Tag Archives: Takayama

The fabulous float festival of Takayama, Japan

Held twice a year in the spring (April 14th & 15th) and autumn (October 9th & 10th), Takayama’s float toting families close the streets to proudly parade their delightfully decorated 4-wheeled chariots.

The resplendent Takayama Floats

The resplendent Takayama Floats – Seiryutai in the foreground, followed by Daikokutai and Ryujintai

Called “yatai” which means “festival float” in Japanese, these multi-tiered resplendent rovers symbolise the erstwhile rich of Takayama, and exemplify the fine works of craftsmanship of the region. Twelve yatai take part in the spring festival, and eleven in the autumn, and once we’d spotted our first, we made it our mission to find them all, like some kind of brilliant treasure hunt.

Shakkyotai festival float close up

Shakkyotai festival float close up

The detail in the different materials used on each of the yatai is breathtaking. All of them looked in such good condition it was as if they’d all been recently refurbished – their dark lacquerwork polished to a mirrored finish, complemented by fine wood carvings and metalwork adornments of dragons or sea creatures.

Takayama yatai detail

Takayama yatai detail (clockwise from top-left) carved wooden dragon, golden dragon, leaf biting dragon and embroidered koi side curtain

The route of the floats through the small town wasn’t readily advertised, but the owner of our guesthouse remembered that he’d seen it printed in the previous days newspaper and kindly translated it for us. Essentially, all of the floats make their way from their individual storage sheds dotted throughout the town, towards the square next to the beautiful red bridge on the Takayama Jinja side of the Miyagawa River. Throughout the morning, there’s a procession of yatai over the bridge and south towards the Hie Jinja Shrine, where we found them lining up along Shimmeicho street.

Hie Jinja Shrine, Takayama

Hie Jinja Shrine, Takayama

Takayama yatai pulling team

Takayama yatai pulling team

While all of the yatai are stunning, 3 in particular have an extra charm.. for they have animated puppets that put on an amazing show twice daily.

Takayama yatai puppets

Takayama yatai puppet display (left to right) Sambaso, Shakkyotai, Ryujintai

The puppets are controlled from within the yatai by up to 35 different strings and the performances were more impressive in turn. The last float, Ryujintai, was the closest to us, and I still haven’t been able to work out how they made it work the way it did – it was spectacular!

Yatai pulling team taking a break

Yatai pulling team taking a break

Accommodation in Takayama gets booked up quite a way in advance as the festivals are held on the same dates every year. We were only able to stay the night before which unfortunately meant we had to leave before the night festivities, where each of the floats is kitted out with tiny lanterns and once again paraded through the streets, but we’re so glad the weather was good and we got to see them during the day.

Us in front of Daikokutai

Us in front of Daikokutai

Takayama, Japan

The train journey from Nagoya to Takayama was beautiful. The train wound through narrow valleys and tunnels giving us views up gorges with fast flowing turquoise rivers flowing through them and we knew we were going to enjoy staying closer to the Japanese countryside. And the glimpses of the snow capped Japan Alps that we got in the last 30 minutes of the journey sealed the deal although we were disappointed that our first proper journey on the famed Japanese rail network was 8 minutes late arriving – we had heard that trains here run to the minute…

20140501-183711.jpgSpectacular scenery from the train to Takayama

However, winding up into the mountains meant that when we arrived it was cold! Not really having had a winter this year, spending our time in SE Asia and then Bangladesh, it was quite a shock to the system to dig out our jumpers, jackets and even scarf and gloves! So having dropped our bag off at the friendly hostel and wrapped up as warm as we could, we set out to explore the town. Don’t feel too sorry for us, although it was close to zero during the night, the afternoon temperature was about 15 degrees so we were never likely to get hypothermia.

Takayama is a small city and has a particularly well preserved historic district with narrow streets lined with picturesque traditional-style wooden houses. Perhaps unfortunately, like many similar small picturesque towns (Tallinn’s centre, Pingyao and Hoi An spring to mind) it is somewhat swamped with busloads of tourists which means that many of the old buildings are now home to restaurants, shops and small museums all aimed at visitors.

20140501-183720.jpgWooden houses line the tourist filled streets in the historic Sanmachi-suji District

There are also more sake breweries than I would imagine an average small town could support. These can be identified by the large brown cedar balls, called Sugidama, hanging outside. We went inside one for a look and were pleased to discover that we could pay ¥100 (£0.60) for a sake cup which included a free taster of our choice. Even better, there didn’t seem to be anyone policing the tasting bottles. We watched several Japanese visitors work their way along a whole row of bottles before we made our way back to the front of the queue for another couple of glasses each. One looked milky in colour and perhaps because of that it reminded us of airag, the fermented mare’s milk drink that we tried in Mongolia. We later learned that this is just an unfiltered version of the rice wine and doesn’t actually contain any dairy products.

20140501-183727.jpgCheers! Trying sake at one of Takayama’s breweries

20140501-183733.jpgClockwise from top left: Sugidama cedar ball outside a sake brewery, the cloudy sake that we tried, sake barrels

We finished the afternoon by escaping the crowds in the Shiroyama-koen park on the hilltop which contains the ruins of Takayama Castle. The ruins were unimpressive but the views over the town and towards the snow capped peaks in the other direction were nice and the path through the forest was lovely.

20140501-183745.jpgShiroyama-koen Park (clockwise from left): path through the trees, view over Takayama, snow capped peaks

Our first stop the next morning was at the Miyagawa Morning Market. This runs every day and is more of a tourist market than a local one, but there were some nice stalls with traditional foods as well as crafts. We tried some tasters of pickled vegetables, bought Fuji apples from an apple farmer (it never occured to me that the Fuji variety came from Japan, but of course it is named after the famous mountain) and perhaps most memorably bought an Owara Tamaten each. This was like a toasted homemade marshmallow – definitely not a bad thing although it took a couple of read throughs of its description in Japanese English and a bite before we figured it out!

20140501-183810.jpgBustling morning market beside the Miyagawa River

20140503-224210.jpgMiyagawa Morning Market (clockwise from top left): candlemaker, Japanese vegetables called udo, Fuji apple farmers, meat products, sweetmaker, pickled ginger

20140505-191703.jpgThe Owara Tamaten and its cryptic description

Apart from its historic streets, there are a few things that Takayama is famous for. First, the floats displayed in the twice yearly town festival (more on those in another post), next the fine beef produced in and named after the area, Hida, and finally the sarubobo, a faceless toy given to grandchildren as dolls and to daughters as a charm for a good marriage. Plenty of the crafts at the morning market and in the souvenir shops featured the sarubobo but we spotted them elsewhere around town as well. And we tried the meltingly tender Hida beef twice – on our first day topping a bowl of noodle soup and also as sushi – yum!

20140501-183801.jpgSarubobos (clockwise from top left): offerings outside Hida Kokubunji Temple, incorporated into souvenirs, sarubobo waffles, large marble sarubobo

20140501-183753.jpgHida beef sushi, finished with a wave of the blowtorch and a slick of sauce

After a quick stop at Hida Kokubunji Temple to admire its pagoda and the huge gingko tree which is said to be over 1200 years old, we walked 30 minutes to the south-west of the town to the Hida Folk Village. Regular readers will note that we’re quite partial to outdoor museums of architecture having visited examples in Riga, Suzdal, Ulan Ude, and Hanoi and this was no exception. Located on a hillside above Takayama it has 30 examples of traditional wooden houses from locations around the prefecture of Hida situated between trees and surrounding a small pond. There were also craftspeople in some of the buildings demonstrating traditional skills (weaving on a hand loom, wood carving, wooden lattice creation) and a few activities for visitors to try including, bizarrely, stilt walking which it is safe to say we didn’t quite get the hang of.

20140502-222515.jpgPagoda at Hida Kokubunji Temple

20140503-223510.jpgHida Folk Village

20140501-184456.jpgWeaving demonstration

20140502-222522.jpgSplit second success at stilt walking

20140502-222532.jpgDifferent house styles

Chasing cherry blossom in Japan

Cherry blossom (sakura) is a big thing in Japan. Its beauty is celebrated with ‘hanami’ or cherry blossom viewing parties with family and friends held in parks, shrines and temples across the country. The blossoms are such an integral part of Japanese culture that they even feature on the 100 yen coin! We knew that by arriving in Japan in the second week of April we had a chance of catching the blooming time but when we checked the forecast (yes there is such a thing) from Singapore it looked as if we would be too late for everywhere except the far north which we weren’t planning to visit at the start of our trip. Our search for the sakura was reminiscent of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Too hot…

We arrived in Nagoya, in the centre of the southern coast of Honshu, Japan’s main island, and although there were a few flowers left we were about a week too late.

20140424-172754.jpgThis cherry tree lined path near Nagoya Castle must have looked stunning in full bloom

20140505-084151.jpgThere were a few late blooming trees like this well placed one near the main tower of Nagoya Castle

Too cold…

Our next destination was Takayama in the mountains north of Nagoya. Aha we thought, a higher altitude might mean later blossoming, and indeed it did except that this time we were too early!

20140424-173329.jpgIt had been very cold in Takayama for the week preceding our visit and the flowers hadn’t quite woken up although they were tantalisingly close

Just right…

From Takayama we travelled north-west to Kanazawa on the northern coast of Honshu. We were expecting the situation here to be similar to Nagoya but as the train moved down from the mountains we started to notice cherry trees in full bloom and hope started to grow. At last our timing was good, we spent a couple of hours wandering through the Kenroku-en garden admiring the many trees.

20140424-174759.jpgBeautiful, almost sculptural cherry tree in Kanazawa Castle Park

20140424-174806.jpgCherry trees lining a stream in Kenrokuen Garden

20140424-174816.jpgBlossom close up