Meandering Amongst the Mountains in the Japanese Alps

A view over Kamiko-chi

In the center of Honshu — the largest island in the Japanese archipelago — West of Tokyo and the Kanto region and North of Kyoto and the Kansai region, lies the mountainous area known as the Japanese Alps: arguably one of the nation’s most beautiful stretches, with crystal clear rivers crisscrossing through cedar and pine forests, paths and mountain trails winding through rough and rocky highlands, and gorgeous vistas over the valleys and lands below in any direction you look.  After having spent any amount of time in the urban environment of Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, a few days of enjoying the onsens (hot springs), hiking through the mountains, and reliving Japan’s past in the well-preserved villages is the perfect prescription for rejuvenating a weary soul.

Takayama, Japan:

As a base of operations for my adventures through the region, I choose to set up camp in the (relatively) small town of Takayama, the focal point and logistical center of the Hida region of Japan.  Famous for its series of merchant houses, preserved old town, and folk village history, it makes for a great destination in and of itself, let alone a jumping-off point for the nearby attractions.

Getting out of Tokyo and into the mountains is half the fun, given that it affords one the opportunity to take a ride on the Shinkansen — better known as the “Bullet Train,” being that it is the fastest train in the world

Even though the ride is only a few short hours, it still doesn’t feel quite complete with a bento box (a Japanese lunch box) to enjoy while watching the scenery blur past the windows

Once you arrive in Takayama, you’ll quickly be able to find your way to the Sanmachi-suji neighborhood, or the Old Town district with the wooden storefronts and merchant houses that looks today much like it did a hundred years ago (with the only major change being the addition of a few extra tourist shops)

Approaching the Hida Kokubunju Temple

The Miya-gawa river weaving its way through town

Small friends watching the world pass by

A giant Torii Gate framing one of the many bridges crossing the river

The streets of Takayama

Another incentive for me to visit Takayama is the fact that, because of the pure alpine waters in the region, there are 7 different kura, of sake breweries, headquartered in this small town. You can always pick out which buildings are the breweries, too, as they have these distinctive cedar frond spheres hanging our front

The variety of labels produced by one brewery

The streets of the Sanmachi-suji neighborhood lit up at night

Getting out of the center of town, Takayama offers a few different walking paths that snake in and out of a few dozen temples, shrines, and parks on the out-skirts of town.  If you’re up for a bit of a stroll, it makes for a great afternoon (complete with some great photo opportunities):

Looking back down on the town of Takayama

Shirakawa-go, Japan:

A short bus ride from the center of Takayama lies the Unesco-preserved town of Shirakawa-go, a very small village famous for its classic Gassho-style houses, in which the thatched roofs resemble two hands in prayer.  The steep angle of the houses was initially intended as a means of keeping snow from piling up on the roof (as the yearly snowfall in this part of Japan is well into the double-digits of feet), but they’ve come to be a symbol of a rural Japan of times past.  Additionally, just after the rice harvest season in October, an annual festival is held here where the local sake, doburoku — an unfiltered sake brewed only here — is served to visitors from all over Japan.

Looking down on Shirakawa-go from above, a village of only 2,000 or so people

An example of the Gassho-style of architecture

A close-up look at the construction of the roof

Even though all of the Gassho houses are private residences, several do offer visitors the chance to step inside and look around

The Shokawa River the cuts a path through the town

You guys should also know me enough by now to understand that there was no way I was going to visit a town that brews a special, you-can-find-it-only-here type of sake without at least sampling it. In this case, the unfiltered doburoku sake turns out to be pretty thick and chunky, with a strong sour note — all things that are perfectly agreeable to my palette

Kamiko-chi, Japan:

The highlight of the entire Hida region (and perhaps that of the Japanese Alps) is the stretch of land known as Kamiko-chi, a large valley cut between a series of mountain peaks that offers great hiking up and down both sides of river running down the middle.  The majority of the valley can be hiked in a single day — though it is pushing nearly 20 miles of trails, which my feet weren’t happy about — but it also acts as a stepping off point for mountain climbers looking to scale the peaks nearby.  This is the perfect destination for any outdoors enthusiasts that happen to be visiting Japan (though, obviously, it is more of a summer retreat, unless you like a LOT of snow, that is):

The trail working its way around one side of the valley

The Myojin-bashi Bridge

Views of the nearby mountain peaks

It’s hard to top the spirit-lifting qualities of a good walk in the woods

The waters this far up in the mountains are nearly as transparent as that of glass

Shinhotaka, Japan:

Although a hike through Kamiko-chi will allow you ratchet up the elevation levels, if you really want to get to the top of Japan, there is the option to take the a Ropeway funicular up to the peak of a mountain in Shinhotaka.  At the highest point, you hit altitudes of over 2,150 meters (or over 7,000 feet).  The views are supposedly breath-taking, but unfortunately the day I chose to come, the clouds rolled in and obscured the views of most of the surrounding area (given that you’re literally in the clouds at this height):

The ropeway cables that take you to the top

There is also a quaint little nature trail at the top

And no trip to a new region would be complete without sampling the local fare.  And in the Hida region around Takayama, the king of the cuisine is that of the local Hida beef.  It is a strong, powerful flavor with a great deal of fat marbling, as well.  The locals have gotten pretty creative with it, and have nearly (at least to my eyes) exhausted every use for it that you can find.  Take a look:

Hida Beef in its barbecued form, with a fried egg thrown in for good measure

Ramen with stock made from Hida Beef

It’s not quite the same without the pork, but I guess I’ll say it anyway: “Yay for Hida Beef Buns!”

They’ve even gone so far as to offer Hida Beef Sushi, in three different flavors, no less

And of course, a few hearty local ales are necessary to wash down all of that beefy goodness

That’s all I’ve got for now from Takayama and the Japanese Alps.  Up next is the scenic, and historic, town of Kanazawa, famous for its gardens, sweet confections, and historic districts.  Until then, cheers from Takayama!

Post-script:

I’ve gotten a few messages stating that the email notification for my last post — Sushi, Sake, and Soy Sauce: Consuming and Imbibing in Tokyo — didn’t work properly.  I’ve been fiddling around with the options in WordPress, so I apologize for any inconveniences this technology mishap may have caused.  If you’d still like to read it, you can access it via the “Archive of Past Posts”, “Posts by Month” (August), “Posts by Country” (Japan), or by merely clicking the link below.  Thanks again!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

8 Responses to “Meandering Amongst the Mountains in the Japanese Alps”

  1. Terrific views and great text. Keep it going.
    Cherie and Jeff

  2. Andre–this is a wonderful introduction to an area of Japan that intrigues me. All too often all we see are the large city/tourist spots. I love getting off the beaten trail to see more of how the people live. This post not only did that but showed the rural side of the country. Thanks!

    • When putting my Japan trip together, I tried to throw in a few extra destinations besides the usual urban trio (Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto) to get another sense for the country. So far, I’m really glad I did, as me time up in the mountains was amazing!

  3. One of the best Takayama articles on the web. Truly enjoyed your adventure.

  4. I have linked your page to our site.
    Thank you for the beautiful photos and great stories!

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