Sunlight spills over the treetops and into the valley below, where clusters of low buildings nestle between hills of deep, leafy green. Bright blue sky and layers of mountains make up the backdrop for this sweeping, hilltop view — our first glimpse of a city that we will soon come to know quite well.
The video continues with a series of closer-range views: a red-railed bridge surrounded by cherry blossom trees, a white crane picking its way through rushing water, white barrels of sake printed with large black kanji characters, and a number of stone-gabled Shinto shrines and torii gates. Plying our eyes with these quietly colorful scenes, Japanese tour service Japonisme introduces us to the setting of our virtual expedition — the city of Hida-Takayama.
Mika, Japonisme’s government-licensed tour guide, hosts us for this intimate and highly interactive tour. (On Japonisme’s paid tours, you’re unlikely to be joined by more than a handful of guests. This writer was lucky to participate in a one-on-one session.)
She explains how Takayama’s location within the Japanese Alps has kept it relatively insular from outside influence, allowing for the development and preservation of a unique traditional culture. A Takayama resident with local expertise, Mika guides us through immersive video footage of her own walking tour through the city’s old town, using live narration and informational nuggets of history and culture to paint a detailed portrait of the city.
Japonisme's TAKAYAMA VIRTUAL TOUR Highlights City’s Unique Cultural Traditions
The camera pulls us steadily down narrow merchant streets, panning left and right for extended views of the low buildings and their elegant, wood-gridded facades. Mika recalls the town’s historic reputation of master carpentry (borne in part from its proximity to surrounding forests), and shares images of the many Shinto shrines where people prayed for local kami, or gods, to protect their homes from fire.
She points out the thick lines in the pavement that mark the processional path of Takayama’s famous bi-annual festival, and we catch glimpses of the city’s ornate, multi-level floats, some of which have been maintained and passed down by residents for over 200 years. Back in her office, Mika pulls out a pair of adjoined paper-wrapped bottles, and explains how a community-wide sake exchange helps to re-circulate the abundance of bottles gifted during the festival to friends, neighbors, and Shinto shrines. You, too, might find delight in this range of stories our guide has to offer about the city.
We continue our virtual walk, this time through Takayama’s morning market, where tented tables selling various goods line the street. We watch as Mika accepts a package from a vendor, then walks down a nearby set of stairs to the shallow river that runs through the city. She opens the bag and scatters pellets into the water — food for the group of bright orange koi fish that have gathered nearby. If, like this writer, you have never ended a farmers market trip by feeding local koi, you might find yourself quite impressed.
Though you can’t feed the fish or sample food at the market, this virtual presentation is still plenty interactive. At various turns in the tour, Mika offers questions and short quizzes that call upon guests’ own background knowledge, allowing for frequent and direct engagement with the content (and with a knowledgeable Takayama local). Though you might pine for an on-the-ground travel experience, this writer found the ample discussion time to be an excellent affordance of the tour’s virtual format.
If you enjoy learning about history, architecture, geography, and/or unique cultural traditions, then you will definitely enjoy this tour. If you simply miss traveling, and are suffering from a deep over-familiarity with your surroundings, then it is especially recommended for you. The specific details, historical anecdotes, and immersive visuals might be just the thing to reinvigorate your perspective, and remind you that, pandemic or not, the world is still spinning — and it contains multitudes.
Check out Japonisme’s website for information on upcoming tours.
Images courtesy of Japonisme
About the Author: Lily LeaVesseur
Lily LeaVesseur has harbored a fondness for the arts since she was a few months old, when her parents took her on her first of many stroller rides through the halls of the Art Institute of Chicago. Even after moving to San Diego as a child, she returned many times so that she could stare down her favorite pieces, combing them over again and again for clues to their greatness.
She carried this enthusiasm like a missionary, and in high school petitioned to re-open the single Art History course on the roster so that she could study it with her friends. She loved feeling like she could unlock some sort of intangible mystery behind works of art, and looking for herself within the artists that created them.
Since then Lily has continued to explore art both analytically and creatively. She now writes poetry and non-fiction, sometimes accompanied by illustrations or watercolor, and hopes to one day collect these works into a graphic novel. When she's not writing or drawing, she can otherwise be found skating with friends, experimenting with new food combinations, and/or lying on the floor contemplating the transcendental nature of TikTok.