The streets were buzzing with the chatter of locals and tourists alike admiring the ceremonial yatai – ornate wooden structures that display traditional Japanese craftsmanship. It was hard not to get overwhelmed as we walked along the streets of Takayama, a city in the mountainous Hida region, roughly two hours away from Nagoya, Japan. Our visit coincided with the Takayama Autumn Festival, so the streets were extra lively.
The crisp morning air, the aroma of fresh meat and seafood sizzling on hibachi grills and the naturally beautiful backdrop of the old town’s streets put everyone in a festive mood.
One of the main tourist draws in Takayama, festival season or not, is Sanmachi, a beautifully preserved old town which contains buildings and whole streets of houses that date back to the Edo Period (1600-1868), when the city still thrived as a wealthy town of merchants. Another top attraction is the aisachi or morning markets.
After marveling at the ceremonial floats getting ready for the parade, we proceeded to the morning market where vendors were hawking their wares and visitors were hopping from stall to try different regional delicacies.
On the left side of the street were merchant shops selling traditional costumes, toys, souvenir t-shirts, local delicacies, arts and crafts. On the right side lining the riverbank were colorful stalls offering fresh flowers, farm produce, vegetables, spices, and a dizzying array of Japanese street food and snacks.
The morning market is open every day from 6:00 am till noon along the scenic Miyagawa River, where guests can feed fish and ducks as they sit by the riverside and enjoy their street food.
We were told not to fill up too much on snacks though as we would be having lunch soon, so it took all my willpower not to sample everything I came across. There seemed to be a lot of treats – both savory and sweet – on sticks. Various stalls were selling Gohei Mochi, simple rice cakes on skewers that are coated in a sweet, nutty miso sauce, which I had tried previously during our visit to the World Heritage site Shirakawa-go Village.
Imagine a savory crepe filled with a heaps of cabbage, meat and seafood, topped with a slice of ham and an egg. This variant included a generous serving of noodles or udon (yakisoba) piled on top of the cabbage. That dish alone practically contains all the food groups. It’s a complete meal in itself!
Before serving it on a plate, the vendor poured some liquid from a pot into a shell that had been grilling for a while. He motioned to me to slurp the liquid from the shell like soup, then pick out the meat with a BBQ stick. The meat had a rubbery texture similar to abalone or snail meat, but seemed to have more grainy taste. The small shell hid a surprisingly large piece of meat that came out in a neat curlicue. Not bad!
Coffee shops and sake stalls were interspersed with all the souvenir shops on the left side of the streets. Vendors were also selling packaged goods from rice crackers, to smoked fish, to dried fruits, to nuts and seeds in spicy and seasonal flavors of Autumn like pumpkins and persimmon.
I lost track of my companions when I encountered a shop selling liquor and local beers. While Takayama – and Japan in general – is best known for their sake or Japanese rice wine, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they also have their own craft beer! Hida Takayama Beer is manufactured by one of Japan’s earliest microbreweries, which was founded in 1996.
The beer was beautifully packaged in bottles and cans bearing an eye-catching logo. According to Beer Tengoku, the craft beer uses water sourced from 180m underground which is said to hold special anti-aging properties and a secret strain of yeast. It comes in several variants including Pilsener, Pale Ale, Weizen and Stout. Because it would be too bulky to carry around several bottles, I settled for a can to add to my souvenir beer collection to enjoy at home.
Happy with my purchase, I rushed to find the rest of the group who had walked further ahead. Our meeting point was the red Nakabashi Bridge, from where we all walked together to our lunch stop at Matsuri no Mori. On the menu was Hida Beef, which is undoubtedly the best food experience you can have in Takayama.
Hida Beef is a high-grade Wagyu style of beef comparable to Kobe style beef. It comes from a specific type of Japanese cattle raised in the Gifu Prefecture and is considered to be one the best types of beef in the world. This tender, juicy delicate meat has beautiful marbling and a fragrant aroma. There are different ways you can enjoy the flavor of different cuts of meat. Sirloin is a steak cut from the loin, and offers a refined flavor. Other cuts include fillet steaks, as well as thinly-sliced beef for Japanese-style Sukiyaki, Shabu-shabu and Yakiniku.
As we walked through the beautiful old town earlier, I saw long lines of tourists waiting outside stalls just to try Hida Beef Sushi. In other stalls, vendors were grilling large chunks of Hida Beef in skewers. The specialty beef is even served in steamed buns! I’m glad I saved my appetite as we sat down in the traditional restaurant for our set meal highlighting this delicious meat.
The middle of the table was full of dishes and bowls, plates and pots, all arranged neatly in front of each chair. Each person got a pretty bento box of side dishes like prawns, edamame, tofu, dango (sweet Japanese rice dumplings on a stick), and a bowl of vegetables. In a covered clay bowl next to the meat was a fish and vegetable dish.
But the star of the meal was that beautiful pot full of slices of Hida Beef simmering with fresh bean sprouts over the BBQ grill. The meat was seasoned with cracked black pepper and a slice of butter. We had to cook it ourselves, turning over the slices with our chopsticks until the meat was seared to our liking. My first bite of Hida Beef was pure bliss.
The meat was just so tender and bursting with flavor, it just melts in your mouth. You know those exaggerated scenes in anime shows like Cooking Master Boy or God of Cookery where people get transported somewhere because of how good the food is? Eating Hida Beef is like that.
I felt like I was floating on the clouds only to fall down and roll around in a field of buttery meaty goodness. Without a doubt, this is the best beef I’ve ever had. I savored every bite slowly, ignoring all the other dishes because I didn’t want to taint the flavor of the meat with anything else. Truly, heaven on a plate.
NOTE: This trip was made possible by Cebu Pacific and Centrair.
Cebu Pacific Air, the leading airline in the Philippines, flies between Manila and Nagoya (Chubu Centrair International Airport) every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. Ongoing all-in seat sale fares start from P6,388, for travel fromDecember 17, 2015 to March 31, 2016. Book your flights through CebuPacificAir.com. For updates and seat sale announcements, check out www.facebook.com/
TRAVEL TIPS & USEFUL INFO:
- Takayama is located in Gifu Prefecture, Japan.
- Website: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e5900.html
- There are two morning markets held in Takayama every day: the Jinya-mae Market in front of the Takayama Jinya (a government outpost), and the Miyagawa Market along the Miyagawa River in the old town.
- The morning markets usually last from around 6:30 (7:00 in winter) to noon.