Toyama: Where mountains and sea meet
Toyama (富山県 Toyama-ken) remains one of my favourite off-the-beaten-track recommendations, having first visited the prefecture since even before the Hokuriku Shinkansen ran to the area. As a traveller who loves natural sights and wonders, Toyama boasts some of the most unique sights in all of Japan that I’ve ever seen. With a deep bay and tall mountains, the height difference within the prefecture is a whopping 4,000m and 30% of the prefecture is actually designated as national parks. Just a two hour ride from Tokyo (東京) by shinkansen (新幹線) or an hour ride from Kanazawa (金沢市 Kanazawa-shi) by local train, Toyama is now more accessible than ever.
Let me introduce the three treasures of Toyama that you should definitely check out. The first is its delicious rice and sake, the second is the kitokito seafood, and the third is the traditional local crafts.
Fresh mountain water: The secret behind Toyama’s rice and sake
Nothing hits the spot like a piping hot bowl of rice. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
As a self-proclaimed foodie, I always love to try the unique specialities of each prefecture. For Toyama, they take great pride in the production of their rice, which uses pure mountain water from the Tateyama Mountain Range (立山連峰 Tateyama Renpō). If you’ve ever been to the Japanese Alps area, you’ll sometimes find random drinking springs in town or in ryokan where you can try this fresh unprocessed water. While the idea of drinking from a random bamboo pipe in the middle of nowhere might be daunting, you’ll find that the clarity and sweetness of the water is surprisingly refreshing.
By using this water for their rice, Toyama Rice (富山米 Toyama-mai) has a soft, fluffy texture, and is even sweeter than the average Japanese rice. This delicious rice is then used to elevate other rice-based products like the local sake (酒) and traditional snacks like arare (あられ) and kakimochi (かき餅).
Toyama sake has established a reputation for its smooth and refreshing taste. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
When using rice for brewing sake in Japan, on average only 20% of the rice used is of the variety that is ideal for sake-brewing. On the other hand, in Toyama, 80% of the rice used to brew sake is of the variety that is ideal. The local brewers (杜氏 tōji) also use both Toyama’s locally grown rice and pure mountain water in its production. So if you’re a sake connoisseur, you definitely need to give the local brews a try.
Kitokito seafood from Toyama Bay
One of the luxurious privileges in life is pairing great sake with great sushi, something Toyama Prefecture takes particular pride in. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
Right beside Toyama is Toyama Bay (富山湾 Toyama-wan), a 1,000m deep bay filled with water from the Tateyama mountain range and teeming with local marine life. If there’s a place I would recommend giving omakase sushi (おまかせ握り omakase nigiri) a try, it would definitely be in the Hokuriku Region (北陸地方 Hokuriku Chihō). At Sushi Ei (すし栄), the 'Taste of Toyama' nigiri set (富山の味にぎり Toyama no Aji nigiri) costs ¥3,300 and comes with the chef’s pick of fresh local seafood or kitokito (きときと) seafood, a phrase in the region for "fresh".
When I first tried buri (ブリ), I was blown away. The meat had a nice firm texture, fatty marbling, and a sweet taste stronger than most white fish (白身の魚 Shiromi no Sakana). Up till then, I had never even heard of buri. With a bit more research, I found out that buri and hamachi (ハマチ) are both yellowtail, except that buri has to be at least 80cm in length and is typically caught in the wild during winter. Not only is buri sushi delicious, but grilled buri fish cheeks are just as amazing with its fatty texture and sweet taste. If I had to pick a favourite dish from the area, it would definitely have to be buri.
Sushi Ei (すし栄)
Address: 2-8-22 Sogawa, Toyama, 930-0083
Nearest station: Grand Plaza-Mae (グランドプラザ前駅)
Opening hours: 11:30am–2pm, 5pm–9pm (Closed on Wednesdays)
Tel: +81 76-421-7035
Toyama: The craftsman prefecture
Within the bronze statue lies a display of the original wooden head of the previous wooden Buddha statue that was first built in 1745. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
Japan has many “top three” lists, and if you’re a completionist like me, then you should check out the Great Buddha of Takaoka (高岡大仏 Takaoka Daibutsu), one of Japan’s Three Great Buddhas (日本三大仏 Nihon Sandaibutsu). This huge statue took 26 years to build, and is a culmination of 400 years of copper casting heritage in Takaoka (高岡市 Takaoka-shi). If you’re in Takaoka and want to buy more practical and unique souvenirs for your friends, consider getting Takaoka Copperware (高岡銅器 Takaoka Dōki) wind chimes or coasters that are both elegant and practical.
Great Buddha of Takaoka (高岡大仏)
Address: 11-29 Otemachi, Takaoka, Toyama 933-0039
Nearest station: Takaoka (高岡駅)
Opening hours: 6am–6pm
Tel: +81 76-623-9156
Takaoka Lacquerware has earned a reputation for its elaborate techniques in decorating the lacquer with its flowing designs, exquisite lustre, and warm touch. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
Speaking of souvenirs, if you’ve ever found yourself captivated by the elegance and simplicity of Japanese lacquerware, then check out Takaoka Lacquerware (高岡漆器 Takaoka Shikki). Unique to it is aogai-nuri (青貝塗 aogai lacquer) that uses pieces of aogai (青貝), thinly shaved 0.1mm thick layers of the shiny parts of shells, to create patterns such as birds or natural landscapes. I personally like the lacquerware smartphone cases because they bring that traditional elegance into your everyday life.
These three treasures aren’t the only thing you can find in Toyama—I would also like to introduce two iconic sightseeing spots that you may not have realised were part of Toyama Prefecture.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
Stand in awe as you walk in between two snow walls that are at least 10 times your height. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
The first time I saw images of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート Tateyama Kurobe Arupen Rūto), I wanted to see it so badly, I made my friend rent a car and drive us four hours up from Tokyo. What makes the route so special is that it’s not one single location, but a series of awe-inspiring locations of natural beauty. If you asked me to pick one place that I thought was the most beautiful in Japan, this would be it.
Be sure to plan ahead for the stops you want to make along the way, note that Midagahara and Bijodaira are not open during the snowy season. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Visiting the route is a full-day itinerary, and I recommend that you do it one-way from either Toyama to Nagano or the other way around. Do start early, because the three times that I’ve been there, I’ve always ended up having to catch the last bus back. Starting on the Toyama side, you have Bijodaira (美女平), a pristine primeval forest, and Midagahara (弥陀ヶ原), with a beautiful boardwalk taking you through a wetland designated by the Ramsar convention as one of the world’s most valuable wetlands.
Getting to Japan’s highest onsen requires a little bit of a trek. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
At the top of the route is Murodo (室堂) where you’ll find the iconic 20m tall snow wall, Yuki no Otani (雪の大谷). My favourite thing to do at Murodo, though, is to soak in Mikurigaike Onsen (みくりが池温泉), Japan’s highest onsen at 2,410m above sea level. There’s just something incredible about soaking in a hot spring, looking out at endless slopes of snow. As you make the 20 minute walk from Murodo station to the onsen, on your left will be Jigokudani (地獄谷), a valley of sulphur geysers, and on your right will be Mikurigaike (みくりが池), a volcanic crater lake. Each of these views would be amazing on their own, but them being all in the same place makes it feel like you are witnessing something incredible.
As you exit the underground electric bus station, you’re surrounded by mountains on both sides with an incredible lake in the middle. (Image credit: Jeremy Jee)
Heading down the other side, you’ll be treated to postcard-worthy views everywhere you look on the ropeway and cable car as you soar through the sky. My favourite point on the way down is Kurobe Dam (黒部ダム Kurobe Damu), Japan’s tallest dam at 186m tall. Situated on one side is a huge panoramic lake, and on the other is a massive drop down. Few places in Japan have awed me as much as standing on that dam. There’s a little observatory on the side where you can see the discharge of water from the dam at over 10 tons per second. You can also find a really cute dish called Kurobe Dam Curry (黒部ダムカレー Kurobe Damu Karē), which shapes the rice in a dam shape blocking the curry.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート)
Address: Tateyama, Nakaniikawa-gun, Toyama 930-1406
Nearest station: Tateyama Station (立山駅) / Shinano-Ōmachi Station (信濃大町駅)
Fare: ¥10,690 (One-way, from Tateyama to Shinano-Ōmachi)
Opening hours: 6:40am–5:20pm
Tel: +81 76-432-2819
Mikurigaike Onsen (みくりが池温泉)
Address: Tateyama, Nakaniikawa-gun, Toyama 930-1414
Nearest station: Tateyama Station (立山駅) / Shinano-Ōmachi Station (信濃大町駅)
Nearest bus stop: Murodo (室堂)
Admission fee: ¥800
Opening hours: 9am–4pm
Tel: +81 76-463-1441
Gokayama Gassho-Zukuri Village
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Gokayama (五箇山) region presents enchanting views of the Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り), traditional thatched-roof buildings, amongst rice fields and mountain ranges. (Image credit: Toyama Prefecture)
One of my favourite accommodation experiences in Japan has to be staying within a minshuku (民宿), a Japanese family-run inn, in Suganuma Village (菅沼集落 Suganuma Shuraku). Having been caught in the rain, it was really comforting to sit around a warm irori (囲炉裏), a sunken open hearth, and sipping on a bowl of warm oshiruko (お汁粉), a traditional red bean dessert. There’s also something surreal about lying in a futon in a building that is hundreds of years old, and hearing the rain patter against the wooden roof.
The next day, at the Minshuku owner’s recommendation, we tried bear meat for the first time. Matagi (マタギ) are traditional winter hunters that are licensed and still hunt sustainably till this day. At Restaurant Takachiyo (味処高千代), you get to try various wild game caught by the matagi owner including bear stew, bear sashimi (刺身), and wild boar yakiniku (焼肉). Eating these meats is truly a unique experience, although if you are not a fan of the "gamey" taste, you might want to steer clear of these dishes.
Suganuma Village (菅沼集落)
Address: 436 Suganuma, Nanto, Toyama 939-1973
Nearest bus stop: Suganuma (菅沼)
Nearest station: Jōhana Station (城端駅)
Tel: +81 76-367-3300
Restaurant Takachiyo (味処高千代)
Address: 697-3 Ohara, Nanto, Toyama 939-1967
Nearest bus stop: Ohara (小原)
Nearest station: Jōhana Station (城端駅)
Opening hours: 11am–8pm
Tel: +81 76-367-3118
Best way to get in and around Toyama
Unlike in 2014 when I visited Toyama Prefecture for the first time, the area is now more accessible and even has multiple passes that cover travel there. My personal recommendation is the Hokuriku Arch Pass, a 7-day pass for ¥24,500 that covers the journey from Osaka (大阪) to Tokyo via the Hokuriku area, including rides on the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線). If you add the Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket for ¥9,800, which covers transportation across the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route from Toyama (富山市 Toyama-shi) to Nagano (長野市 Nagano-shi), you can save around ¥4,000!
Also be sure to check out the Toyama Prefecture Fair at JAPAN RAIL CAFE this July, for a taste of that kitokito seafood and the various crafts and products from Toyama.
This article is written in collaboration with Toyama Prefecture.
Header image credit: Toyama Prefecture