ¥250
- Hida Been Bun – ¥430
- Hida Beef Croquette – ¥190
- Hida Beef Skewer – ¥450
- Hida Beef Takoyaki – ¥350
- Rice Crackers – ¥120-150
- Soy Sauce Ice Cream – ¥380
- Hida Beef Nigiri – ¥700
So yes, there’s a lot of Hida beef thrown in the mix, but when in Takayama that’s what you’ve gotta try!
Try Buddhist vegetarian cuisine
One of the best things to do in Takayama for any foodies out there is to try sansai cuisine.
Sansai means “mountain vegetables” and the ingredients used in the preparation of these dishes are typically foraged not farmed.
The restaurant we ate at was listed as “Local Cuisine Hisadaya” on GoogleMaps, but the sign read “Antique” once we reached the place. We were a bit confused at first, but the photos matched the place even if the names didn’t!
The interior was beautiful and everything you’d expect from Japan. We dined in a traditional setting with low tables and cushions, soft music playing in the background, and an exquisite array of little dishes.
We ended up ordering two kinds of sansai ryori platters which featured compartmentalized dishes with various kinds of pickled and seasoned mountain vegetables. The dishes featured wild mushrooms, tofu, pickles, radishes, water chestnuts, bamboo, roots and shoots.
Each meal also came with a bowl of rice and a cup of green tea. The only difference between the platters that Sam and I ordered was that mine was entirely vegetarian and his came with fish and meat.
When we first decided to eat at this restaurant I wondered whether “mountain vegetables” would be a substantial enough meal or whether I’d leave hungry…well, we left beyond satisfied!
The dishes may appear small, but they all add up.
Sample Takayama’s famous Hida beef
If there’s one food that Takayama is known for, it’s Hida beef. You will notice it on almost every menu!
Hida beef is the name given to beef from black-haired Japanese cattle that have been raised in the Gifu Prefecture.
What sets this beef apart is the marbling (a mesh-like fat that runs through the meat), which makes it quite tender and gives it a distinct juiciness.
We tried Hida beef a few different ways during our visit to Takayama.
First, we had tried Hida beef sushi, also known as Hida beef nigiri, where it served on top of rice.
The meat was lightly cooked with a torch and that melted a bit of the fatty marbling which then coated our mouths.
The Hida beef was served slightly pink (medium-rare) and we made sure to savour it.
We then went to a restaurant where we tried Hida beef noodles; here we could choose between Hida beef and premium Hida beef.
The beef was served in a salty soy broth with thin Takayama noodles, bamboo shoots, scallions and dried seaweed.
The noodles in Takayama are thinner and curlier than other types of ramen you may encounter in Japan, and they’re also a bit more bouncy.
The Hida beef was very tender and the marbled fattiness was very welcome – it’s not chewy in any way, but rather it melts and adds its own unique flavour to the dish.
Because the ryokan where we spent the night specialized in Hida beef, we also got to try it at dinner 3 different ways.
We had Hida beef steamed buns, Hida beef shabu shabu, and lastly, Hida beef steak. Each dish was so unique and showcased the versatility of the beef.
Spend the night in a ryokan
Personally, I think one of the best things to do in Takayama is to treat yourself to a ryokan stay.
I’ve already written about how staying in a ryokan was one of the highlights of our trip to Japan, so it’s something I would definitely recommend doing if you can stretch your budget.
We stayed at Ryokan Seiryu and had a wonderful experience from start to finish.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guesthouse where you can experience Japan’s renowned hospitality, relax in an onsen, sleep on tatami floors and feast on a multi-course dinner where each dish receives the utmost attention to detail.
Staying in a ryokan allows you to experience omotenashi, which has no direct translation in English, but refers to outstanding hospitality.
Take a day trip to Shirakawa-go
Last but not least, one of the main draws to Takayama is its proximity to Shirakawa-go.
Shirakawa-go is a small village known for its thatched-roofed farmhouses said to resemble hands clasped together in prayer.
The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s really something you have to see for yourself!
The farmhouses were built out of wood and straw in an A-frame style known as gasshō-zukuri and the whole town has a magical quality to it. They reminded me of the chalets you would expect to find in Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
If you want to spend the night in Shirakawa-go, it is possible to book a farmhouse stay with a local family. You can do so through the Japanese Guest Houses website.
They only allow a 1-night stay since accommodations are in very hot demand. The website has a list of farmhouses to choose from and you are asked to select your top 3; if one of your top 3 is not available, you will be placed in a similar style of farmhouse.
And if you decide that a day trip is enough, you can view the bus timetable here.