Having visited Takayama twice before, and frustrated by being unable to travel due to COVID-19, I wanted to see if an online tour of Takayama was a decent subtitute for the real thing.
Before the dreaded pandemic, I'd never been one for online or virtual tours. After all, the whole point of travelling is, well, to do just that - travel! But after more than a year of being stuck outside of Japan, I soon changed my tune.
So, how does an online tour of Takayama compare with the real thing? Read on to find out...
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Online Tour of Takayama
by Rob Dyer
My first online tour of Japan
From the streets of Tokyo's most famous nightlife areas, to the quiet streets of lesser-known towns far away from the frenetic life and noises of the capital, there's an ever increasing range of online tours of Japan you can take.
A bit about Hida-Takayama
For my first virtual tour, I opted to revisit Takayama, in the mountainous Hida area of Gifu Prefecture, in the heart of the Japan Alps, in the middle of the biggest island Honshu. Often referred to as Hida-Takayama, to distinguish it from several other towns of the same name, Takayama is about 300km both from Tokyo and Osaka, and around 260km from Kyoto.
I'd been to Takayama twice before. Once on a day trip and once overnight, but the last of those was already some years back, and there was more about the town I wanted to discover.
The high altitude and remoteness of its location has kept Takayama relatively isolated, allowing it to develop its own culture over 400 years.
Takayama's old town merchant quarter
Its preserved old town district is well-known to the Japanese. It's famous for the canals of crystal clear mountain water running alongside either side of the streets and in which koi carp happily swim. The Miyagawa river runds through the middle of the town. And on its eastern side is where the old town lies.
Here the buildings and streets are much as they were hundreds of years before. Originally a merchant quarter, where store owners, sake breweries and inns served a bustling trade of travelling and local customers, it is now considered to be one of the best-preserved old town districts in the whole of Japan.
It has remained on my 'want to revisit' list ever since. So, while it was still impossible to get into Japan on a tourist visa, a virtual tour seemed like a good alternative.
Happy Plus is a Japanese tour company specialising in tours in Takayama city and in the surrounding countryside. They opened for business in April 2019. Less than a year before the coronavirus pandemic decimated international tourism in Japan.
However, while those living in Japan can still take advantage of their 'real world' tours, the rest of us at least have the online version of some of those tours to take travel solace in.
45 minute 'Old Township Online Tour of Takayama With A Local Guide'
I opted for the 45 minute 'Old township online tour with a local guide'. They also offer a 20 minute version, but you'll not get to see a great deal in such a short time. Unless you're short on time or money or both, I'd opt for the longer one.
The tour works with a variety of online tools such as Facetime, Whatsapp, LINE, Zoom or Skype via smartphone or computer. So you have several options to choose from. I opted for Skype on my laptop as in my experience the quality is just about the best you can get for free.
The virtual tour starts in the Happy Plus office, which is right next to the old town, and about a five minute walk from Hida-Takayama Station. My tour guide was Founder and CEO Yoichiro Yamakoshi. But I could call him 'Yama'!
Recommended: Best Japan Tour Booking Services
He explained that the tour process is a participation, not just passive viewing, so I was free to ask questions, “Can you show me that building?”, or “Please explain the history of this place to me”, etc.
This was really welcome, as at one point Yama was talking directly to the camera as we were walking down the street, but I wanted to see the street up ahead, as if it were me actually walking through the town. So I asked Yama to turn the camera to face in front instead of at him. The sound was loud and clear so I could listen to his commentary as we continued walking.
Like two friends walking through the streets of Takayama
I was a little surprised at how immersive the experience was. Yama's English was good so it was easy to chat with him along the way, and when the camera was showing 'my' point of view it was easy to feel like we were two friends walking through Takayama together, in person.
Yama is clearly very passionate for his hometown and that comes across throughout. He could go into detail on all the topics I asked questions about, including learning more about Takayama's famous festivals in which huge floats, ornately-decorated with real gold, are paraded through the old town streets.
He also explained that the water channels running alongside the edges of the old town streets (in which koi still swim today) were used in the past as a means to rapidly access water to be used to fight any fires that broke out, threatening to destroy the wooden buildings.
Fond memories of visiting Takayama in person
All my fond memories of visiting Takayama in person vividly returned as we wandered around. Also, I saw streets I had never seen before and, with Yama’s insightful guidance, I learned more about the town, even though our time together was relatively short.
Having had the benefit of comparing a virtual tour of Takayama with the real thing, what was my verdict?
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised at just how valuable the online experience was. Of course, it's nothing like visiting a place in person, but it is a worthwhile activity in its own right. You get something from the personal interaction with your virtual guide that you wouldn’t get just wandering the streets on your own, were you able to.
Would I recommend this virtual tour of Takayama? Wholeheartedly. And, honestly, beforehand I wasn't sure I'd even enjoy the whole online concept. But I enjoyed it so much that I think they should introduce longer virtual tours. My 45 minutes flew by.
It also reminded me of how valuable in-person guided tours can be. I’ve only used them a few times over the years, but this online experience has convinced me to consider using them more often when actually in Japan.
And, next time I visit Takayama, I'd be more than glad to book an in-person tour with Happy Plus.
Use online tours from the comfort of your own home to check out possible in-person destinations for your next visit to Japan. You can use the online version to assess whether or not you should add the destination to your next itinerary, or if the virtual tour was sufficient. Either way, taking online tours is a cost-effective and efficient way to discover new places.
Virtual Tours Offered by Happy Plus
In Person Tours Offered by Happy Plus (Highlights)
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About the Author
A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s 6,800 islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.
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