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Takayama

This small traditional mountain town is a favourite amongst Japanese and western visitors alike. Its fine late 17th century charm is recognised by many, as is its well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Join those strolling along the Old Town streets to get a feel for Edo-period Japan and marvel at the many lacquerware and handmade gifts being sold in traditional lattice-fronted wooden buildings. While some consider Takayama to have developed a Disneyland-esque feel recently as the influx of visitors have increased, the Hida folk crafts, such as beautiful wooden carvings, traditional ceramics and straw work, still abound. Quaint coffee shops provide the perfect pitstop before one visits the historic sake breweries to sample their specialties and admire the tastefully decorated sake barrels, bottle labels and cup sets. Another unmissable delicacy of this alpine town is the renowned Hida beef which is served at many restaurants either side of the river. The biannual ‘matsuri’ festival hosted here is well-regarded in Japan, as the ornate floats, exquisitely crafted puppets and celebratory parades draw people in from far and wide to revel in the exciting atmosphere.

There are plenty of opportunities to get away from the crowds if one is in need of a more rural escape. Choose to take a scenic temple walk around the perimeter of the town, which is often likened to Kyoto, or enjoy a cycle ride to see the mountain vistas beyond. Venturing approximately an hour away will lead you to the UNESCO thatched-roof villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama which are a delight to behold. Particularly pretty in the winter months under a blanket of snow, the magic of these historic farmhouses comes from their impressive architectural design and cosy appearance. The steep roof structure is cleverly built to withstand heavy snowfall and constructed like hands in prayer to imitate the Buddhist monks’ ritual.

To embrace the quintessential feel of this traditional mountain village, we recommend staying a night in a Japanese inn (ryokan) to experience old world hospitality. The lattice-wood front door will be slid open to welcome you into a lantern-lit lobby with rows of slippers and a sunken hearth. During the evening, relax in true Edo-period style in an ofuro hot bath, eat a multi-course gourmet kaiseki meal served in your very own room and get a great night’s rest on the futon that will be laid out for you at the end of the day. Natural hot spring baths onsen can also be found peppered around the rolling hills.

Takayama is most scenic in autumn and winter when the snow-capped mountains are in full effect, but this village is also worth visiting in the summer, with the mountain air providing relief from the heat. Visitors arriving towards the end of the spring seasons will be greeted by wisteria hanging from the quaint rooftops or cherry blossom in full bloom. 

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I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.
Bill Bryson