(Warning: This post is extremely long and photo-intense)

Within 5 mins of stepping out of the train station, praises flew within my family. “So pretty!” “So quiet and peaceful!” “Just the way I like it!” Welcome to Takayama, also known as ‘Gateway to the Alps’. If you have been reading my previous blog posts, you would be familiar with this name by now. Takayama and Shirakawa-go are neighbours to each other, being just 50mins bus ride away. It is a small traditional Japanese town that lies within the mountainous terrain of the Gifu prefecture, surrounded by the Japan Alps. The streets of Takayama are lined with preserved wooden houses which retained the character of the Edo period (1603–1868).  Walking along the streets, one will feel like he/she has taken a step back in time. If you will like to get a flavour of the ancient Japan, this is the place to be!

Things to do

Indulge in Hida beef

Since Takayama and Shirakawa-go are neighbours in the Hida region, both share similar cuisine, so you will see in this post that the food introduced are nearly the same as those in the previous post. Hida beef is the main delicacy in this town. In fact, every few steps you take, you will see the words “ひだぎゅ (飛驒牛, or hida beef)” screaming out at you from the storefronts. It is said to be the ‘Kobe wagyu of the Hida-region’. There are different ways of enjoying it: yakiniku (grilling), sukiyaki, kushiyaki (skewers), steak, sushi etc. You will find them in all shapes and forms here!

After depositing our luggage at our accomodation, we set off for Maruaki (丸明), a really popular restaurant specialising in Yakiniku style Hida beef. I heard that usually you will need to queue for hours because the restaurant does not accept reservation, but because we came on a weekday lunch, we did not need to queue at all!

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Hida beef has a Yield Score of Grade A or B, and a Firmness and Texture Grade of 5, 4 or 3. So A5 will be the highest grade that you can get. There are different beef cuts available here at Maruaki, or if you come on a weekday lunch like us, you can get lunch sets with Hoba Miso beef or beef cubes that comes with rice, miso soup, appetizer and dessert, all for just 3000 yen. It’s really value-for-money considering that one platter of beef already cost 8000 yen!

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I think most of us will like our beef medium-rare, but the reality is that the melt-in-the-mouth taste only happens when the beef is fully cooked. So don’t waste your precious beef experimenting like what we did!

Walk along Sannomachi Street

Sannomachi street lies within the Old Town centre and is the main attraction of Takayama. It is a rather short 2-3 lanes of preserved Edo-style houses which have been converted to souvenirs shops, restaurants, cafes, inns and museums. Just take your time to walk along this street and go crazy with souvenir shopping and camwhoring!

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Indulge in street food

Street food
Pictures taken from http://www.tsunagujapan.com

Sannomachi street is the centre of street food in Takayama. Here, you can find beef croquettes, beef nigiri (sushi), beef buns and beef skewers. Takayama is also famous for its quality rice, so the snacks like Mitarashi dango (rice dumplings), Gohei mochi and rice crackers are popular here too. Unfortunately we don’t have stomach for these after our super full lunch, so I can only show you photos from other website.

Go sake tasting

Takayama, with its pure mountain water, produces one of the best sake in Japan. There are a number of sake breweries along Sannomachi street, which are easily recognisable by sake barrels placed outside the houses and large cedar balls hanging over the entrances.

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All you will have to do is to purchase a small sake cup for 300 yen, and you can have a mouth of each sake bottle that is placed in the fridge. Note that only one mouth is allowed per bottle (although I don’t see anyone monitoring it). Also, sake has high alcohol level, so if your alcohol tolerance level is as weak as my family’s, you might want to just share a cup instead.

Where to stay

We stayed in a ryokan for the night, which is a traditional Japanese inn where you will experience omotenashi (Japanese hospitality). It feels somewhat like a Minshu, or B&B, but more atas kind where you get served from head to toe. There are numerous ryokans in Takayama, but most of them are not cheap, especially if you choose the half-board option (dinner and breakfast). The one we stayed in is called Honjin Hiranoya Annex, which received a review score of 9.1 on Booking.com, and is ranked #3 on TripAdvisor for traveller ranked hotels/ryokans in Takayama. This place really deserve a post by itself, but unfortunately I lack the time and energy to do a separate post, so I shall just cramp my review here.

The hotel

The ryokan offers complimentary shuttle service from Takayama station, which you can book by emailing the ryokan of your arrival time and mode of transport so that they know where to fetch you from. I felt so privileged to be greeted by their staff holding a placard with my name upon stepping out of the station gantry 😀 Actually while I was emailing the staff, I thought he sounded aloof. But I guess it’s really just the language barrier, because he was all smiles when we arrived.

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Comfortable shuttle bus with personal service. The staff will even bring out a small stool for you to step to get on the bus. What a tough job he has. No wonder he sounded so stern on the emails since he has a really tight schedule to meet.
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Bicycles are free for use
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Warm and cosy lobby. They even provide a wheelchair for the elderly and towels to wipe yourself during rainy days.

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A unique feature of this ryokan is that the staff will sound a drum to signal the arrival of new guests, and they will also allow the guests to play with the drum. So while the girls were busy checking in, the guys were busy drumming away.

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Here is where you can order beverages like a cup of warm coffee. Blankets are provided for guests to keep themselves warm, especially during winter, while they relax at the lounge. Really considerate of the hotel.
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There’s a photobooth at the balcony featuring Takayama’s mascots, Sarubobo, as well as the famous red bridge, Nakabashi bridge, in the background

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The room

There are a total of 28 rooms in this ryokan, of which 24 face the Miyagawa river and only 4 face the city. Booking a river-facing room is highly recommended. The sound of the river flowing makes a very good sleep!

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All the rooms in this ryokan are traditionally designed with tatami flooring and futon beds.
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I think the plant is placed strategically outside the window. It really feels like a painting.
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Vanity corner. All the toiletries provided here are of luxurious brands like Shiseido and Kosé Sekkisei (雪肌精).
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Excellent view from the room! Sannomachi street is located just across this bridge, opposite the ryokan.
Takayama festival
Picture taken from http://www.japan-guide.com

Every April and October, Takayama holds an annual festival featuring a dozen festival floats that passes by the red bridge, precisely in front of this ryokan. This festival is really popular, so if you manage to book a room here during the festival, you will have VIP seats instead of squeezing in with the crowd!

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We were shown to our room by an attendant (or Nakai-san), who will be the same person preparing our yukata and meals.  After showering us with multiple presents, tea and sweet, we were asked for our heights so that she can prepare yukata of the correct sizes. We were each given two sets of yukata. One is of thicker material that looks like a dress, while the other is a two-piece which is much more comfortable. Only the dress-like yukata can be worn out of the ryokan. Two coloured belts were given. If you are wearing  the yukata outdoors, you match it with the red belt, and if you are wearing  the yukata indoors, you match it with the green belt. Don’t be alarmed by the complexity of the uniforms, I actually think the staff don’t care what coloured belts you wear. Since we still had time to spare, my sister and I wore the yukata out for a short photoshoot!

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The onsen

Sorry guys, there’s only 1 onsen for male in this ryokan, but 2 for females! Yay! This is the first time I feel privileged as a female using public baths in Japan, since public baths are traditionally dominated by male use. However, if you are a guy reading this, don’t be quick to reject this ryokan. Even though there is only 1 onsen for males, the males get outdoor bath with top-floor view over the city, while the females only get indoor baths. Well, there is a give and take in everything right?

For obvious reasons, I can only introduce the females baths in this post. Of the two baths, the one that I really like is the traditional bathhouse located directly beside the ryokan. It is a small but very cosy place which exudes peace and calmness. Furthermore, since the bathhouse serves only a small number of guests, the probability of having the whole bath to yourself is really high!

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I absolutely love this spot! It was so so relaxing to hear the gentle flow of the river, breathe in the cool mountain air and just soak in the atmosphere of the Old Town. If it wasn’t for my dinner, I would not have moved from my spot!
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An alternative spot for relaxing and having a cup of tea after a hot soak
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Massage services are provided here at an exorbitant rate

The other female bath is located at the top floor of the ryokan beside the male bath. I don’t really like this bath much because the water is really hot and I found the hot steam to be suffocating inside the indoor bath. The amenities provided were lacking too.

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Disclaimer: Photos are not allowed to be taken inside the public baths. I checked the entire place really carefully first to ensure that I was the only one before taking these photos. Please do not copy my actions! 

Some photos of sunset view taken from the male bath.

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The meals

What I find really unique about this ryokan is that unlike other ryokans where half-board is an option, the room rates here are already inclusive of half-board option. Furthermore, the multi-course kaiseiki dinner is served in the room. You would think that this is common in Japan, but it is actually not. Many popular ryokans serve their meals in a common area nowadays, and you have to top-up additional fee above the half-board option to have kaiseiki meal in your room. I feel that this is what made the room rates here really value-for-money! There are 3 timings for dinner (5pm, 6pm and 7pm) which you will need to choose upon check-in.

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Super long list of food that took 1.5hrs to complete.
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Appetiser: (in the bowl) Cold egg custard, fish noodles, water shield, shrimp, radish with Japanese citron stock (in the red pot) Pike conger, Maitake mushroom, chicken, wax gourd, carrot with Japanese citron
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(Front): Conger eel sushi, unripe Japanese apricot, shrimp, bamboo shoot with miso, soy paste, sweet potato, okra (Back): Vinegared mozuku seaweed, trabecula, cucumber with goji berry
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Sea bream, tuna, shrimp, squid, Salt-grilled sweetfish
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Hida beef steak with boiled asparagus and Japanese mushrooms with chef’s special sauce “butterbur (Japanese wild plant) miso” and grilled meat sauce. Dried herring, eggplant, taro, kidney bean, Japanese dry baked wheat gluten with Japanese pepper
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Highlight of the meal
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Edible wild plant mixed rice
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Dessert: Pudding, watermelon, orange

We opted for the 7pm option, and it was 8.30pm by the time we completed our meal. Then, the bed attendants (yes, there is such thing as bed attendants) will come into the room to prepare the sleeping area. By the time the set-up is completed, it is about 9.30pm. What a tough job they have…

Breakfast is served in a common room on level 2. There are 3 timings that your have to choose (6.30am, 7am and 7.30am) upon check-in. There are two breakfast option, Japanese and Western. Word of advice: In Japan, always go for Japanese meal!

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Brother forcing a smile for me since he is in the picture

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Pictorial explanation on how to have your breakfast. Again, how considerate!

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My over-cooked bony sweetfish that tasted just like nasi lemak fish
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Special miso made by the chef to be eaten with our rice/porridge

My verdict

The room rate may not appear to be friendly at first glance (we paid about SGD 640 for one night for 4 pax). However if you compare with other ryokans in Takayama, a room could easily cost up to this amount without any meals. After spending one night here, I feel that it is definitely value-for-money in terms of location and quality. It was really really hard to book a room here, and I must say that I actually revised my itinerary to fit the schedule of this ryokan. So if you are intending to book a room here, please do so early!

Warning though, this ryokan provides an overdose of bowing, smiles and high-pitch greetings, so it may actually end up inducing stress in those who are not used to such hospitality. We happened to get an over-friendly guest attendant who can produce the biggest smile and the highest pitch of “Excuse me~~~” that I’ve ever heard in my life, which can be quite stressful after awhile. Also, please bear in mind that the guest attendant also have a key to the room, and they will come in 15mins before meal time to set up the dining table without prior warning, so for the guys, please make sure you are appropriate dressed to receive them…

How to get to Takayama

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Nohi bus station is directly beside the train station (the building with green words)

 

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The reason why Takayama is called the ‘Gateway to the Alps’ is because it is a terminal station for the Nohi bus service which serves the major routes linking hiking trails and sightseeing spots within the Japan Alps. If you are visiting from Osaka or Nagoya, this will likely be the first place that you will arrive at prior to starting your journey through the mountains. There are two main ways of getting here, both of which are fully covered by JR Pass:

Option 1: Tokyo –> Train to Toyama –> Train to Takayama

Option 2: Osaka –> Train to Nagoya –> Train to Takayama

Resources

Once again, because of the popularity of this place, there are plenty of tour packages available from Tokyo and Osaka. These tour packages will usually combine Takayama and Shirakawa-go as a day trip, which I personally find it a pity because each place deserves more time for exploration. Furthermore, some of the best sights in Japan can be found just 1-2 hours bus ride from Takayama! Examples are:

Shinhotaka Ropeway (Cable Car)
Shinhotaka Ropeway (picture taken from Gifu Prefecture Tourism Federation). This ropeway is open whole year round, so you can see snow-capped mountain in summer and winter without hiking!
Kamikochi
Kamikochi, a hiking paradise in the Alps. (photo taken from www.kamikochi.org)
Suimeikan
Suimeikan Karukaya Sanso, which offers open-air baths surrounded by nature (photo taken from official website). The Hida region is home to some of the best open-air onsens in Japan! If you are visiting in winter, you must come to one of these open-air baths.

This is the end of my 2500 words assay (I wish I can write so much for my assignments…), and I thank whoever is reading these words for sticking with me till the end. Before I end off, here are some bonus pictures taken around Takayama, simply because I have nowhere else to insert them. Oh yes, and upon the request of my brother, I will like to give credits to my brother for taking some of the excellent photos used in this post, which are enhanced by my awesome photo-editing skills. Till the next post!

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