A Visit to Lesser-Known Takayama
All photos by Josh Meister Photo.
As much as we loved Tokyo, we wanted to check out a smaller town in Japan as well, and not see only the big cities. We opted for a weekend in Takayama, about a four-hour train ride west of Tokyo and a three-hour one north of Kyoto.
This choice was pretty much wholly location- and aesthetic-based. The town, located in the mountainous Gifu Prefecture, is absolutely adorable with beautiful historic streets and picturesque bridges as well as some delicious ramen outposts! It was the last existing governing location during Samurai time, so it's got tons of history. In the main historic area, huge, connected wooden houses date from the Edo period. Many of the merchant houses have been parceled up and converted to shops, restaurants, museums, and sake breweries.
We stayed about a ten-minute walk from there in an incredibly unique Airbnb, a little apartment attached to a sento, or public bathhouse. Included in our stay was the ability to visit the sento free of charge, although the cost is actually not very expensive anyway, as it's something a lot of the locals incorporate into their daily lives. We took advantage of this perk a couple of times, figuring out the correct process as we went.
READ ABOUT HOW TO USE A SENTO HERE (It's not quite as straightforward as you'd think!)
There's tons of temples and shrines to explore as well as Hida (pronounced “He-duh”) Folk Village, approximately a fifteen minute bus ride away. The village is a conglomerate of traditional houses from the region built during the Edo Period. All but a few of the structures were relocated to this spot to form the open air museum. We were lucky to visit as the leaves were changing and got some great color, which we've been a little bit sad about missing back home.
Our Airbnb host was kind enough to let us join him and some friends who spoke English very well for dinner one night. We walked in the dark for about fifteen minutes to what seemed like the middle of nowhere and into a restaurant next to a rice paddy. There was one other group there, a party of ten that was chowing down jovially when we arrived and of course knew our host and the family of friends. Menus were ignored, our host and friends took turns jumping up and running to the kitchen to tell them to bring some dish or another, and we had one of the best dinners of our trip! I honestly couldn't even tell you what we ate, but all of it was fragrant and rich and perfectly cooked – or not, for the raw offerings.
Halfway through our meal, our host's friends mentioned that they live in one of the old merchant houses right in the middle of the historic area, and they invited us to come tour it the next day. Ummm, absolutely!
We found the place easily and spent an hour and a half checking out the home, full of sliding screens to section off or open up the house entirely. There was also a no-longer-used medical clinic and patient rooms section, as the house used to belong to the current owner's great great grandfather, and he and his sons for several generations were all obstetricians. We spent a lot of time discussing converting parts of the house into Airbnb rooms, to help with the costliness of maintaining the building (why most of the neighboring homes have been sectioned out and converted to shops, etc.). The family wants to preserve it as much as possible. Generously, they also fed us and took us over to their cousin's sake brewery, just a street away.
Takayama was a great little addition to our Japan itinerary, giving us a bit of a different perspective on the country. It also reinforced how much we love connecting with locals. It was a good reminder that as great as it is to tick off the boxes for the must-see sights, travel is sometimes more about having everyday experiences with different people in different places. Sharing good food and talking about the same common concerns – money, family, goals, hopes, ideas (on a personal level and not just shaking our heads about our political situations) – that's the stuff that I think we'll remember ages from now when we look book on this time in our lives.