YAKAI IN STORAGE
You can observe and take pictures of the Yakai before the parade(s).
Close to half of them are stored in the Festival Floats Exhibit Hall and the remaining in their own personal Garage tucked away on side streets.
Note: There are Twelve ' Yakai ' total.
THE PUPPET SHOW
The Karakuri Performance takes place at the Otabisho which is in and around Takayama Jinya.
Two performances a day lasting about 20 minutes.
Huge crowds show up so you have to stake out a place at least an hour before the performance to get close enough to see anything.
Yoshijima Heritage House
If you need a break/rest from the Yakai and Parade(s) there are some other things you can look for.
There are a number ( say 5 ) of Heritage Houses which are open to the public such as the Yoshijima Heritage House along with many museums ( say 7) .
There are a number of 'good' restaurant but you have to seek them out.
GATHERING OF THE YAKAI
The Yakai are pulled out of their homes just before the parade(s) and parked on the main street.
This operation is interesting to observe as the process is not easy especially when turning corners.
This attracts a very large crowd and the street(s) are packed even at the October Festival.
Preserved private houses
The oldest part of Takayama consists of three main streets that run north to south parallel to the river Miyagawa. From west to east these are Sannomachi, Ninomachi and Ichinomachi. The northern section of each has the prefix “Shimo” and the southern, “Kami”. All are lined with a variety of old homes, with perhaps the greatest concentration on Kami-Sannomachi. These have been preserved (not restored or rebuilt as replicas) and are regarded as one of the best preserved Edo-era neighbourhoods in Japan.
Most of these houses are over 200 years old. They have dark wood lattice fronts which give the rows that line each street a sense of uniformity, even where they are now put to use as shops or restaurants, or (quite common here) sake breweries. Unsurprisingly the district has been designated an area of important traditional buildings by the Japanese Government. It is a very popular area to explore, so you need to be prepared for crowds, especially at weekends, but they don’t really diminish from the sense of the past that lingers here. And if you come back at night you will quite likely have the streets almost to yourself, as we were to find the next evening (see photo five).
It is easy to see inside the houses as many have become shops or restaurants and a few are museums. There are also a couple in the northern part of town that have been opened to the public simply as great examples of such houses (Yoshijima-ke and Kusakabe mingei-kan) – but for us that was on tomorrow’s agenda.
Today we were eager to follow Andrew to some recommended places where we could sample some sake!
- Historical Travel
Several of the old houses in Takayama are sake breweries, as some have been for centuries. You can easily recognise these by the large white barrels outside and the distinctive spheres hanging above the entrance. These are known as sugidama and are the traditional sign of a sake brewery. Originally they were hung up whenever a new lot of sake was brewed. Made with green, freshly picked needles of a type of cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, the ball would hang there until the needles turned brown, indicating that the sake had aged enough and was ready for drinking. Today these sugidama are no longer used to indicate the age of the sake but simply as a sign of a traditional sake brewery or a sake shop.
Many such establishments in Takayama welcome visitors to taste the sake and we visited a couple with Andrew, both towards the southern end of Kami-Sannomachi. In the first we were able to taste a good range of different sakes. We paid 100¥ and were given a small pottery cup which we could afterwards keep as a souvenir. On one side of the room was a display of sake bottles on three shelves, and we were free to sample as much as we liked from any of them. The only stipulation was that each person who wanted to taste had to pay for their own little cup. Or as the signs above the shelves said,
“Please sample after purchasing one-piece [the cup with the sansya logo] of 100 yen. Grass can be brought home”
“The carrying out from this corner of sample alcohol should withhold. I refuse that a cup uses about. Please purchase one person one cup.”
You can see these signs, which did make us smile, in my Lost in Translation on my Japan page.
After we had sampled a number of the sakes here (and debated about the rival qualities of each) we moved on to a nearby establishment that operates rather differently. Here you pay for your sake by the glass, and it is served in the traditional Takayama style, with the glass inside a small wooden box. Actually, the really traditional way is to serve it directly in the box, but this is probably more practical! They also sell a lemon-flavoured drink a little like the Italian limoncello which was very popular with our group but which I found a little sweet for my taste. This particular sake brewery has a lovely courtyard at the rear where you can relax over your drinks, and there’s also a restaurant attached. One couple in our group came back here to eat the following evening and reported it very good.
There’s a useful list of a number of Takayama sake breweries on the website below. Unfortunately I didn’t think to ask Andrew the names of the two we went to but I’m pretty sure from the descriptions here that the second one was Funasaka and the first either Hirata or Harada.
Once we had drunk as much sake as seemed sensible for the middle of the afternoon (OK a little more than that!), Chris and I decided to investigate an interesting gallery which we had spotted on the other side of the road.
- Wine Tasting
There are two markets held every morning in Takayama and we went to one of these, that held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed on VT by one person at least as a “tourist trap” but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here! I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.
Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
”Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.”
[you can see a photo of this sign in my “Lost in Translation” tip on my Japan page]
This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.
The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep you interested. It runs from 6.00 – 12.00 during spring, summer and autumn, with a 7.00 start in the winter, but there’s no particular need to get there early as they won’t run out of goods.
As I said, I took loads of photos here, and if you’re interested you can see some more in my morning markets travelogue. After spending some time here we rejoined some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to the nearby Takayama Yatai Kaikan, the museum dedicated to the Festival Floats.
Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan
Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.
The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals. You can read a full description of the festivals of the Japan Guide website: festivale.
For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town (we saw several of these while walking around – see next tip). But a few are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance (for more about these see my tip about the demonstration we saw in the nearby Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall).
A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room but is well worth checking out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.
Photography is allowed without flash (and in any case flash wouldn't work as the exhibits are behind glass). There’s a small souvenir shop near the exit where I bought a little charm with one of the floats on it to wear on my travel bag. The 820¥ admission fee includes the museum next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan. But before we have a look at that, a little more about the Yatai storehouses.
- Museum Visits
- Arts and Culture
Sakurayama Nikko Kan
Next door to the impressive Yatai Kaikan museum, and included in the price of admission to it, is this smaller museum which holds a model of the World Heritage Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!
As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.
Once we had seen all we wanted to we left the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum (which I would have liked to have seen but not at the expense of seeing more of Takayama itself). Our next destination was a nearby shrine, Sakuramaya Hachimangu.
- Museum Visits
- Arts and Culture
This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.
The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or “lion dogs” guarding the entrance to the inner shrine (photo four, and also seen in photo three in my next tip), a large purification trough with dragons head fountains (photo three), a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine (photo two), dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god – see photo five.
While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local family celebration.
- Religious Travel
Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition
As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.
We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).
These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a "mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise". The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.
There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most dashi karakuri it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.
If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, karakuri.info, which is worth digging around in.
Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action.
Admission costs 600¥ and if you watch a demonstration as well as touring the exhibit cases you get good value for that.
By this time though it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier.
- Arts and Culture
- Museum Visits
- Historical Travel
During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I loved it. The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!
The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. You pay 500¥ for admission and receive a small information leaflet (available in English). You are then free to wander at will, having of course removed your shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko.
If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also many more photos than I’m able to share here, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.
After spending quite a lot of time taking photos here we moved next door to the Kusakabe house.
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.
Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.
Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.
As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the
Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website linked below is in Japanese only but also has some good photos.
Admission here too was 500¥. This includes a cup of green tea and rice cake served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.
Intrigued as I had been throughout our time in Japan with the tatami mats, I was happy to see a tatami mat workshop just across the road from these two houses and wandered over to check it out.
- Historical Travel
- Museum Visits
Taste of Houba Miso
Specialty of Gifu.
This is technically local miso that is grilled on Houba or Japanese Magnolia leaf.
The aroma of the leaf is infused in the miso as it is grilled. Served usually with white rice and/or Hida Wagyu beef.
- Food and Dining
Gorgeous UNESCO site featuring Gassho-zukuri farmhouses that are still in use by residences as homes.
The roofs of the Gassho-zukuri farmhouses are said to resemble the hands of monks in prayer, in fact it is made sloping to prevent the build up of snow that can fall heavily in these areas. Made of thick layers of straw, and are replaced once every 5-10yrs.
The houses face in a north south direction to minimise wind resistance.
The Gassho-zukuri museum, just in front of the bus stop area is a great place to start. A collection of various farmhouses and watermills that had been relocated here to prevent destruction from the building of a dam.
Entrance fee: 500yen. Open 8:40am to 5pm (9am to 4pm in winter). Closed thursdays in winter or Friday if thursday is a public holiday.
The entire place can be easily covered on foot and is a great place to stroll around. The walk to the Shiroyama Viewpoint however might be taxing on those who are less fit. There is a shuttle bus to the viewpoint from the mainstreet in the village, located in front of the tourist office
Map of the village http://www.shirakawa-go.gr.jp/othercontents/file/pdf/map_english.pdf
To get there, take the Nouhi bus from Takayama or KAnazawa
OR highway bus from Nagoya
There is also an english guided tour from Takayama.
*A great way to visit Kanazawa and Takayama, using this as a route in between the 2 cities.
- Historical Travel
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