This Under-the-radar City in Japan Has Hot Springs, Sake Breweries, and a 100-year-old Townhouse You Can Sleep In
Futuristic skyscrapers, flashing neon lights, packed crossings, and high-speed trains — an urban maelstrom of images may well spring to mind when planning a trip to the sprawling megalopolis of Tokyo.
But a visit to Japan should not be limited to the capital. An altogether different — but no less seductive — side of the country quickly comes into focus when travelers venture off the beaten track and explore its scenic rural landscapes.
Instead of packed cityscapes, picture inky layers of mountain silhouettes, jewel-green forests, warming hot springs, colorful seasonal festivals, generations-old sake breweries, and atmospheric traditional architecture.
Takayama, a small city in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture, in the heart of Japan's main Honshu island, is one such place. With a population nudging just 90,000, the rural city offers a plethora of rich cultural and natural experiences for visitors.
The heartbeat of the city is its carefully preserved historic district, known as Sanmachi Suji, where narrow streets are lined with traditional wooden houses once inhabited by merchants, offering a rare glimpse into Japan's Edo period (1603 to 1867).
One way to deepen the experience is to spend the night, checking into Iori Takayama, a renovated townhouse dating back more than a century, for a taste of traditional Japanese life.
Here, behind a dark wood latticed façade, atmospheric rooms have tatami mat flooring, sliding paper screens, wooden ceilings, green plaster walls, and alcoves with calligraphic scrolls. Futons are unrolled nightly, and a deep, round ceramic bathtub overlooks a courtyard garden for the ultimate open-air soak.
Balanced with its traditional details are comfortable, modern touches such as a kitchen with blue walls, a Western-style dining table, a Nespresso machine, and Bose Bluetooth speakers.
Best of all? The house is completely private, with single parties of up to eight guests able to stay at a time. A Japanese chef specializing in kaiseki, banquet-style cuisine is also available to prepare a private dinner inspired by the season.
The house also provides the perfect home base for exploring Takayama's heritage. A stroll around the historic area is a rich experience in itself, with the traditional architecture reflecting the city's feudal era status as a hub for timber craftsmanship.
Another star of Takayama's cultural landscape is its sake, known as nihonshu in Japanese. The region's famously pure sake flavors are widely attributed to the quality of the Hidahomare rice grown across Gifu Prefecture, combined with fresh spring water from the Northern Alps.
A string of centuries-old breweries offer memorable tastings, including Hirase Sake Brewery, the oldest in the city, dating back to 1623. Here, the 15th generation of the family continues to produce countless top quality sake.
But perhaps the highlight is Takayama Festival. The two-day event, which unfolds twice a year (in April and September), is widely ranked as one of Japan's top festivals, with crowds quickly filling the scenic old streets.
You'll find around a dozen towering, intricately crafted red and gold floats — known as yatai — being paraded through the streets, surrounded by troops of traditional dancers. Colorful and lively, it's perhaps the ultimate experience in rural Japan.