Chiemi Okazaki works part-time in a coffee store in the center of Takayama where she enjoys chatting with the stream of customers. This is Traveller Coffee House, a café that serves up more than a caffeinated pick-me-up. It acts like an informal tourist information service, where the multilingual staff provide the numerous visitors in town with advice about the area.

Takayama, itself, is a charming town nestled in the mountainous Hida region of Gifu Prefecture and draws in crowds eager to stroll its well-preserved old town. Intersected by the Miyagawa river and a choice of bridges for crossing, its narrow streets are crammed with old wooden merchant houses, sake breweries, small museums, the occasional shrine and overwhelmingly numerous gift and snack options.

In its first year and half, Traveller Coffee House welcomed around 20,000 overseas visitors and offered plenty of tips. But like many places, Takayama is viewed differently by its residents as opposed to its visitors, and its streets, which sprawl surprisingly far along the river, offer much to discover. So what if the first question you asked a local was not “Where should I go?” but “Where do you do?”

Best of Both Worlds

As it turns out, Okazaki is from Hida-Osaka, a small town just 30 minutes south of Takayama by train, that’s famed for its 200 waterfalls and hiking courses. Her favorite is Mitsudaki, a waterfall that splits into three. “When I’m feeling down, I go there and they give me power. I feel refreshed.”

But, of course, the center of Takayama also appeals and she often heads out after work. The city is famed for its ramen and Okazaki is a fan of the well-renowned Menya Toto. The queue of hungry customers stretches far down the street for this homely joint that serves up an additive-free, seafood-based broth, best enjoyed with a soy-egg of soft-centered perfection.

Just a couple of streets east are some of her favorite watering holes. Desolation Row is a cosy bar run by a friendly man in his 70s, open until 2am almost daily. She also calls into Rumdance Hall just opposite, again open until the small hours. As she has to drive home, she only ever orders ginger ale or other non-alcoholic drinks, but she’s always welcome regardless of what she drinks.

Little Surprises Around Every Corner

For a different vibe, Okazaki sometimes calls into Yu, a favorite among travelers. Located on Kokubunji Dori, one of the main arteries crossing town, its dim interior exudes a laid-back vibe. Barman and owner Yuichi Sano is originally from Shizuoka and spent a decade working in Tokyo, but Takayama and its countryside drew him in. He spent a couple of years working in sake breweries in the city before launching his own venture. His cocktails are highly rated – don’t miss the yuzu martini which contains homemade yuzu juice and is dangerously easy to drink.

That’s what Azusa Sakaguchi is drinking this evening as she talks to Sano. Sakaguchi now works in Tokyo but she’s back in town to visit her family during Golden Week. “One of my favorite places in town is Cafe Flore. It’s a fairly old café in town with a French style. I like its calm and warm atmosphere, and of course the food. My favorite is the anchovy and cabbage pasta,” says Sakaguchi. “I’d been a regular at the café for years, when suddenly my dad walked in. He owns a liquor store in town and he was delivering wine to the owner. I should have expected he was supplying the café, but I was still surprised!”

Take It All In

What unites residents of Takayama is their appreciation for its surrounding natural beauty. When asked where is his favorite place, Toshiyuki Nomura, chooses a place where you can take in all the scenery at once.

“I like Takayama Sky Park,” says Nomura, who travels Japan as a licenced national tour guide and Thai interpreter. “I used to go bowling there when I was a child. Now, there’s no bowling – just a view. You can see the city and the Northern Japan Alps. Many local people visit – it’s a popular spot with artists and photographers. It’s great to visit in all the seasons to see how the view changes.”

Tucked away in the hills, Takayama is a place that merits multiple visits, with something different to see each time – especially if you ask a local.