Tokimeki in Kitokito Toyama: The experiences and tastes of Toyama
Welcome back! In the earlier installation, I introduced three spots in Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken) that offer many interesting sights sure to charm travellers, both experienced and otherwise. In this, the second of my two articles on Toyama, I have featured a train ride unlike others you will find in Japan, as well as a recommendation for sushi in one of the best prefectures to have fresh fish, so read on to find out more!
Experience Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷鉄道)
The platform of Keyakidaira Station, the terminus of the Kurobe Gorge Railway. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Rail travel enthusiasts (like yourself, dear reader!) already know, or would be pleased to know, that Toyama offers a wealth of opportunities for train-taking—formerly part of the JR Hokuriku Main line that ran between Maibara Station (米原駅 Maibara-eki) in Shiga Prefecture and Naoetsu Station (直江津駅 Naoetsu-eki) in Niigata Prefecture before the section between Kanazawa and Naoetsu got transferred to third-sector operators (the Toyama section now run by Ainokaze Toyama Railway (あいの風とやま鉄道 Ainokaze Toyama Tetsudō), Toyama still retains its role as a transfer terminal for JR lines. The JR Takayama Main Line (高山本線 Takayama-honsen) that connects to Takayama in Gifu Prefecture and down to Nagoya starts from Toyama as well, and with the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) to Kanazawa, Toyama is now directly connected to Tokyo via the bullet train.
In addition, there are also many local lines within Toyama itself—city tram lines can be found running through Toyama (富山市 Toyama-shi) and Takaoka (高岡市 Takaoka-shi), two of a handful of cities that still maintain such networks in Japan, and the Toyama Chihō Railway (富山地方鉄道 Toyama Chihō Tetsudō) links Toyama to tourist attractions such as Tateyama, the start of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and Unazuki Onsen (宇奈月温泉), the largest hot springs resort within Toyama. Though all of these railways provide numerous opportunities to appreciate the beautiful scenery within Toyama, the best rail experience to be had is, in my opinion, the Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷鉄道 Kurobe-kyōkoku Tetsudō).
(Image credit: Hiroyuki Mori / CC BY-SA 2.0)
Starting from Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅 Unazuki-eki) at Unazuki Onsen and ending at Keyakidaira Station (欅平駅 Keyakidaira-eki), 600m above sea level, construction on the railway began in 1923 as a means of transporting resources along the Kurobe Gorge and Kurobe River (黒部川 Kurobe-gawa) to facilitate the building of electric plants, and later Kurobe Dam (黒部ダム). After the completion of the dam in 1963, Kansai Electric Power Company or KEPCO (関西電力 Kansai Denryoku), operator of Kurobe Dam, created a subsidiary company to run the line in 1971, and Kurobe Gorge Railway as we know it today was born.
The Kurobe Gorge Railway in autumn. (Image credit: Toyama Tourism Organization)
Trains on the railway run between the non-snowy months of late April to the end of November—though for the first three weeks or so the trains do not travel the full 20 kilometres of the line, instead ending at Sasadaira Station (笹平駅 Sasadaira-eki), the only time passengers are allowed to get off at this station, otherwise normally closed to the public. A ride along the whole line takes 80 minutes, and the open-window cars allow passengers to admire the scenery as the train slowly meanders through the ravines of the gorge. I took the ride in mid-May, when spring had just begun to reach Kurobe Gorge. While the fresh new greenery of the trees was a sight to behold, the ride is just as exceptionally beautiful in autumn, as the mountains take on hues of flame and gold, the difference in altitude meaning that the autumn leaves can be enjoyed over a relatively long period here.
Most of the stations along the Kurobe Gorge Railway, including the aforementioned Sasadaira, are meant for KEPCO personnel to conduct maintenance works, and only two between both terminal stations are open to the public. Kuronagi Station (黒薙駅 Kuronagi-eki), the first stop after leaving Unazuki Station, leads to Kuronagi Onsen (黒薙温泉)—famous for its mixed-gender open-air hot spring baths (混浴露天風呂 kon’yoku-roten-buro). The second, Kanetsuri Station (鐘釣駅 Kanetsuri-eki), has an observatory deck where firn (万年雪 mannen-yuki)—snow deposits from previous years that have partially melted and refrozen into a hard structure that does not melt—can be observed along the Kurobe River. One can also descend from Kanetsuri Station to the banks of the river where there is an open-air hot spring open to all at no charge—with no shelters available and only a small hut where one can change out of their clothes, though, this is definitely not for those who are shy!
From left: The firn along Kurobe River, plus the view from the riverside onsen near Kanetsuri Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
I had the luxury of bathing in this hot spring—while I will spare everyone reading this page certain images, it was definitely a magical moment, being able to soak in a hot spring with the Kurobe River flowing before my eyes and the warbling of birds ringing in my ears. For those who are brave enough and do not mind the pairs of curious eyes that may occasionally wander upon you, I definitely recommend this once-in-a-lifetime experience (though you may want to bring your bathing suit along)!
The view from the Kurobe Gorge Railway en route to Unazuki Station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
At Keyakidaira, the last station on the line, visitors can take a short trek around the station to view other attractions, including Sarutobi Gorge (猿飛峡 Sarutobi-kyō), a steep gorge through which the Kurobe River rushes, as well as Hitokui-Iwa (人喰岩), so named because the steep cliffs appear to swallow up the trails that lead beyond it. There is also a restaurant and gift shop at Keyakidaira, where tired and hungry tourists can grab a bite and enjoy the view overlooking the Kurobe Gorge, as well as purchase souvenirs and gifts, some of which are available only at Keyakidaira.
The section from Keyakidaira onwards is still in operation; however, it is used exclusively by KEPCO and thus not open to the public. For the adventurous who wish to venture further on, though, guided tours carried out by KEPCO between June to November are conducted, with application via lottery. Successful applicants will be able to take a train on the section leading to or from Kurobe Dam, as well as tour the inner workings of the dam. For those who are fascinated by dams and wish to find out what the interior of one looks like, this could be an interesting experience to tack on to your ride on the Kurobe Gorge Railway!
Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷鉄道)
Address: 11 Kurobe-kyōkoku-guchi, Kurobe, Toyama, 938-0283
Nearest station: Unazuki Onsen Station (宇奈月温泉駅)
Access: From Dentetsu-Toyama Station, take the Toyama Chihō Railway Main Line for 1 hour 45 minutes on a local train. Alternatively, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo and alight at Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station (2.5 hours from Tokyo), then transfer to the Toyama Chihō Railway at Shin-Kurobe Station (25 minutes to Unazuki Onsen).
Writer’s note: There are also limited express and express trains that connect Toyama and Unazuki Onsen—for more information, check the Toyama Chihō Railway homepage.
Taste: Kaiten-zushi (回転寿司)
(Image credit: PYONKO / CC BY-ND 2.0)
“Conveyor-belt sushi? Why is that even being recommended?” Some readers might feel apprehension towards kaiten-zushi (回転寿司 conveyor-belt sushi) being listed as a recommendation for what to eat in Japan. It is true that up to a few years ago, the words were synonymous with cheap, often low-quality and bad-tasting sushi in Singapore.
Of late, though, there have been numerous attempts made by local chains at expanding into markets in the metropolitan areas, with some of them even going overseas, like the forays into Singapore by Shiki Hanamaru (四季はなまる) from Nemuro in Hokkaido (previously at Orchard Central) and Ikeikemaru (活けいけ丸) from Numazu in Shizuoka (previously at the now-demolished Liang Court). What sets these local chains apart is that most of them hail from famous fishing areas known for their catches, and the fish they serve is much fresher and of better quality than that of the large chains. This is why I make it a point to seek out local sushi chains as much as possible whenever I travel in Japan, and one gem I found while in Toyama was Himi Kitokito-zushi (氷見きときと寿し).
Two of Toyama’s specialities at Himi Kitokito-zushi: hotaruika (on the left) and shiroebi-kobujime. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
A small chain with a handful of outlets in Toyama, plus a few others in the neighbouring prefectures of Niigata and Ishikawa, as well as Nagano and Mie, Himi Kitokito-zushi, opened their first store in Himi (氷見氏 Himi-shi) in March 1988, and the brand has expanded since then. Himi is well-known within Japan for the high quality of its fish, the most notable being the Himi-kanburi (氷見寒ブリ), exceptionally fatty yellowtail that is caught in the frigid waters of Himi in winter. Even then, only specimens that pass stringent labelling criteria can be tagged and sold as such. In addition, the people of Toyama take their sushi seriously, evident in how the prefecture came in fourth in a ranking counting how many sushi shops there were per 100,000 people in all 47 prefectures. Given the above, I had high expectations for the sushi at Himi Kitokito-zushi even before I stepped into an outlet.
Even though most of the items on the menu are standard fare that can be found at all other sushi restaurants, the fish used at Himi Kitokito-zushi comes from their own processing plant at Himi. This means that it arrives much fresher than that at other similar restaurants, making the sushi much tastier than elsewhere. In addition to commonly-seen toppings, Himi Kitokito-zushi also offers specialities of Toyama, including hotaruika and shiroebi (白エビ), a small shrimp commercially-fished only in Toyama and nicknamed “the Jewel of Toyama Bay” for how its transparent meat glistens.
Over at Himi Kitokito-zushi, shiroebi is served two ways—either as it is in a gunkan-maki (軍艦巻き), or as kobu-jime (昆布〆), in which shiroebi is pounded into a paste and sandwiched between sheets of konbu kelp (昆布), before being left to allow the flavours to meld together. In the gunkan-maki, the natural sweetness of the shiroebi was intensified with every bite, the slight crunchiness of the shrimp flesh providing textural contrast against the rice. The kobu-jime, however, was on the other end of the spectrum—with the konbu absorbing excess moisture and imbuing the shiroebi with umami, the result was an explosion of sensations in the mouth, the brininess of the konbu a good foil against the shrimp’s clean flavours.
Two more delicacies from the Toyama Bay—from left, nodoguro and shiroebi, this time as a gunkan-maki. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)
Another rare item is nodoguro (ノドグロ) or rosy seabass, an expensive fish prized for its delicate flavour and fatty meat. Due to its cost, it is not often seen on menus at sushi restaurants, much less at conveyor belt sushi places. However, as Toyama is one of the areas where nodoguro is fished, sushi places in the prefecture are able to offer it at a more reasonable price (and sliced much more thickly!) than elsewhere, which would explain Himi Kitokito-zushi including it on their menu. The flesh was firm to the bite, its flavour shining through with successive chews, and the fat melted in the mouth, further adding to the fish’s sweetness.
With its wide range of sushi at relatively pocket-friendly prices, Himi Kitokito-zushi is a good place to go if you are looking to sample the best of what Toyama Bay has to offer!
Himi Kitokito-zushi Toyama-eki-ten (氷見きときと寿し 富山駅店)
Address: ToyaMarche Noren-Yokochō, 1-90 Meirin-chō, Toyama, Toyama, 930-0001
Nearest station: Toyama Station (富山駅), Dentetsu-Toyama Station (電鉄富山駅), Toyama City Tram Line Toyama Station (富山市内軌道線富山駅)
Opening hours: 11am–9:30pm
Writer’s note: There are multiple locations—the address given above is for the outlet within ToyaMarche, a shopping centre under the elevated tracks of JR Toyama Station. There are a total of five outlets within Toyama Prefecture—for more information, click on the link above.
Despite Toyama not catching the attention of many tourists apart from the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, there is so much to do and see here. In fact, researching and writing up this article made me want to go back and re-explore all that I have written, plus discover new experiences and tastes! “kito-kito” Toyama is definitely the place to go if you want to explore Japan beyond the usual suspects of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto for some “tokimeki”!
(Translation: In kito-kito Toyama, there is definitely (“kitto”) tokimeki to be had!)
Header image credit: Kevin Koh