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Takayama - Higashiyama, Sakurayama & Takayama Festival

Historical houses, Sanmachi, Takayama (© Wa-pedia.com)
Historical merchant houses in the Sanmachi distrcit, Takayama

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Takayama's compact historical centre is best explored on foot. The hilly neighbourhood of Higashiyama provide the most pleasant walks with its dozens of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and panoramic views on the city and snowy summits of Central Honshū. The temples are lined over roughly 1500 metres (1 mile), from the Sakurayama Hachimangū Shrine to the Dairyū-ji Temple, at the northern end of the Shiroyama Park. The narrow Enako-gawa River (more of a stream actually), fully entranched in an attractive stone canal, marks the limit between the Higashiyama and the city centre. Strolling along this neighbourhood acquires a brand new charm in the autumn and in the spring, when colourful foliage or cherry blossoms enliven the slopes.

Old houses in Sakurayama, Takayama
Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall
Sakurayama Hachimangū, Takayama

Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall 高山祭屋台会館

Starting north, from Sakurayama, you should have a look at the superbly decorated festival floats ("yatai") at the dedicated Exhibition Hall at the foor of the Sakurayama Hachimangū. They are the pride of Takayama's citizens, the reason why hundreds of thousands of people flow into the city during the two annual festivals, the Sanno Matsuri (14-15 April) and the Hachiman Matsuri (9-10 October).

There are twelve yatai representing the old districts that divided merchants and artisans by profession. The festival originated 350 years ago as a simple village ceremony, then evolved little by little into a competition between districts. The guilds displayed the skills of their craftsmen in the elaborate artwork, carvings and metalwork decorating their yatai. Most of the floats date from the 17th century. Four of them have puppets ("karakuri") on them, which can be animated by daint of skillful pulling of strings and rods. The Hotei-tai float has no less than 36 strings requiring the effort of 8 pupetteers to bring its three marionettes to life.

Only four floats are on display at any one time, and they are rotated three times a year. The other floats are stored in yatai-gura (float warehouses) around the city. You will notice them in the streets with their huge doors. The golden mikoshi (portable shrine) is always there to greet visitors.

Sakurayama 桜山

Opposite the Exhibition Hall is the Sakurayama Nikkō Hall (桜山日光館), housing a one-tenth replica of the Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine. Even if you have been to Nikkō this is still well worth a look since the scaled replica is a work of art of its own. It took 33 carpenters 15 years to reproduce the 28 buildings of the great shrine to shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu. A computerized lighting system simulates sun rise and sunset on the Tōshōgū.

The sacred grounds of the Sakurayama Hachimangū (桜山八幡宮) extend above the Yatai Hall and Nikkō Hall. Have a look at the traditional paintings inside the roof of the small building at the southern extremity. Follow the road to reach the banks of the Enako-gawa. Crossing the bridge will lead you to the imposing Betsu-in Temple. Its storehouse has an unusual red tin roof. At the main street (Kasugawa-dōri), turn left towards the hills. You are now in the Higashiyama.

Higashiyama, Takayama
Bell tower, Unryuji, Higashiyama, Takayama
Enako-gawa, Takayama

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Higashiyama 東山

The temples of the Higashiyama are nice but not famous enough to deserve detailed individual explanations. The Unryū-ji Temple has the distinction of having a bell tower and makes a good starting point. The stone stairway between Unryu-ji and Daiō-ji leads to the Hakusan-jinja Shrine passing through the immense Higashiyama cemetery. Quite a few distinguished locals are buried here. Admire the tall Japanese cedars and moss-covered stone lanterns on the way. Back to the Daiō-ji, follow the small streets south, hopping from temple to temple. You will pass the Tōun-in, Sogen-ji, Tenshō-ji, Hōkke-ji, Zennō-ji, Soyu-ji, then after a short intermission the Seiden-ji, the Nishikiyama-jinja, the Ena-jinja and eventually the Dairyū-ji, on the other side of the stream.

Map of attractions in Takayama

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