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Friday, July 13, 2007


Taking a stroll back through time

TAKAYAMA, Gifu Pref. — In a country that deems houses well past their best-by date after 20 or 30 years, and fit only for destruction and reform, it is a minor miracle of sorts that wooden private houses built in the Edo Period (1603-1867) remain almost intact here, and that most of them are still in use or inhabited.

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Edo period private houses with latticed bay windows stand in rows in Sannomachi, Takayama. The area is designated by the national government as an "area of important traditional buildings."

But here they are, standing tall and true even after a couple of centuries, lining the streets alongside ancient temples, shrines and traditional craft workshops in this "living museum" of a city.

It is possible to walk from one side of town to the other in around 25 minutes. But to see every museum, temple, shrine and sight in the city would take several days.

In olden times, the Hida Takayama district, nestled in the mountains, was snowed in for most of the winter and that may be a reason why the ruthless modernization that swept most of Japan had less of an effect on the district. Hida is the old geographical name for northern Gifu Prefecture, at the center of which sits Takayama and its population of some 65,000 people.

A more plausible or convincing reason for the surviving Edo Period structures may be that the nearby forests were full of Japanese cypress, cedar and firs, producing the fine timber needed for houses and woodworking, and the skilled carpenters and artisans, many of whom acquired their craft in Kyoto, who built good and durable houses for wealthy local merchants in Takayama after returning home.

In fact, the history of Takayama begins with its carpenters. The carpenters of Hida are said to have built the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and many temples in that city, as well as in Nara. Carpentry continued to thrive as the furniture trade developed and demand grew for casks and barrels.

At the end of the 16th century, Takayama Castle was established by the Kanamori clan, and this was the origin of the present town and its culture.

Takayama is an intimate, leisurely place, and even the very center of the city has a quiet, rustic air. The region is basically an agricultural one. Every day, local farmers bring the freshest fruit and vegetables to Takayama's lively morning market, which is now a tourist attraction.

Old private houses

The old streets of Sannomachi, which are about a 10-minute walk from JR Takayama Station, are lined with authentic structures from the 18th century. With their latticed bay windows, they are fascinating survivors of the Edo Period. Today, most of them are shops dealing in local specialties, including pickled vegetables, miso, sake, lacquerware and wooden furniture.

On the main thoroughfare of Sannomachi, you'll find the Kusakabe Mingei-kan (Kusakabe Heritage House). This is a lofty old merchant's house, with heavy beams, an open hearth, and wonderfully hasped and clasped cash boxes upstairs.

Takayama Festival

The Takayama Festival is known as one of the three most splendid festivals in Japan. Visitors who cannot be here for the festivities can find a gorgeous display of four of the 11 floats used in the festival procession at Takayama Yatai Kaikai (Takayama Festival Exhibition Hall).

The floats are glorious confections in black and gold. The most intriguing have mechanical puppets that scatter confetti or perform acrobatics. The Takayama Festival is held twice a year — usually April 14 and 15, and Oct. 9 and 10, drawing hundreds of thousands of people from throughout the country.

News photo
Takayama Festival floats, pulled by local Hachiman Shrine worshippers, cross a bridge over the Miyagawa River flowing through Takayama.
News photo
Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum on the outskirts of Takayama, has some 30 straw-thatched farmhouses and other traditional structures from the Hida district.

Shunkei lacquerware

Neither black nor red, but a lovely rich honey color, with the ghost of the wood shimmering through, Shunkei lacquerware is prized throughout Japan. The Hida Takayama Shunkei Kaikan has an important collection of the lacquerware, one of Takayama's representative crafts. Over 1,000 pieces dating from the 17th century to the present day are on display, many of them for sale.

Hida Folk Village

A more studied evocation of old Japan can be found at the Hida Minzoku-mura, or Hida Folk Village, on the outskirts of Takayama. The hilly and wooded setting is suitably bucolic. The structures on display range from humble outbuildings to substantial homes of prosperous farmers, to village halls and warehouses — a remarkable example of the preservation of things past. Most of the more than 30 traditional structures were moved from other parts of the Hida Takayama district. The folk village is about a 20-minute walk from central Takayama.

Takayama Jinya

Takayama Jinya was the office-residence of the daikan (district governor) who ruled the Hida Takayama district on behalf of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Dating from 1692, the building was in use until 1868. Of the many similar centers throughout Japan, this is the only one that has been preserved in its original form.

The front wall of the main entrance hall is decorated with paper that has a "blue sea wave" pattern, which was designed by the shogunate as a symbol of its direct control. Visitors will be able to see the governor's residence, kitchen, banquet hall, civil and criminal courts, and rice storehouse. Period items and official documents pertaining to local affairs are on display.

Getting there

It takes nearly five hours to travel from Tokyo to Takayama by JR train. Take the shinkansen superexpress from Tokyo to Nagoya and then change to the Hida express for Takayama. This writer recently took a three-day JTB Sunrise Tour to Takayama.

Sunrise Tours is Japan's largest travel agency offering hotel and tour packages with English-speaking guides, and Japan's top operator of package tours for visitors to Japan.

Among such packages are a two-day free plan to Takayama, a four-day plan to Kisoji and Takayama, and a four-day free plan to Hakone, Takayama and Kyoto. Since they were first marketed more than 40 years ago, Sunrise Tours have been enjoyed by more than 6 million people, predominantly from abroad. JTB has been taking care of foreign visitors to Japan since 1912.

For Sunrise Tours online reservations, visit JAPANiCAN.com: www.japanican.com

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