Originally called Hida, Takayama is a tranquil town whose rustic charms are the result of hundreds of years of peaceful isolation in the Hida Mountains. Downtown, shops and restaurants mingle with museums and inns along rows of traditional wood-lattice buildings. In keeping with Japanese tradition, a peculiar-looking ball of cedar leaves (a sugidama) suspended outside a storefront indicates a drinking establishment or brewery. Nicknamed "Little Kyoto," Takayama has fewer crowds and wider streets, not to mention fresh mountain air and gorgeous scenery.

Takayama's hugely popular festivals, spring's Sanno Matsuri (April 14 and 15) and the smaller autumn Hachi-man Matsuri (October 9 and 10), draw hundreds of thousands of spectators for parades of floats. Hotels are booked solid during Matsuri time, so if you plan to join the festivities, make reservations several months in advance.

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