Sometimes whilst travelling you are blessed with sheer happenstance when you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Luckily enough the stars aligned when I visited Japan in August as it happened to fall on the festival period. As a result of this Takayama – much like the rest of Japan- had a fireworks display, although the one here was unlike I’ve ever seen before.
Japan of course has a long history of firework traditions and in many cities over Japan you can experience some fantastic displays over the summer months. The majority of these events are very similar to what you may have experienced back home in the west with rockets shooting up from the ground, however Takayama hosts a more traditional affair which is not to be missed.
Along the Miyagawa River in Takayama City stood several wooden platforms, on top of these platforms some men stood setting the stage. After a short introduction period they began to light the fireworks, sparks began to fly and I expect the men to clear the platforms running to cower whilst the fireworks exploded. Instead to my amazement they picked up these fiery spark spewing canisters holding them in their arms and aiming them upwards, allowing the sparks to rain down upon them dousing them from head to toe in fire.
It was something truly unique and unlike anything I had ever seen before and quite the spectacle to behold. The traditional hand-holding fireworks are reported to be the oldest style of Japanese fireworks dating back to the 17th century and can be seen in selected regions across Japan.
The event in Takayama takes place once a year on August 9th and last around 20minutes, and is well worth your time. It truly is something completely different as odds are you’ve never quite seen a firework display done this way.
The fireworks festival was great but if you decide to head to Takayama a must do is a trip to Shiragawa-go village. The village is a world heritage listed site and contains many Gasshō-zukuri (“clasped-hands”) style houses constructed in the traditional Japanese style and is an ideal location to visit at any time of year.
Shiragawa-go village was traditionally a farming and carpentry village in feudal Japan, the houses in the village are commonly referred to as Minkas (house of the people) which traditionally housed the three non-samurai castes (farmers, artisans, and merchants).
The trip to the village takes about an hour and luckily the guide was very lively and energetic on the bus which helped make the journey fun and interesting as he explained to us some facts about the village and some basic Kanji reading.
As the most coveted lookout spot is on the way to the village the bus made a slight detour up a step and winding road leading to the summit of this hill overlooking the village and what a view. The village lay at the bottom in a sea of green broken only by the wonderful houses that made up this quaintly beautiful village.
Several snaps later and a short bus trip down the hill we disembarked and reached the walkway to the village over a river. The walkway itself did look a little suspect and had a tendency to bounce as the hordes of people marched over the bridge to explore the village.
The village of Shiragawa-go itself was simply beautiful to walk around in the hot summer heat; everywhere you looked was filled with interesting ornate Minkas surrounded by greens and fantastic views of the landscape. Whilst in the village we visited Kanda house on our guide’s recommendation as he claimed this to be the best house to visit in the village.
The inside was like a museum throwing you back to an era now past, it was full of interesting objects across all of the floors. To top it all off you could have as much freshly made green wheat tea as your heart desires, and considering it was being freshly boiled down in the main entrance room it was fresh and delicious.
The final place we visited whilst in Shiragawa-go was the Hachiman Shrine an interesting building which contained a small museum highlighting the matsuri festival. Alongside the small museum – and the chief reason we headed for the shrine – was the shrines very own special sake that they distil there.
Being in Japan any opportunity to try different types of Sake was one I relished and so jumped on this chance. The Sake is chiefly brewed for the festival in the village and traditionally was not allowed to leave the shrine. Of course this tradition is no longer upheld as many tourist shops in Shiragawa-go and Takayama stocked this style of sake but nonetheless it was very different to Sakes I’ve tried before.
The Sake was a murky white with bits of rice still in it, the unrefined nature of the Sake made for a much thicker drink with a very pungent taste and aroma, no doubt in part due to it being 60% proof. It had a sharp sour taste which was slowly overwhelmed by the ethanol making for one strong drink you do not want to rush.
The easiest way to spend a day or half a day exploring Shirakawa-go is via the J-Hoppers tour, I did the half day one which was great and cost ¥3,800 which was well worth it in my opinion, cash paid upon boarding but booking ahead is advised.