For travelers, size matters. And, unlike much of life, less can be more ... On a trip to Japan, I hustled through Tokyo for a few days, seeing all sorts of sights but feeling as...

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For travelers, size matters. And, unlike much of life, less can be more …

On a trip to Japan, I hustled through Tokyo for a few days, seeing all sorts of sights but feeling as if I was barely scratching the surface of the vast city. So it was a relief to move on to the small town of Takayama, cradled in the foothills of the Japan Alps.

Takayama, home to 70,000 people compared with Tokyo’s 12.3 million, is compact enough for travelers to enjoy on a brief visit, yet big enough to give an understanding of Japanese life and history.

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Japanese tourists know and love Takayama (sometimes called by its old name of Hida), flocking there during cultural festivals each April and October when ornately decorated 19th-century floats are paraded through the narrow streets. But American tourists, of whom there aren’t many in Japan to start with, usually stick to the Tokyo-Kyoto circuit and seldom venture to Takayama.

They’re missing a very good thing.

Takayama has a historic neighborhood of 19th-century merchants’ houses that’s ideal for strolling; an excellent outdoor folk-village museum; pleasant cafes and teahouses; small farmers’ markets; and Buddhist temples.

Takayama’s modern architecture — slabs of apartment and office buildings — is nothing special. But its well-preserved city center — a grid of small streets dating to the 16th century — is easy and pleasant to explore on foot.

Day and night walks

My favorite times to walk in downtown Takayama were in the early morning and at night, when the streets were empty and it was easier to get a feel of the old Japan.

By 9 p.m. on one starlit night, all Takayama seemed to have gone to bed. Shops and cafes were shuttered, the sidewalks mostly empty. I wandered through silent side streets to the Teramachi area on the edge of downtown where a dozen tile-roofed Buddhist temples are strung along a low, wooded ridge, linked by two miles of cobbled walking paths and small streets.

I stood under a soaring pine tree in the dark garden of a temple and looked into a wood-paneled room where a statue of Buddha gleamed golden in candlelight. A monk padded across the floor, his robe brushing the ground.

Such temples, some centuries old, have helped earn Takayama the nickname “Little Kyoto.” Takayama can’t match the glories of Kyoto, an ancient capital and cultural powerhouse of Japan that’s studded with more than 1,600 temples, elaborate formal gardens and museums.

But at Takayama’s temples, I could be almost alone and immersed in their tranquillity. In Kyoto, where Japanese and foreign tourists throng the major temples and gardens — which have formal hours, walled entries and admission charges — it was much harder to get that sense of peace. (And thanks to Japan’s enviably low crime rate, I wasn’t nervous during my night walks.)

Morning markets

For my daytime walks in Takayama, I started early and headed to street markets. Two small farmers markets, Miyagawa and Jinya-mae, are set up daily downtown, on opposite banks of the Miyagawa River that flows through the city. From 6 a.m. to noon, weather-worn farmers’ wives spread vegetables and fruit on wood tables.

KRISTIN JACKSON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A giant ‘maneki neko’ or lucky cat, a traditional Japanese good-luck figurine, beckons outside a souvenir shop on the outskirts of Takayama. It’s one of the few super-size things in the small Japanese town.


I stopped at a stall in the block-long Miyagawa market to admire some luscious-looking melons. They had better be luscious; each cost a stunning $18.

Yet most prices in Takayama and other Japanese cities I visited weren’t as lofty as I had feared. I stayed in moderate, but comfortable business hotels for around $100 a night, including the Best Western Hotel Takayama which was far nicer than many Best Westerns I’ve stayed at in North America, with fluffy quilts on the twin beds, a tea maker and small fridge.

Along with a fear of high prices, the language barrier scares off many Americans — only about 730,000 Americans visit Japan annually versus the tens of millions who head to Western Europe.

But my ignorance of Japanese wasn’t a hindrance in Takayama. At my hotel, the front-desk staff spoke some English (as do staff at many business hotels and upscale inns in Japan.) And armed with an English language map/brochure from the Takayama tourist office, I could stop passers-by and point to where I was trying to go. They’d gesture the way or even escort me; one man led the way down back streets to a sushi restaurant.

I did splurge at that restaurant — more than $40 on my lunch. It was worth it, even though I could have avoided busting my budget by having the local specialty of buckwheat noodles and vegetables at a simpler restaurant for about $10 or filled up on “mitarashi dango,” a skewer of grilled rice balls basted with soy sauce that are cooked and sold for a dollar at street-corner kiosks.

Unable to talk with the sushi chef at the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, I just shrugged a “whatever” gesture and ate — and ate — whatever delicious little raw-fish delicacy he chose and passed over the counter to me. And I happily sampled the three different kinds of sake his kimono-clad wife poured.

Walking through history

I walked off the sushi and sake in Takayama’s historic downtown neighborhood of San-machi Suji. Scattered over its roughly 12 square blocks are 19th-century merchants’ homes, with deep overhanging eaves and latticed windows. Most have been turned into cafes, galleries, sake stores and souvenir shops, since virtually every Japanese tourist takes home exquisitely wrapped boxes of candy or other foodstuffs as gifts.

On one of the narrow, pedestrian-only streets, giggling teenage schoolgirls rode in rickshaws pulled by muscled young men in traditional conical hats.

To see Takayama history from the inside, I went to some of the small museums housed in heritage buildings in San-machi Suji. They won’t win prizes for exhibit design, but museums such as Kusakabe Mingei-kan and Takayama-shi Kyodo-kan showcase local history and traditional furnishings and art, from 17th-century samurai armor to Buddhist wood carvings.

My favorite was the privately run Fujii Bijutsu Mingei-kan, a collection of folk art from Japan, China and Korea — antique dolls, kimonos, lacquerware and more — housed in a lovingly preserved three-story building of creaking plank floors. On a steamy summer afternoon, when the street outside was busy with tourists, I had the museum and its small, sequestered courtyard to myself. I sat in the shade and admired the courtyard’s heavy wood entrance gate; it once graced 16th-century Takayama Castle (now in ruins).

A must-see folk museum

There is one don’t-miss museum in Takayama, Hida-no-Sato or Hida Folk Village, an outdoor museum of more than a dozen thatched-roof farmhouses, plus outbuildings, that are distinctive to this part of Japan.

Called “gassho-zukuri,” or praying hands, the steeply angled roofs look like two hands clasped in prayer, although their practical purpose is to shed snow in winter.

The four-story, A-frame farmhouses, some dating to the mid-1700s and constructed with massive, hand-hewed wood beams, were moved here for preservation starting in the 1950s. They’re spread over the museum’s 24-acre grassy hillside on the outskirts of Takayama, with a walking path winding from house-to-house past a pond and a shrine.

Inside, the houses show a simple, old way of life. Extended families would have lived in the farmhouses, warming themselves at the hearth; rolling out heavy quilts during the snowy winter nights; worshipping at a household shrine tucked into a corner; storing crops and tools and working their looms up in steep-roofed lofts.

Tired and thirsty after a hot summer morning at the museum, I headed back downtown and found a peaceful riverside cafe. Men played Go, the ancient Asian board game, at one of the tables. Students pored over their books. I sipped green tea and wished I could stay longer in the right-size, easygoing Takayama.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com