Written by a guest blogger who recently visited Takayama for this article.
Hida Takayama is one of my favourite old towns in Japan and its charm keeps me coming back year after year. Located in the beautiful mountains of Gifu Prefecture, Takayama is famous for its well preserved old town as well as the Takayama Festival held in both spring and autumn. It also has in my opinion some of the best gourmet food and restaurants in all of Japan.
The Takayama food scene is best known for its high-quality Hida beef which is raised from Japanese black cattle in the region, but there is lot more to Takayama than just beef as I discovered on my most recent trip. I was surprised to learn that Takayama has some great fresh fish and seafood. The fresh fish and seafood is sent daily from ports in Toyama Prefecture along the Japan Sea and can be found in sushi restaurants and izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) all around town. It is hard to imagine Takayama having some of the best fish in the country being a mountainous area surrounded by the stunning Northern Japan Alps, but Toyama is only an hour or so away so it has the best of both worlds.
The food in Takayama takes its influences from both the Kansai and Kanto regions of Japan creating unique local dishes that can't be found anywhere else in Japan, like hoba miso, miso with vegetables, mushrooms, and often local Hida beef grilled grilled on a magnolia leaf. The culture in Takayama is very much like the food in that it is distinct and individual with its own unique customs and traditions.
The vegetables in Takayama are also to die for and I have tasted no better in my travels in Japan. From the famous Hida benikabu (radish) and Hida ippon negi (leek), I don't know what it is but these so-called "Hida Takayama traditional veggies" taste amazing. It must be all that pure mountain water, mineral-rich soil and fresh air that also produces some top quality Japanese sake, soba, and fruit.
Takayama also has its own local variety of ramen which is known as 'Chuka Soba' in the local lingo, but more about that later. For now, join me as I take a gourmet food tour of this picturesque quaint old town.
The journey to Takayama is a big part of the adventure as the Hida Wide View Express twists and turns its way through the stunning landscape and mountains of Gifu Prefecture. My journey started early morning at Nagoya Station, and roughly 2 and a half hours later -- which went by quickly as I gazed out the window at the passing scenery -- I was stepping off the train platform in beautiful Takayama.
My starting point is JR Takayama Station with the first stop on the gourmet tour being a yakuniku BBQ restaurant called Ajikura Tengoku.
Ajikura Tengoku (味蔵天国)
Website (Japanese only) http://www.ajikura.jp/
Ajikura Tengoku (味蔵天国) is conveniently located 2 or 3 minutes walk from JR Takayama Station and specialises in a style of at-table BBQ which is called yakiniku in Japanese. Now, this isn't any old yakiniku restaurant mind you. This place serves only the best JA Hida Group's Farmers "Hida beef" with the restaurant organised and run by the farmers from the JA Group (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives). The restaurant is very spacious and relaxing and can seat 108 people in comfort. The seating is Japanese-style featuring horigotatsu seats which means you sit around a low table on tatami mat floor, but the floor under the table is dug out so you have plenty of comfortable leg space just like at a Western-style table.
You haven't had "Hida beef" until you've had "Hida beef" at Ajikura Tengoku. It is so tender and soft that it literally melts in your mouth, hence the Tengoku part of the restaurant's name, which means "paradise". I ordered the Hida beef fillet steak (飛騨牛ヒレステーキ) which looked and tasted amazing with its white marbling. To accompany the beef I also ordered a selection of vegetables which you cook with the meat on the barbeque grill located right in the middle of the table. I recommend trying the beef with the special salt provided as it really brings out and enhances the flavour. You can also dip your meat in a variety of special yakiniku sauces which include miso and soy sauce. The restaurant is really popular for dinner with the foreign tourists that visit Takayama and they can provide an English menu if required. In addition to yakiniku, shabu-shabu hot pot is also available.
Tsuzumi Soba (つづみそば)
Website (Japanese only) http://j47.jp/tsudumi/
My next stop on the tour was Tsuzumi Soba (つづみそば) one of the oldest ramen restaurants in Takayama. It specialises in Takayama Ramen, which is referred to as chuka soba by the locals. We met the owner of the restaurant who is a lovely man and heard about how this restaurant founded in 1956 by his grandfather started out as a small shop nearly 60 years ago. Takayama Ramen is traditionally light on toppings but full on taste and is simply made with a soy sauce broth containing pork, chicken and vegetables (each ramen master has his/her own secret recipe for making the broth), and is topped with Hida negi (locally grown green onions), two slices of chashu (sliced pork) and bamboo shoots.
The menu is simple and just contains three types of ramen, which are chuka soba (Takayama Ramen), wonton and chashu. You'll find no sides of chahan (fried rice), gyoza (dumplings) or karaage (fried chicken) like you might find at ramen joints in other cities, as here rice is the only side dish available. This place is old school with things done the traditional way. Simple is best after all. The shop is small with only 24 seats available, but the atmosphere is cosy and the ramen is very reasonably priced. I ordered a hot bowl of chuka soba which set me back only 600 yen. I was surprised at how simple the ramen looked, but it smelt amazing and tasted even better than it smelt. The broth had deep complex flavours and I really enjoyed the unique noodles which were different from any other ramen noodles I've tasted before in Japan. The noodles are finely curled which allows them to soak up more of the richly flavoured broth and pack a powerful punch. The menu at Tsuzumi Soba is pretty simple and not too difficult to work out, and there is an English menu available just in case you need it. If you are the type that likes a beer with their ramen, alcoholic beverages are not on the menu, but you are actually allowed to bring your own!
Matsuki Sushi (松喜すし)
Website (Available in Chinese, Korean, Thai, Japanese) http://www.matsuki-sushi.com/
Third stop on my tour was a sushi restaurant called Matsuki Sushi (松喜すし) which is a traditional style sushi restaurant. The owner's grandfather was a fishmonger in Toyama and started a fish shop in Takayama to make fresh fish more widely known. The owner's father eventually changed the business to a sushi restaurant and the rest as they say is history. Seafood and sushi can be said to be Takayama's secret gourmet as fresh fish and seafood is delivered every morning from ports in neighbouring Toyama Prefecture. The family business is run together by the owner and his father and the restaurant is conveniently located about 7 minutes walk from JR Takayama Station.
The seating is simple with a counter from which you can watch the sushi chefs work their magic, or regular tables. Here you will not only find fresh fish but can also sample some of Hida Takayama's famous "Hida beef". Above the counter, you'll find a price list for each sushi in Japanese. There is no menu as you can order from the board above the counter or leave it up to the chef (chef's selection) called omakase in Japanese. There is something uniquely Japanese about ordering sushi from the counter and watching the chef make it before you very eyes. It also gives you the chance to talk to the chef and learn about the fresh fish and sushi in the process. There is an English menu available and I recommend the chef's selections, particularly the Tempura Gozen set, which comes with eight pieces of sushi, tempura and miso soup with crab.
Website (Japanese only) http://aji-hei.jp/
My last stop is Ajihei (あじ平) an izakaya which we would probably call a Japanese-style pub in English. They specialise in quality local food made from the finest ingredients as well as having a fine selection of alcoholic beverages. The restaurant creates a traditional Japanese atmosphere and provides a selection of more than 100 local dishes. Popular dishes include local delicacies such as keichanyaki (chicken and veggies grilled in a savory sauce), sashimi, and tsukemono steak (a kind of omelette containing pickled vegetables). I felt like I was transported back in time to the Showa era (1926-89) of Japan as soon as I entered the restaurant with the decor and antiques. This is due to the fact the shop owner is also an antique dealer, so the restaurant's cosy and lively atmosphere is enhanced from the displays of vintage Japanese posters and collectable goods.
The restaurant although quite small can seat around 40 people at the counter and tables on the first floor with further seating available upstairs in the tatami banquet space. Ajihei also has an English menu to help with ordering, but like any good izakaya the hardest thing is deciding what dishes to order from the over 100 available on the menu.
While in Takayama make sure you also do the tourist thing and check out Sanmachi Suji, a collection of Edo period houses contained within the center of the old town. The narrow streets of the historic district are lined with traditional merchant houses, shops selling traditional crafts, sake breweries and restaurants serving local specialties. The buildings are beautiful preserved with many of them over 400 years old. The old town has earned Takayama the nickname "Little Kyoto" and a visit here is literally like taking a step back in time to the period of the samurai.
Takayama has everything that you want from a top travel destination from an authentic look at traditional Japan and ancient temples and shrines to gourmet food and top notch sake. The more I visit Takayama the more I slowly discover its secrets.