'Little Kyoto' in the Japan Alps

Trip Start Mar 18, 2003
Trip End Apr 08, 2007

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Monday, September 25, 2006

Japan has a lot of "Little Kyotos," actually. Kanazawa, Hagi, Kakunodate, Hiraizumi and even Kamakura have all been given the same moniker at some point or other. But the one town that probably gets this privilege more than the others is almost certainly the small city of Takayama in northern Gifu prefecture. Given the standard number of tourists in town, it certainly draws the crowds similarly. But the most important comparison is drawn from Takayama's fine streetscapes of old world Japan. Without question, Takayama - like Kyoto - most of the city is largely a mess of concrete, but exploration of its old center will yield many scenes that, if you can ignore all the gawking daytrippers, seem like a step into a different, more timeless world.

I actually went to Takayama first about three years ago, on the second day of its famous and hugely popular Hachiman Matsuri. As that was in my pre-digital days (cripes, I think I still have an undeveloped roll of film from that trip!), I had always planned to go back sometime. Additionally, since the first visit was a quick daytrip, I wasn't able to take in the neighboring town of Furukawa, known for its carpentry and picturesque traditional streets. So, with the arrival of September and its nice pairing of national holidays in one week, I thought it was time to have another look around the place. Mayu and I got reservations in a hotel just a few blocks away from the river, an ideal location from its position on the map. Well, it turned out to be an old ryokan that now had the dubious honor of sitting beside the town's entertainment district (karaoke-equipped hostess clubs and all), but hey - travel's never perfect, eh? Interrupted sleep or not (in fact, it was), we would have plenty of time to soak up the sights.

After hitting the end of the morning market, we spent the first day mostly wandering around aimlessly and enjoying the traditional atmosphere. The historic administrative office, Takayama Jinya, is one of the finest and largest examples of old Japanese architecture. I had passed on the place the first time in town, financially strapped as I was at the time, so I figured it should be on our itinerary. With its many rooms of simple, minimalistic beauty, it was definitely worth the stop. The immaculately-maintained houses of the Sanmachi district were another focus, though the tourist hordes were exceptionally thick here. Watching the other visitors was almost an amusement in itself - sometimes I think the only reason many Japanese travel is to eat and buy souvenirs (and maybe have their pictures taken in front of famous sites). Other than that though, it was just a day of strolling, finished up by a walk through the quiet Higashiyama Temple District.

For our second day today, we jumped an early train out to Furukawa, about 15 minutes away on a local. Smaller than Takayama, Furukawa also gets fewer tourists overall, but it's still well worth a stop. The main center of action is a long street of traditional homes and storehouses set beside a carp-filled canal. Eventually this quiet road leads to a main square featuring a pair of museums on local festivals and craftsmanship. Really, it's a tiny place, so it didn't take much more than an hour or so to see most of it (aside from the museums...neither of us is really big on them, frankly). Even still, it was good to see another aspect of life in the Hida district.

On the outskirts of Takayama, set upon a forested hill, is the open-air folk museum Hida-no-sato. This was another place I missed on the previous visit, so Mayu and I caught a bus out that way for the afternoon. I expected it to be a rehash of the Shirakawa-go and Gokayama areas to the northwest, but it was in fact refreshingly different and very interesting. The arrangement of the site is beautifully done and it really looks and feels like a real village. An assortment of various farmhouses and other rural architecture adorns the park, and surprisingly even the English language brochures and signage were very informative. For a bit of a surreal twist, afterwards we hoofed it down the hill and over to the Star Trek-ish 'Main World Shrine' of the local Sukyo Mahikari cult. The sharp, gold-tipped form of this bizarre place dominates the skyline of Takayama, so curiosity stirred me to get a closer look. Not all that surprisingly, it turned out to be more than a bit creepy close-up, from the overly friendly greetings of uniformed believers at the entrance to the fortress-like walls and outer structure of the complex. Apparently the headquarters of the cult is further away in the mountains on top of some "sacred site" and accessible only by a select elite. What is it about new religions and complete kookiness?
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