Takayama is a city in the Gifu prefecture, located about 4,5 hours from Tokyo and can be done for free when using the Japan Rail Pass. The city is celebrated for its traditional preserved city center and is gaining popularity among tourists seeking a tranquil day in the rural areas of Japan. It is also a nice place to visit if you want to visit the cities of Shirakawago, Kamikochi or Gokayama.
Takayama has a lot to offer with a diversity of history in its old time, architecture at the Hida Folk Village where you can see traditional farm houses, culture at the Matsuri no Mori and peaceful walks along the Higashiyama course.
However, the city is most famous because of its biannual festival held in the spring and autumn, the Takayama Matsuri. This festival is considered one of the best festivals of Japan, along with the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto and the Chichibu Yomatsuri (Night Festival) in Saitama.
The Takayama Matsuri
The popular Takayama Matsuri, held for over 400 years now, is held twice a year in spring and in autumn. Even though both festivals have similar schedules and parades, the festivals are not exactly the same.
The Spring festival is the festival of the Hie Shrine, located in the south, and is held on the 14 and 15th of April. It is also known as the Sanno Festival and is originally celebrated by the people living in the southern half of downtown Takayama and celebrates the end of winter (and the beginning of spring). During the festival cherry blossoms are in full bloom most of the time making this a spectacular festival to watch.
The Autumn Festival is held from October 9th to October 10th and is the festival of the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine in the North of Takayama. It is therefore sometimes also referred to as the Hachiman Festival. This festival has originally been celebrated by the people living in the northern part of Takayama.
The festival signifies the arrival of the autumn at the Hida area Takayama is situated after a long summer to notice the villagers to start preparing for the winter time.
The festival actually starts a lot earlier, usually around one and a half month early, when the order of the procession floats, yatai in Japanese, is decided. This is a very important day for all the storehouses, who store the Yatai all year long.
The real fun for the ‘outsides’ however, begins at the first day of the festivals, respectively April 14th an October 9th, when hundreds of locals wearing traditional costumes showcase the local floats all over town.
On the first day of the festival during daytime the floats are carried out of their storehouses (or kept inside with the doors open when it is raining) and the floats will carry out marionette performances various times during the day which are dedicated to the gods of the Hie Shrine. These shows attracts huge crowds, so if you want to experience the marionette performances I suggest you find your spot about an hour in advance (at least).
After the floats have stayed put during the first part of the day, it is time for the actual procession. The floats are carried around town with all locals from the Takayama district involved in the parade. The parade has different aspects which are all very interesting to watch. The first part of the parade is the Kaguratai and the Shishimai. The Kaguratai is a procession in which a lot of people wearing straw hats or hats with large bird feathers make music by sounding bells or beating drums. The Shishimai are the Lion Dancers, which perform the traditional Japanese lion dance.
Afterwards is the ‘float’ parade and the Mishoshi procession. The Mikoshi is a portable shrine which is transported in the procession which is said to be a part of the Shrine worshipped and takes the god of the shrine with it. This is the only time of the year the deity (shrine god) leaves the shrine to be carried around town. Afterwards the yatai are carried around time by locals.
When the night falls on the first day, there is also a night festival on the 14th where floats, lit up with traditional Japanese lantern called chochin, are also carried through the town center. There are a lot less crowds, since the Takayama city center is not able to accommodate so many visitors, most people will have to take the train back to their respective hotels. (Be sure to book REALLY early if you want to spend the night in Takayama during the festival.
The second day is the most officially the most important day of the festival when puppet performances are done by the most important floats of the parades and the Mikoshi is returned to the shrine. However, both schedules of the days are about the same, with the exception of the night parade, which is only performed on the first day of the festival.
Out of Season? No worries – Matsuri no Mori festival Museum
Do you still want to feel the spirit of the Takayama Festival, but are you in Japan on any other day beside the festival days? No worries!
Takayama has a special museum, called the Matsuri No Mori (まつりの森), which is translated as the ‘Forest of the Festival’ solely dedicated towards the Takayama Matsuri.
The exhibition starts by leading you through a hallway where the so-called ‘miniature’ floats are displays. The main hall features a number of life-sized replicas of the floats used during the festival. The displays are amazing and are recommended even when visiting during the Matsuri itself to get a up close look (and of course a more detailed one, because you can see them a lot longer) of the floats used. Also as mentioned above, the floats, which often also feature the Karakuri dolls (marionettes), also offer demonstration performances of the ones performed during the festival itself.
The museum is definitely worth a visit if you are in Takayama
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00
Entrance fee: 1000 yen
How to get to Takayama
Take the JR Tokaido Shinkansen which stops at Tokyo Station and take the Shinkansen to Nagoya. This train ride will take around 100-120 minutes.
When travelling from Kyoto, take the same Shinkansen towards Tokyo station and also change lines at Nagoya station. The train from Kyoto to Nayoga takes about 40 minutes.
Afterwards, transfer to the JR Hida Limited Express (Also called the JR Takayama line) to Takayama, which will take another 140 minutes.
After arriving at JR Takyama Station, the city center, which features most mayor attractions, will be within a 10 minute walking distance. If you are planning on visiting the Hida Folk Village or the Matsuri no Mori (which are both highly recommend, please take the bus)
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