At the beginning of March, with spring just over the horizon, I was off to Takayama in Gifu prefecture. My itinerary was a 2-night, 3-day excursion, which included catching a bus to Oku-Hida hot spring town's Hirayu Onsen, taking in the dynamic scenery of the Northern Japanese Alps with the help of the Shinhotaka Ropeway, and then heading by bus to Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture before catching a Chuo line train back to Tokyo. Keep reading to find out how it all went down!
From Tokyo it was a straight shot to Nagoya on the Tokaido Shinkansen. After the 1 hour 40 minute bullet train ride, I switched over to a limited express for Takayama. With the second leg taking about 2 hours 20 minutes, the trip to Takayama from Tokyo clocks in at a whopping 4 hours in total. Having gotten an early start, I arrived at Nagoya Station at around 11:30 a.m. for my transfer to the Wide View Hida limited express bound for Takayama.
Seeing as it was lunchtime, I figured it was the perfect time to grab an ekiben, a train station bento (lunchbox), to eat during the next leg of my trip. With a strong line-up of Nagoya specialties, I was faced with a difficult choice: Miso Katsu (fried pork cutlet covered with locally-produced Haccho miso sauce), Nagoya Cochin (Cochin chicken), Hitsumabushi (minced eel).... The longer I stared, the louder my stomach growled in anticipation, so I finally committed myself to the Nagoya Cochin bento.
If you're coming from Tokyo, you will end up spending a good amount of time on trains when you make your way to Takayama, but don't let that deter you. Kicking back with a delicious ekiben to munch on while enjoying the passing scenery is part of the adventure. On my trip the weather changed from rain to snow as we climbed in elevation approaching Takayama; it was a nice added bonus to get a change of scenery.
To help you make the most of your visit right from arrival, the Hida Takayama Sightseeing Information Center is located right in front of the station and offers English-speaking staff and free guide maps in a range of languages.
» See more Takayama Info and Bookings on JAPANiCAN.com
Takayama is perhaps most well known for its old quarter of streets lined with old houses from the Edo period. These historical lanes are permeated by an atmosphere of ages past, and this function as a time capsule tucked away in the Hida region has made Takayama a must-visit for both domestic and foreign tourists and history buffs.
This was my second visit to Takayama. After arriving, I took a stroll around the old quarter to enjoy the atmosphere. I also stopped for some tea at a local cafe and did a bit of shopping (check out the classy wooden utensils I picked up!). Speaking of shopping, any visit to Takayama must include a walk through the morning market along the Miya River. It's a great chance to interact with the locals and buy hand-made goods like Japanese pickles and miso. The market is held every morning from 6 a.m. to noon from April through October and 7 a.m. to noon November through March, so there's plenty of time to eat breakfast before heading out.
For my night in Takayama I selected a rather unique lodging. Takayamaouan is conveniently located just a few minutes from the station. What makes this hotel so unique is that it's not just a hotel: Takayamaouan melds elements of both Western-style hotels and Japanese ryokan. The interior features the warm wood construction that is typical of ryokan, and the atmosphere of old Takayama is carried over the threshold. Really cementing the Japanese experience, the whole building is floored with tatami (traditional straw mat flooring); being able to kick off your shoes right on entering also does a lot to help you relax and feel at home. Up on the top (13th) floor is a point of pride for the hotel and yet another quintessential ryokan element: all natural hot spring baths.
Considering all of its ryokan-esque features, one of the most unique features of Takayamaouan, and something it takes from the hotel side of the family, is the availability of stay and meal plans for single travelers. At most ryokan throughout Japan, it's not possible to stay alone as the rooms and included meals are meant for at least two guests. However, Takayamaouan welcomes singles with breakfast included as standard and dinner available as an option. If you decide to eat dinner out, the proficiently English-speaking staff at the front desk is happy to make some recommendations. Takayama ramen, perhaps!
After checking in, I slipped out of my shoes and stored them in a private lockbox. As the elevator doors opened I was shocked to find that even the elevator was tatami-floored! Or so I thought; it was actually a tatami-style carpet. That notwithstanding, I must say I was a little moved by their attention to detail. On a side note, Takayamaouan has a free computer area as well as internet connections in the guest rooms for those traveling with their own equipment. If you need a LAN cable, you can borrow one from the front desk.
The hot spring baths on the top floor offer an incredible view of Takayama, including the town below and the mountains that surround it. There are separate facilities for men and women (indoor and outdoor baths for both sexes), as well as three private open-air baths that can be used on a first come, first served basis. To use one of the private baths, look for the "Vacant" ("空") symbol. After enjoying a soak, there's an area to sit and have a free refreshment while looking out over the town.
Takayamaouan's guest rooms feature low beds on top of tatami floors and have a calming, modern Japanese-style feel. I ended up staying in one of their larger twin rooms which was furnished with a spacious closet, a vanity, and a sofa, among other accoutrements, which really made my stay comfortable. There was no bathtub in the room, but there was a shower booth connected to the restroom (remember, plenty of bathing space upstairs). When you head up to the hot springs, you can throw on the provided samue, a light, comfortable garment meant to be worn around the hotel, and don't forget to bring the hot spring tote bag which will be waiting in your room with a nice clean towel.
Besides the twin, there is a "Japanese-style Semi-Double Room" which is meant for 2 people. There's also another kind of guest room that is perfect for larger groups. The "Japanese/Western-style room" features a bedroom with an additional Japanese-style room which can together accommodate 4 adults.
For my stay, I ended up deciding to see for myself what the hotel's kitchen had to offer for dinner. Much to my delight, it turned out to be a Japanese-style course, complete with Takayama's famous local specialty Hoba Miso, which consists of Hida beef grilled with home-style miso and veggies on top of a magnolia leaf. After the miso warmed up on top of the leaf, it went perfectly with the beef, vegetables and was a great accompaniment to white rice!
The next day I was greeted with an incredible spread at the breakfast buffet. It was a literal smorgasbord of Hida Takayama regional cuisine with almost 70 different dishes just begging to be gobbled up. The Hida beef tsukune (minced Hida beef grilled on a stick) seemed to be the most popular. The offerings were mainly Japanese style, but there was also a selection of breads, fruit, and some other Western-style dishes. Also, can't forget dessert!
After stuffing myself silly at breakfast, it was time to continue my journey. About 1 hour and JPY 1,530 by bus from Takayama lies Hirayu Onsen in the Oku-Hida hot spring town. The Nohi Bus terminal is just outside Takayama Station; head left out of the station, and it's behind the police box. The bus to Hirayu Onsen is number 5. Tickets can be procured from a handy ticket vending machine (Japanese only - look for the characters for Hirayu: "平湯"). Show the driver your ticket when you board, and drop it in the used ticket box when you alight. There is English signage and directions on how to ride the bus, so don't worry if you're not a master of the Japanese language yet!
As the bus made its way out of town and into the mountains, the rugged, snowy scenery stretched out before my eyes, which were now glued to the window. The weather that morning was pretty overcast, but lucky for me the sky cleared up by the time we arrived at Hirayu Bus Terminal, and I was welcomed by a great view of the surrounding mountains against a lovely blue sky as I stepped off the bus.
It was past 2 p.m. already, but I wasn't really hungry for lunch yet thanks to Takayamaouan's no-holds-barred breakfast buffet. I opted to pick up a quick snack instead of a full meal and stumbled upon some Hida beef nikuman, Chinese steamed buns stuffed with meat. Costing JPY 420 apiece they struck me as a bit pricey at first, but as soon as I took my first bite, I realized it was totally worth it. Hida beef does not disappoint.
At an elevation of 1,250 meters and surrounded by active volcanoes, Hirayu Onsen features more than 30 natural sources gushing hot springs with various properties. Legend has it that back in the Sengoku period (Warring States period, 15th-17th century), some soldiers who had been injured in battle in the area saw an injured white monkey healing its wound in a hot spring. Upon mimicking this behavior, they found their own wounds to be healed. Whether you really believe the legend or not, Hirayu Onsen is a historic hot spring that has been delighting visitors for centuries. My lodging for the night was the sister establishment of Takayamaouan, called Miyamaouan.
From the bus terminal to the ryokan is only about a 7 minute walk, but they are more than happy to come pick you up at the terminal if you give them a call (be sure to ask JAPANiCAN.com customer support for their number).
In the lobby, I was greeted with some warm tea and a cherry-flavored Japanese confectionary which was a Miyamaouan original; checking in was a relaxing experience in and of itself. Further, the lobby, which is fitted with large windows all around, offers great views of the surrounding Northern Japanese Alps all year round.
My accommodation this time was a Japanese/Western-style room, i.e., a combination of Japanese-style and Western-style. It consisted of two rooms: one was a wood-floored living area with a sofa and massage chair, and the other was a tatami-floored bedroom. Gazing past the icicles dangling outside my window, I had a nice view of the dynamic, mountainous landscape. The connected bath was also equipped with a large window which could be opened to get the full effect of the surrounding landscape while relaxing in the bath.
There are a couple different room types with connected baths.
The "Japanese/Western-style room with Semi-open-air Bath" is just what it sounds like and features a partially open-air hot spring bath.
Another type, the "Japanese/Western-style room with Open-air Bath" (notice, not "semi") features a free-standing open-air bath crafted from fine Hida wood and filled with natural, straight-from-the-source hot spring water.
Miyamaouan offers natural hot springs drawn from three different sources. There are separate communal bathing areas for men and women which include both large indoor and outdoor baths brimming with hot springs direct from the source. Taking a soak in the open-air bath, enwrapped by the gorgeous wilderness, is certainly not to be missed!
The private open-air baths are located a bit off from the main building of the ryokan. To use them, you need to stop by the front desk to see if one is available; if one is open, they'll give you the key (if there are none available at the time, they'll contact you when one opens up).
I took quite a shining to the private indoor bath, a cozy, softly-lit space filled with the lilting warmth of the hot spring, which really put my mind at ease. Don't worry about going to the front desk for this one; you can just check if it's vacant or not by the sign on the door.
The main course at dinner consisted of delectable, charcoal-grilled Hida beef and a softshell turtle hotpot. On a side note, if you're not keen on softshell turtle, this dish can be substituted if you let the ryokan know in advance (please contact JAPANiCAN.com customer support to do so).
The hors d'oeuvres included a dish expertly crafted from fava beans which proved to be quite rich. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that even though we were in the mountains, the sashimi was fresh and delicious. With inquiring minds needing to know, I was informed that the fish was from Toyama on the Japan Sea. Dessert brought another surprise: sitting atop a cherry-flavored confectionary was a tiny, edible sarubobo (the region's famous charm dolls)!
Breakfast the next day was a Japanese-style set meal. I got to try another Miyamaouan original here: their take on Hoba Miso, which was filled with big chunks of soy bean. If you just gave me this to eat on top of white rice, I might never stop. As luck would have it, there were jars for sale (JPY 1,000) in the ryokan's gift shop, so I was able to bring this heavenly taste of Hida with me back to Tokyo.
This time around I enjoyed the winter scenery while warming myself up in the hot springs, but I would really like to visit during summer or when the leaves are changing colors in autumn as well.
On the third and final day of my trip, I planned to take a ride on the Shinhotaka Ropeway up to the observation platform. The view of the Northern Japanese Alps from the platform, which happens to be 2,156 meters up, is said to be breathtaking and was even awarded two stars by Michelin, so I knew I had to check it out for myself.
After checking out of Miyamaouan, I made my way back to Hirayu Bus Terminal. Once there, I left most of my stuff in a coin locker and jumped on a local bus to the ropeway's closest stop, Shinhotaka Onsen (about 30 minutes and JPY 870). As the snow swirled around me, I walked up the hill from the bus stop to the ropeway base station.
Four minutes and one section of ropeway later, I arrived at Nabedaira Kogen at an elevation of 1,305 meters. During other seasons, you can actually drive from the foot of the mountain to this point in your own car, so there is a visitor's center, an open-air hot spring spa (fee required), and nature trails. I wanted to rent some snow shoes and go for an intrepid trek around the snowy highlands, but with the white stuff coming down harder and a lack of other adventurers on the trails, I decided just to continue on to the observation platform.
After another 7 minutes on the next ropeway, which just so happens to be double-decker, I arrived at Nishihodaka. The sudden jump in elevation of about 1,000 meters was accompanied by a sudden drop in temperature: the temperature at the observation platform was a bone-chilling -14 degrees Celsius! Since mountain weather changes quickly, and it is not uncommon for weather to vary between the foot and peak, I was holding out hope that it would clear up...but, alas, I was surrounded by walls of impenetrable, swirling white. If there were mountains out there, I sure couldn't see them! At least there was a giant snowman to greet me, though, so I guess that counts for something.
I took a break in the dining hall to warm up with a cup of coffee made with fresh mountain spring water. After heading back down the mountain, I made my way back to the bus terminal.
Upon returning to Hirayu Bus Terminal, I did a little souvenir shopping for Japanese pickles, miso, and other Hida region specialties, warmed up some more in the hot springs on the third floor (fee required), and then I was off to Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture by bus. The trip to Matsumoto takes about an hour and a half and costs JPY 2,300. With snow continuing to pile up as the bus wound its way through the mountains, the muted landscape outside my window resembled a black and white picture.
During the trip to Matsumoto, the bus passes by destinations like Kamikochi, Shirahone Onsen, and Norikura Kogen. Mountaineering and/or hot spring fans will definitely want to visit these areas again.
I had planned to return to Tokyo after arriving in Matsumoto via the JR Chuo line's Azusa limited express, but with sunny weather predicted for the next day, I decided to spend the night in Matsumoto to do a bit more sightseeing. I was able to secure a room at Dormy Inn Matsumoto, which is conveniently located on a main street right in front of the station.
The next morning, the weather came through, and I was able to enjoy a view of Matsumoto Castle backed by the jagged peaks of the Northern Japanese Alps and a clear, cerulean sky.
A Special Offer for JAPANiCAN.com Customers
JPY 1,000 gift certificate
If you book the two ryokan I introduced in this article, Takayamaouan and Miyamaouan, together, you'll receive one JPY 1,000 gift certificate per adult in your party that can be used in the second ryokan's gift shop.
- Offer valid for stays between April 15, 2011 and March 31, 2012.
- Gift certificates will be issued at check-in at the second ryokan. Please show the confirmation slip or receipt from staying at the other ryokan.
- Gift certificates cannot be used at the first ryokan.
- Gift certificates can be only be used during stay (between check-in and check-out) at the second ryokan.
- Gift certificates cannot be exchanged for cash.
- Change will not be given for purchases made with gift certificates which total less than JPY 1,000.
- After booking both Takayamaouan and Miyamaouan, please contact JAPANiCAN.com Customer Support to inform us. Please note that if no prior notice is received, gift certificates cannot be issued.
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Author's Note：During this trip, on March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake struck Japan off the Sanriku Coast of the Tohoku (northeast) region. At the time, I was in a hot spring near Shinhotaka Ropeway and experienced some rather strong jolting followed by steady swaying. At the time of this writing (April 2011), areas west of Tokyo, including the central areas of Takayama, Hirayu Onsen, and Matsumoto, are wholly unaffected and hotels and transportation systems are operating normally. This includes the hotels/ryokan introduced in this article.
That notwithstanding, please be sure to keep abreast of the latest regional information when traveling.