Takayama, tradition and heritage. (October 2013)

We took two trains to get to Takayama and the rain had set in yet again. This wasn’t the result of the latest Typhoon, that was yet to reach us.

Takayama was a castle town in the late 16th century, however it was first settled in the Jomon period, about 1,200 BC. It is still a very traditional town of narrow streets filled with inns, old shops, Ryokans, sake breweries and woodworking workshops, a craft that has made Takayama famous.

Over a 300 year period Takayama developed a unique culture, and due to its high altitude, isolated location and cold winters, has been able to preserve it.

It was therefore fitting that we were staying in another Ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn.

As with the Ryokan in Beppu everything was on a low, minimalist scale. But unlike Bepu, where we ate in a separate room, here, both breakfast and dinner were served in our room.

So to overcome a slight case of claustrophobia and despite the rain, we were still able to get out and walk around the streets, as they all had covered walk-ways.

Miyagawa is the main river running through the centre of Takayama. Every day, spread out along the river banks, are two ‘Morning Markets’, the Miyagawa and the Jinya mae.

On our first morning we visited the Miyagawa Market, a collection of food, handycraft and local produce stalls.

From the market we had a short stroll to the see the elaborate Temple floats in the Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall, just near the Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine.

Housed in the festival hall are the Yatai or Festival Floats. These floats, some dating back to the 17th century, are pulled through the streets of the town in Spring and Autumn.

The festivals began about 350 years ago, as a simple village ceremony. Now twelve floats take part in the spring festival and eleven in the autumn. The hall displays four floats, on rotation, from the autumn festival.

The region became famous for brewing sake, woodworking and cloth manufacturing. Then the festival received support from the local merchants, who had grown wealthy from their trades. Finally the competition between the various districts, fuelled by the merchants egotism, lead to the floats becoming more and more elaborate.

The floats have intricate carvings, metal and lacquer work and some also have mechanical puppets that can perform amazing tricks.

Those floats, that are not on exhibition are kept in specially designed ‘Yatai-gura’. These are store houses with thickened walls and very high doors, and are dotted around the districts of Takayama.

That afternoon we took a bus to Shirakawago, a village famous for its farmhouses, which are built in a unique architectural style known as Gasshô. The name means ‘hands together’, as in prayer, referring to the steep roofs that keep the snow off in the long and bitterly cold winters.

The village is built into the side of a mountain and surrounded by forest. Mountain water is constantly running down the narrow watercourses, out of fountains, taps and into rice paddies.

Large multi coloured carp are housed in any space large enough to keep them alive.

Although a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 the village has become overrun with tourists. To maximise this opportunity, the locals have turned their heritage homes into cafes and gift shops and their land into parking lots.

As this is against the UNESCO Charter, Shirakawago risks losing its heritage status.

The UNESCO Charter is about protecting and preserving, not profit.

Over the years we have visited many world heritage sites and they have always been of a consistently high standard, this one wasn’t.

The UNESCO World Heritage Program is one of the most successful organisations run by the United Nations. The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted in 1972 and has been ratified by 190 state parties. There are only seven countries that have not signed the agreement.

Currently there are 981 sites listed, 759 cultural, 193 natural and 29 mixed. Italy has the greatest number with 49 sites, followed by China, 45 and Spain, 44.

On our final day we walked to the Hida Folk Village, just on the outskirts of Takayama. This is an open air museum and a total contrast to what we had seen the day before. Like Shirakawago, that had many local houses moved to the area, the Hida Folk Village had dwellings from all over the region moved there.

But unlike Shirakawago, there is little commercialism. The area is well maintained and there is an abundance of explanations about what you are seeing.

A highlight of the village was gaining an understanding of how the architecture changed from region to region. This was usually to do with the amount of snow that falls during the winter period.

As we had seen with the Gasshô, or prayer houses, a steeper roof usually indicates a greater snow fall.

Although all these houses were built from timber and prone to burning down, fire was their friend. There was a fire lit in every house we visited and it was explained to us that the smoke repels insects and keeps the ropes in the thatching taught. It is also believed that a fire makes a house a home.

We spent three and a half hours engrossed in exploring this fascinating site.

Apart from a couple of craft shops near the entrance, we were not continually confronted with ‘buying opportunities’.

We did spend 30 Yen (about 30 cents) on food for the fish, swans and ducks of the pond – that was worth every Yen.

As an experience the Hida Folk Village rates very highly and we could see why there is growing criticism of the UNESCO listed Shirakawago Village.

As far as the weather was concerned, this was the best day we had had, so we returned to walk through the old part of Takayama, this time without the gloomy skies.

Just near our hotel the Kajibashi Bridge crosses the Miyagawa River and on either side of the bridge are two very strange bronze statues.

For lack of a better description, having failed to find any information, I have called them ‘Buddha With Long Legs’ and ‘Buddha With Long Arms’.

Lonely Planet describes Takayama as, “…a rarity: a 21st-century city (admittedly a small one) that’s also retained its traditional charm.”

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