If the UNESCO World Heritage site Shirakawa-go is the starting village or hero’s hometown in a classic video role-playing game, Takayama is the peaceful yet bustling trading town you go to when you want to upgrade your gear and buy all the rare items.
Takayama is a city in the mountainous region of the Gifu Prefecture, about 2 hours away from Nagoya, Japan. It is home to a beautifully preserved Old Town with 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.
The Old Town is a beautiful destination in itself, but our visit coincided with the Takayama Autumn Festival so it was extra special. Rooted in rich tradition, folklore and ritual ceremonies, this festival that started as a harvest thanksgiving ceremony, is considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful festivals.
Classic RPG Village music from Final Fantasy played in my head as we entered the compound where the festival preparations were going on. With ornate wooden floats displayed on the streets, locals walking around in traditional garb and the timeless beauty of the streets, the whole place felt like an elaborate film set for a historical movie.
The Takayama Autumn Festival is celebrated every year on October 9th and 10th at the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine, the guardian deity of the northern half of the old Takayama castle town. Because of this, the festival is also known as the Hachiman Festival.
Central to the celebrations are the parade and display of the eleven festival floats known as yatai. These wooden floats that date back to the 17th century are elaborately decorated with rich details, wood carvings and other embellishments that showcase exquisite Japanese craftsmanship. The floats are normally kept in storehouses and only make an appearance once a year, so as expected, the normally quiet town sees lots of tourists on this occasion.
In the quadrangle in front of the shrine, a sizable crowd gathered to watch performers and the Hoteitai Float, which served as the stage for a karakuri marionette performance dedicated to the deities. The karakuri puppets, which were originally made in the 17th to 19th century, are controlled by dozens of strings in a performance of incredible skill. Shows are held in the morning and afternoon of the festival days.
I wish we could have stayed until the evening for the Night Festival, when these floats lit up with lanterns make their way around town. The floats are serenaded back into their storehouses with melancholy autumn tunes unique only to Takayama. Once the festival is over, residents get ready for a long, snowy winter.
Locals participating in the festivities were dressed up in traditional Japanese ethnic garments, such as kimonos and geta (slippers). Even the wooden houses and storefronts were decorated for the occasion. Our tour guide told us that if it rains on the festival day, all ceremonies and performances are cancelled. Fortunately, the weather was just perfect during our visit.
Japan is known for having the most beautiful manhole covers, with each town having a unique design or symbol specific to the town. The manhole covers in Takayama’s streets are decorated with rhododendron flowers and leaves. Perfect for autumn.
Sidequest: #Drainspotting: Takayama Design Obtained
Streets were closed to all vehicles, so walking around was a visual treat. During our walking tour, I noticed a lot of locals aboard bicycles. I love how bike-friendly Japan is. Even in urban areas, we spotted businessmen and women on bikes with lots of bike parking facilities outside office buildings and near train stops. In Takayama, vintage commuter bikes could be seen everywhere, displayed in front of the stores in the old town area.
Another fun aspect of the festival was how pet-friendly it was. A lot of spectators had their cute pets in tow aboard bike baskets and special carriages. I spotted several Shiba Inus of the famous Doge Meme, known for its funny interior monologue. The Shiba Inu is apparently an ancient dog breed and the smallest of the six original and distinct spitz breeds of dog from Japan. They’re adorable!
Aside from the traditional floats, there were modern yatai or vendor’s stalls and bazaars on the streets. Takayama has two morning markets held every day. One is held in front of the Takayama Jinya, a former government outpost, and another is a row of stalls along the scenic Miyagawa River, where we got to sample some street food and local delicacies.
But the Old Town is really something else. The southern half of the old town, especially Sannomachi Street is one of the most beautiful streets I’ve ever been to. Many of the old homes, shops, coffee houses and sake breweries along this street have been in business for centuries! There’s that feeling that you’ve stepped back in time by just walking through the streets.
The storefronts just seem postcard perfect. I don’t know how they do it, but everything in Japan always looks so well-balanced. The simple arrangement of flags, fresh flowers, potted plants and other decorative elements just make the streets look so welcoming and aesthetic. The shops here sell everything from traditional household goods and local arts and crafts.
There was just so much to see. I wanted to enter each shop, try all the food and buy everything that I could fit in my bag. Food stalls displayed their wares so tantalizingly that I wanted to sample everything. Then I came across cute trinkets in a curio shop that I never knew I wanted, but suddenly felt the urge to buy.
Takayama definitely warrants a longer visit than our half-day tour. If you want to stay overnight, the area has some hotels and ryokan (inns) where families open their homes to the public. Guests can stay in tatami-matted rooms and experience living in the quarters of local merchants. Aside from the souvenir shops on the street, you can also find museums, restaurants and sake breweries here, just waiting to be explored.
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 from December 17, 2015 to March 31, 2016. Book your flights through CebuPacificAir.com. For updates and seat sale announcements, check out www.facebook.com/