Renowned as one of the finest festivals in all of Japan, the Takayama Festival is held twice a year, once in the spring and then again in autumn. The one conducted during the spring, the Sanno Festival, is hosted by the Hie Shrine in the southern part of the old quarter of Takayama and is held on April 14 and 15 every single year. The festival is known primarily for two things (outside of ridiculous crowds and being completely unable to get a reservation at any hotel in the area); the 12 beautiful floats that are brought out of storage for the duration of the festival, and the lifelike marionettes that put on performances twice each day. Even aside from the floats and marionettes, however, there are plenty of other things to enjoy during the festival, like watching the parade, checking out the temporary stalls that have festival food and games, and of course, walking the streets of Takayama and basking in its breathtaking spring scenery.
The marionettes display unexpected levels of articulation and animation, and I was consistently surprised by the variety of actions each puppet was capable of. From solemn, delicate, and calculated movements to sudden transformations and spirited dancing, let there be no mistake that the marionettes are the real stars of the Takayama Festival. They perform a total of four times across both days, which means that missing a performance or not being able to get a great view of the action the first time around isn’t the end of the world. Try not to let yourself be too surprised by the crowds, though, as you will probably end up being squished next to a bunch of strangers until the puppets are done and the crowds start to disperse.
Despite the obviously ridiculous number of people, Takayama was still very easy to get around in and seeing the main attractions of the festival involved far less toil and suffering than I was expecting. Securing a good vantage point for the marionettes could require showing up a little bit prior to the performance’s scheduled starting time, but enjoying the parade or seeing the 12 floats that are on display during the festival is thankfully a simple matter. Grabbing something to eat at one of the more famous restaurants right around lunch time may also take some waiting in line, but if you’re willing to check out places on side streets or wait until a bit later to get some food you might be able to avoid spending too much time in lines.
The 12 floats I keep referring to, which are kept in storehouses around the old quarter of Takayama throughout the year and brought out only for the festival, are created with an absolutely stunning level of detail. From intricate carvings near the base to ornate decorations that sit at the very of the float, each float has a unique design and can be seen throughout the entirety of the festival, either stationary in a specific area where all the floats are gathered and left on display, or moving about the old streets of Takayama during the night parade on the evening of the first night. It’s worth noting that all the floats are different depending on which festival you go to—the 12 floats you can see during the spring festival are completely different from the ones that are on display in October! If you’re interested in seeing what the autumn selection is like, you can make a trip to the Takayama Festival Floats Exhibition Hall near Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine
Even apart from the festival itself, there are always a great many things to enjoy in Hida Takayama! Many of the usual tourist attractions and shops are open to business as usual, so if there are people out there who want their first visit to Takayama to be during festival season, they would still be able to enjoy the more classic charms of Takayama that can be seen all year round as well as experience the very unique festival atmosphere that visits Takayama only twice each year.
Whether it’s the traditional architecture of the Kusakabe Folk House, the gorgeous Kokubun-ji Temple and the 1,200 year old gingko tree on its grounds or the always lively Takayama Morning Market, the Takayama Festival may only be happening 4 days each year, but there’s never a bad time to visit Takayama! It goes without saying, of course, that if you’re a gourmet who’s always on the lookout for a fabulous feast, no trip to Takayama is complete without enjoying some local Takayama ramen!
Also commonly referred to as “chuka soba,” meaning “Chinese buckwheat noodles”, this ramen is not made from buckwheat and is not actually soba, but it’s delicious all the same! Made by boiling soy sauce together with broth made from chicken or pork bones, Takayama Ramen noodles are known for their unique, curly noodles that give the dish a more voluminous, wavy texture! The wavy noodles also trap more of the soup’s flavor, giving each bite that much more of a kick! English menus are available in many locations—including places you may not expect, so don’t be afraid to try walking into restaurants you find down a little bit off the beaten path!
Anyone thinking of staying in Takayama during festival season (April 14, 15 and October 9, 10) will want to be quick, as hotels tend to fill up months in advance of the event! The crowds are not too difficult to deal with once you’ve actually arrived in Takayama, so if you can’t get a room right in Takayama, don’t give up! Consider looking for hotel rooms in nearby locations like Gero and making a short train ride up to Takayama for the festival.
The schedule for the festival can vary a bit each year (with the times differing slightly on each day), but if you’re just looking for a general idea, this year it played out as follows:
9:30 AM – 4:00 PM: Floats on display (both days)
11:00 AM – 11:50 AM: Marionette performance (10:00 AM – 10:50 AM on the second day)
1:00 PM – 4:00 PM: Parade (12:30 PM – 4:00 PM on the second day)
3:00 PM – 3:50 PM: Marionette performance (2:00 PM – 2:50 PM on the second day)
6:00 PM – 9:00 PM: Nighttime parade (first day only)
The Takayama Festival isn’t known as one of Japan’s most beautiful festivals for no reason—the combination of dazzlingly beautiful floats and traditional Japanese charm of Takayama’s old quarter make for a unique atmosphere that you just cannot experience anywhere else.
For more information, visit the Official GIFU Tourism Website: http://travel.kankou-gifu.jp/en/see-and-do/8/