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Takayama Spring Festival

Spring has sprung in Japan and the cherry blossoms have bloomed much earlier this year!

One festival not to miss in spring is the Takayama Spring Festival, starting today, 14th April.

There are many cherry blossom festivals being celebrated throughout Japan in March and April with Hida Takayama showcasing one of the best and most spectacular festivals in April. Takayama actually has two festivals every year (高山祭 ~ Takayama Matsuri). The first festival is in spring and the second festival is in autumn. I love Takayama, it is one of my favourite places to visit in Japan. I have been there for all seasons including the spring and autumn festivals and have also enjoyed celebrating New Year many times visiting shrines and temples with Takayama friends, loving the crisp mountain air and the gentle winter snow.

Takayama City

There are a number of ways to access Takayama. From Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka JR Stations travel by shinkansen bullet train to Nagoya (approximately 90 minutes) and then take the Wide View Hida Limited Express train from Nagoya to JR Takayama Station (about 2 hours).

From Tokyo the total fare is ¥15,190 one way. An economical alternative is to use a 7-Day, 14-Day or 21-Day Japan Rail Pass or alternatively one of the regional passes.

The Takayama-Hokuriku Area Regional Pass is valid for 5 consecutive days and costs ¥14,260 if purchased outside of Japan. The pass allows for travel by train from Kansai Airport to cities and towns in the Hokuriku region, including Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Toyama, Takayama, Gero and Nagoya. The pass also allows for travel by bus to the historical gassho-zukuri towns of Gokayama and Shirakawago. Saizen Tours is one of the few Australian agents directly able to issue the Japan Rail Pass and regional passes.

Takayama is a beautiful, traditional city. The narrow streets of its Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses dating to the Edo Period, along with many small museums and shops. Takayama is also famous for sake breweries - due to the crystal clear mountain water which produces top quality rice necessary to make good sake.

Sugidama, also known as “Sakabayashi”, is a ball made up of cedar branches tied and held together in a spherical shape. In the past, Sake or beer brewers would hang a fresh sugidama outside their premises at the start of brewing production. As a newly made sugidama collects freshly harvested cedar branches, which account for its green appearance, it is a signal of the beginning of sake production. Over time, the cedar branches dry up and hence sugidama becomes brown in tandem with the maturing fermentation of sake. Therefore, when the customers see a brown sugidama suspended in front of a sake shop, they know that the sake is sufficiently aged and ready for sale.

Takayama sake and taste testing is on the 'must do' list for tourists!

Other top attractions for tourists include the Sanmachi old town, Hida Folk Village, Takayama Jinya Government Offices, Yatai Kaikan Festival Float Exhibition Hall, Matsuri no Mori Festival Museum and the Morning Markets held along the Miyagawa River and also in front of Takayama Jinya.

Takayama Spring Festival

The Spring Festival dates back to the 16th century during the rule of the Kanamori family. It is held every year on the 14th and 15th April and usually starts in front of the Hie Shrine in the southern district of Takayama's old town. Since the shrine is also known as Sanno-sama, the spring festival is known in Japan as Sanno Festival. The festival is famous for the ornate floats that are displayed in the old town streets during the day and then paraded through the streets from early evening on the two days of the festival. During the year, the tall and heavily decorated floats are stored in storehouses, which are scattered across Takayama's old town (except the floats exhibited in the Yatai Kaikan). A set of replica floats are also exhibited year round at the Matsuri no Mori festival museum.

Festival Floats

The festival floats, called yatai 屋台, date back to the 17th century. They are intricately decorated with carvings of gilded wood and detailed metal-work. Detailed carving, lacquering, beautiful decorative metal-works and embroidered drapery can be seen on both the outside of the floats as well as the inside.

The yatai floats are lined up before sunset. As darkness falls the floats are lit by traditional lanterns, as many as 100 chochin lanterns are lit on each of the floats. There are 12 matsuri floats and each float is especially made as a reflection of the district in Takayama to which it represents.

A portable shrine, called a mikoshi 神輿, is also carried around the town in a parade during the two days of the festival, starting and ending at the respective festival's shrine. The mikoshi is a sacred portable Shinto Shrine containing the spirit of the shrine's god (Shinto deity). The festival is the only time of the year when the deity leaves the shrine to be carried around town.

Festival Float Puppets

Several of the festival floats are decorated with intricate marionette puppets, called karakuri ningyo からくり人形 - the word karakuri means "mechanisms" or "trick" in Japanese and ningyo meaning "doll". The mechanical marionettes are made of wood, silk and either brocade or embroidered cloth. They are operated by strings and push rods by people operating the puppets seated inside the yatai. The sophisticated mechanical dolls move, dance and perform lifelike gestures to entertain the crowds. Karakuri doll performances are held on both days of the festival at dedicated times and places. During bad weather, the performances take place in the floats' storehouses.

You certainly won't be disappointed if you visit Takayama during one of the festivals. However Takayama is a great city to visit at anytime of the year. Some of the festival floats can be viewed year-round at the Yatai Kaikan Float Festival Hall. It is located at the northern end of Takayama's old town, just a 15–20 minute walk from JR Takayama Station. The Yatai Kaikan is open is from 08:30am to 17:00pm from March to November and from 09:00am to 16:30pm from December to February. The admission fee is 840 yen for adults.

Written by Rondell Herriot, Co-Managing Director Saizen Tours

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