Takayama makes a relaxing weekend getaway from Tokyo or Kyoto if you enjoy a slower pace and more traditional attractions. If you have time after visiting the large number of historic and cultural spots in the city itself, Takayama is located close to World Heritage Sites Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, famous for their huge gassho-zukuri style farm houses, and the rustic Okuhida area, which features the spectacular scenery of the Japan Alps and many fine hot springs for slowly parboiling yourself.
More details can be found on the city’s excellent Web site (see below). It has probably one of the best laid-out English sections I’ve seen in Japan and makes trip planning very straightforward. One thing it doesn’t really cover though is how good Takayama can be if you’re interested in Japanese food, particularly free Japanese food. It is customary for shops to tempt visitors with free samples but as a wander through the morning markets and Sanmachi area will confirm, Takayama folks are particularly generous.
Miyagawa River market
This market is large but easy to navigate, being set up along a road (closed to traffic) following the scenic Miyagawa River. On one side are a wide variety of covered stalls, many operated by farm grannies wearing baggy mompe trousers, which sell fruits, vegetables, pickles, spices and other foods. The other side has actual shops that sell mainly traditional sweets, crafts and souvenirs.
Many vendors give away samples and it’s fun to zigzag down the road trying the wares – obviously also supporting the sellers by making a few purchases. I ended up dangerously full on a mixture of pickles, wheat candy, salt water apples, amazake (sweet sake) and various sugar-laden treats. I also bought some excellent hand-ground shichimi (seven spice), made by a woman who seemed to be the star of the market, with a constant queue of people waiting to place an order.
Sanmachi historic area
Sanmachi is a nationally designated historic preservation area, which might seem a bit dry at first, but most of its Edo Period buildings have been turned into bustling shops or are still producing sake and other traditional items just as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Here too you are very much free to try before you buy. I got a little turned around in the crowds but if you can find Harada Sake Brewery with your tourist map, you’re in the right place to start.
Apart from its excellent beverages, Harada also produces sake cheesecake and jelly. The confectionary samples are easy to get to but it may take a while to lay hands on one of the bottles for the self-pour sake tasting. Along the same street, you can also try miso soup, soy sauce, pickles, sweets and a range of other traditional foods. The freebies definitely worked on me and I ended up buying various things, such as miso paste that includes walnuts, something I haven’t seen elsewhere.