Treasures of Toyama Part 2: Mountain marvels and legacies of the land
Located in the Hokuriku Region and blessed with majestic 3,000m-high mountains of the Tateyama Mountain Range and the Hida Mountain Range, Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken) has a name that literally means “rich mountains”, and is a treasure trove filled with incredibly sumptuous seafood, enchanting nature, and unique traditions.
Did you know that Toyama is home to Japan’s deepest gorge? Or that it boasts the most beautiful Starbucks in the world? Or that it is the number one producer of tulips in Japan? In my previous article, I introduced the beautiful Toyama Bay and its incredibly fresh seafood, and in this article, the second part of a two-part special on Toyama, let’s head inland and check out some of the treasures and treats that the mountains and cities have in store for us!
Kurobe Gorge: fantastic scenery and hot springs galore
Toyama has soaring and dramatic mountains that draw out the explorers in us. You may have heard of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート), which traverses the Tateyama Mountain Range, but in Toyama there is also the gorge-ous Kurobe Gorge (黒部峡谷 Kurobe kyōkoku), a scenic gorge that separates the Tateyama Mountain Range and the Northern Alps.
One of Kurobe Gorge Railway’s iconic red bridges. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
Kurobe Gorge is known for its deep V-shape, and is the deepest gorge in Japan, with nearly vertical cliffs. The gorge was carved out over thousands of years by the flowing waters of the Kurobe River. The Kurobe River continues on until Kurobe Dam, which is part of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, and avid, experienced hikers can actually hike from Kurobe Gorge’s Keyakidaira all the way to Kurobe Dam (more on that later!).
Kurobe Gorge Railway
Take a ride on the Kurobe Gorge Railway. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
To enjoy this scenic gorge, you can hop on the Kurobe Gorge Railway (黒部峡谷鉄道トロッコ電車 Kurobe Kyōkoku Tetsudō Torokko Densha)—your ride to a journey of amazing nature. Running between Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅) and Keyakidaira Station (欅平駅), the Kurobe Gorge Railway was initially constructed in 1923 to carry materials for building the Kurobe Dam. After the dam was completed, the railway was converted to a scenic sightseeing railway which opened to the public in 1971, and this year it celebrates its 50th anniversary!
Enjoy the open-carriage cars. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The winding 20km route takes about 80 minutes to complete, and what makes this ride even more exciting is the open-carriages! You can really feel the breeze (and rain), and enjoy the scenery without anything blocking your view.
Tip: for the best views, sit on the right side when travelling from Unazuki towards Keyakidaira, and on the left side when travelling in the other direction.
Hidden hot springs: Kuronagi Onsen
The Kurobe Gorge Railway starts in Unazuki Onsen, which is Toyama’s largest hot spring resort area. Did you know? The source of Unazuki Onsen’s hot spring water is actually Kuronagi Onsen (黒薙温泉), a hidden hot spring (秘境温泉 hikkyо̄ onsen) which is further inland along the Kurobe Gorge Railway.
Large mixed-gender outdoor bath at Kuronagi Onsen. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
A 20-minute walk along a narrow mountain path from Kuronagi Station (黒薙駅), Kuronagi Onsen has only one hot spring inn. There are no roads for you to drive there, so the inn is only open during the period that the railway operates—late April to late November. Kuronagi Onsen discharges around 2,000 litres of water per minute, and is the source of all of Unazuki Onsen’s hot spring water.
Kuronagi Onsen is best known for its large, mixed-gender outdoor bath, which is the largest in the Unazuki Onsen/Kurobe Gorge area. All the stones and rocks used at the in this bath are natural rocks, and you can really bask in and enjoy the magnificence and beauty of Kurobe Gorge’s nature.
Kuronagi Onsen only has one inn. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
For those uncomfortable with mixed gender bathing, there is also a women-only outdoor bath, as well as gender-separated indoor baths. While Kuronagi Onsen’s hot springs are also available to day time visitors, I highly recommend staying overnight. This hidden onsen in the middle of the mountains is a truly place where you can unravel your mind and relax, and let go of your worries for a while.
Kuronagi Onsen Ryokan (黒薙温泉旅館)
Address: Kuronagi, Unazuki-machi, Kurobe-shi, Toyama 938-0282
Access: 20-minute walk from Kuronagi Station (黒薙駅)
Opening hours (for day time visitors): 09:00–16:00 (April–November)
Admission (for day time visitors): ¥800/adult
Hiking around Keyakidaira
The terminal station of the Kurobe Gorge Railway, Keyakidaira is about 600m above sea level. Other than panoramic observation decks, nearby the station are also a few short paths for you to walk around and enjoy the scenery.
Okukane Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
One sight you can’t miss is the bright red Okukane Bridge (奥鐘橋 Okukane-bashi), a 34m high pedestrian bridge which goes across the Kurobe River. Below the bridge is a covered footbath (足湯 ashiyu), where you can sit back, relax, soak your feet, and enjoy the view of the bridge and the river.
View from the path carved out of Hitokui Iwa. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Across Okukane Bridge is a path cut into the sides of a cliff. This cliff face is known as Hitokui Iwa (人喰岩), which literally means “people-eating rock”. Walking through it is like walking through a huge stone mouth! After Hitokui Iwa, continuing along the trail will lead you to Meiken Onsen (10-minute walk) and Babadani Onsen (55-minute walk), two hot springs that can be reached from Keyakidaira Station.
View of the Kurobe River from the trail to Sarutobikyo. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another easy walk from the station is the 15-minute trail to Sarutobikyo (猿飛峡), where you can marvel at the Kurobe River flowing through the steep cliffs. There’s an observation deck with some seats for you to relax and just relish in the sights and sounds of Nature. It was raining when I visited, but the water of the Kurobe River appeared so, so blue!
The Shimo-no-rouka / Suiheihodo trail is a well-known advanced-level trail. (Image credit: ゆーせー/PIXTA)
From Keyakidaira, you can also hike towards Kurobe Dam on an advanced-level hiking trail that’s well-known amongst hiking aficionados. The 30km trail is split into two halves, with the half starting from Keyakidaira being Suiheihodo (水平歩道), and the half closer to Kurobe Dam being Shimo-no-rouka (下ノ廊下). The trail passes by Azohara Onsen, and usually takes 2D1N to complete.
Shimo-no-rouka / Suiheido was the very first trail to be made when Kurobe Dam was being built, and can be a dangerous trail if you are not careful. The scenery along the trail is stunning in autumn, when the mountains erupt in fiery shades of orange and yellow.
Disclaimer: The Shimo-no-rouka / Suiheihodo trail should only be attempted by very experienced hikers, as some paths are along precarious cliffs, can be as narrow as 40cm, with only a guide rope and no rails to prevent you from falling to your death. The trail should always be attempted in a group, as attempting it alone is considered an act of suicide.
Access to Kurobe Gorge:
From JR Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station (黒部宇奈月温泉駅) on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, walk to Toyama Chiho Railway’s Shin-Kurobe Station (新黒部駅), and transfer to a train bound for Unazuki Onsen Station (宇奈月温泉駅). At Unazuki Onsen Station, walk to Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅) to take the Kurobe Gorge Railway. A round-trip ticket from Unazuki to Keyakidaira costs about ¥3,960/adult. Due to heavy snowfall, the railway to Keyakidaira only operates between mid-May to November.
Beautiful blooms: Tonami’s tulips
Other than its mountains, Toyama is also known for its tulips. The lovely tulip is the prefectural flower of Toyama, not surprising given the fact that Toyama is the number one producer of tulips in Japan. In particular, the city of Tonami (砺波市 Tonami-shi) is the top tulip producer in Japan, and hosts the annual Tonami Tulip Fair in late April to early May.
The Tonami Tulip Festival is held in late April to early May. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
Held at the Tonami Tulip Park (砺波チューリップ公園), the 2-week-long Tonami Tulip Fair lets you enjoy 3 million colourful tulips in 300 varieties across the park’s grounds. From observatory deck on the newly renovated Tulip Tower, you can get a 360-degree view of the surroundings, and see the “painting” that the tulips planted on the large flowerbed below make. There is also a Dutch-style garden, a waterwheel garden, a tulip “wall”, tulips floating on water, and a huge assortment of other tulip displays to enjoy. If you love flowers, this is definitely a festival to check out!
Tonami Tulip Park (砺波チューリップ公園)
Address: 100-1 Nakamura, Tonami-shi, Toyama 939-1382
Access: 15-minute walk or free shuttle bus from JR Tonami Station (砺波駅) (only available during the fair period)
Opening hours: 8:30–17:30
Admission fee: ¥1,300/adult
Enjoy Tonami’s tulips all year round at the Tonami Tulip Gallery. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
If you are unable to visit Tonami during the festival period, don’t worry, you can still enjoy the pretty tulips, indoors, all year around at the Tonami Tulip Gallery (チューリップ四季彩館 chūrippu shikisaikan), a large exhibition hall located inside the park. Other than displays of tulips, there is also a museum area where you can learn more about tulips and tulip cultivation.
Tonami Tulip Gallery (チューリップ四季彩館)
Address: 100-1 Nakamura, Tonami-shi, Toyama 939-1382
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Tonami Station (砺波駅)
Opening hours: 9:00–18:00
Admission fee: ¥310/adult
Stylish city centre
Toyama Prefecture may be rich in seafood, mountains, and nature, but its capital city, Toyama City (富山市) is also worth a visit for its stylish architecture.
View of the Tateyama Mountain Range from Toyama City. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構 x イナガキヤスト)
Just a 10-minute walk from Toyama Station is Fugan Canal Kansui Park (富岩運河環水公園 Fugan Unga Kansui Kо̄en), where you can chill out to beautiful scenery and even see the Tateyama Mountain Range on clear days. At this nature-rich park, you can enjoy the views of cherry blossoms in spring, verdant greenery in summer, warm hues of changing leaves in autumn, and snow-covered scenery in winter!
World’s most beautiful Starbucks
The world’s most beautiful Starbucks. (Image credit: Kanesue / CC BY 2.0)
If you’re a fan of Starbucks or chilling at cafés, then this next place is for you. Located in the park is what is known as the “World’s most beautiful Starbucks” (世界一美しいスタバ Sekai-ichi Utsukushii Sutaba). Opened in 2008, the Starbucks Toyama Kansui Park store was the first Starbucks in Japan to open inside a park.
Sitting along the banks of the Fugan Canal, the store has a simple yet modern design featuring floor-to-ceiling glass windows, that harmonise well with Kansui Park’s rich nature.
View from inside the most beautiful Starbucks. (Image credit: Kanesue / CC BY 2.0)
Interestingly, this particular Starbucks store is known to be “the World’s most beautiful Starbucks” not so much for its exterior, but more for the amazing view you can get from the interior. The modern floor-to-ceiling glass windows allow natural light to enter freely, so you can enjoy bright and sweeping views of the surrounding Kansui Park. While the outdoor al fresco seats on the wooden deck are still the most popular, the indoor seats also offer a stunning view, with added protection from rain and wind.
The interior of the store features tiered seating, similar to a theatre, so tables and chairs in the back are taller that those at the front. This enables all customers to get a good view without being blocked by the people in front of them!
Starbucks Toyama Kansui Park (スターバックス富山環水公園店)
Address: 5 Minatoirifune-cho, Toyama-shi, Toyama 930-0805
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Toyama Station (富山駅)
Opening hours: 8:00–22:30
Toyama Glass Art Museum
Another stylish spot to visit in Toyama City is sleek Toyama Kirari building (TOYAMA キラリ), which houses the Toyama Glass Art Museum (富山市ガラス美術館 Toyama-shi Garasu Bijutsukan). Other than the futuristic-looking exterior, the building’s interior has a unique diagonal atrium that allows for plenty of natural light, and also features warm cedar boards.
The Toyama Kirari building houses the Toyama Glass Art Museum and the city’s public library. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Toyama Glass Art Museum has both temporary and permanent exhibitions featuring contemporary glass art. Don't miss the "Glass Art Garden: Chihuly Experience" on the 6th floor, which showcases glass installations committed by the pioneering glass artist Dale Chihuly. If you think that name sounds familiar, it’s because some of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures are currently being exhibited at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay!
The Glass Art Garden: Chihuly Experience is stunning, colourful, and definitely worth a visit when you are in Toyama City. Other than the Glass Art Museum, the Toyama Kirari building also houses the main branch of the Toyama City Public Library. If my local library looked like this, I’d be there almost every day!
Toyama Glass Art Museum (富山市ガラス美術館)
Address: 5-1 Nishicho, Toyama-shi, Toyama 930-0062
Access: From Toyama Station, take the city tram bound for Minami-Toyama-Ekimae and get off at the Nishicho tram stop. The museum is a 1-minute walk away.
Opening hours: 09:30–18:00 (Sun–Thu) / 09:30–20:00 (Fri–Sat) (Closed on first and third Wednesdays of the month, and during the year-end and New Year holidays)
Admission fee: ¥200 for permanent exhibition. Price for temporary exhibitions vary.
Unique cultures and traditions
With many mountains that provide unique living conditions and isolate them from the rest of the country, many of Toyama’s mountain communities have developed unique cultures and traditions. Let’s check some of them out:
Fairy tale cottages at Gokayama
You may have heard of Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture, but did you know that the UNESCO World Heritage Site for gassho-zukuri houses (合掌造り gasshо̄zukuri) is comprised of two areas—Shirakawago in Gifu, and Gokayama (五箇山) in Toyama?
Gokayama’s gassho-zukuri houses look like fairy tale cottages. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Most tourists flock to Shirakawago, but having been to both, I highly recommend Gokayama. Although they are smaller and slightly more remote, being perched on a hill, the villages at Gokayama are very, very picturesque, like fairy tale cottages! There are two villages in Gokayama—Ainokura (相倉) with around 20 houses, and Suganuma (菅沼) with nine houses.
Gokayama’s gassho-zukuri houses in different seasons. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
Gassho-zukuri houses are known for their steep triangular roofs resembling hands put together. In fact, this is where the name comes from—gasshо̄ (合掌) means to join your hands in prayer. Located in the mountains, these villages experience high snowfall in winter, so the shape of the roofs are built to prevent heavy snowfall from accumulating and crushing the houses.
Inside Ainokura Folk Museum #2. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Built mostly in the 18th century, most of these houses are now museums, restaurants, or inns. The houses are still maintained regularly, with the cedar roofs being rebuilt every decade or so. For a small fee, you can enter some of the houses which have been turned into folk museums.
These museums play videos of traditional performances inside, and provide an insight into rural life centuries ago. You can also learn a lot about the unique history of the houses and the community, like the local instruments known as sasara and kokiriko (top and bottom right in respectively in the photo above).
Access to Gokayama:
From JR Toyama Station (富山駅), take a 10-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to JR Shin-Takaoka Station (新高岡駅). At Shin-Takaoka Station, take the Kaetsuno Bus and alight at either Ainokura (65 minutes) or Suganuma (80 minutes).
A mysterious folk festival: Owara Kaze no Bon
Over in Yatsuo (八尾), a small, historic town nestled in the mountains to the southwest of Toyama City, there is an energetic festival held over the first 3 days of September known as the Owara Kaze no Bon (おわら風の盆).
Low-brimmed straw hats covering the performers’ faces are the signature look of the Owara Kaze no Bon. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
It is said that this festival originated around 300 years ago, traditionally held to pray to the wind gods for a bountiful harvest, and to protect crops from natural disasters. Performers in the festival wear hats to cover their faces, so as to hide from the wrath of the gods.
Some people dance through the night. (Image credit: とやま観光推進機構)
During the festival, the streets of Yatsuo are decorated with paper lanterns, and the highlight of the festival is the elegant, traditional dances, which last all night long! From the afternoon all the way until late at night, dozens of dancers decked out in colourful clothes and low-brimmed straw hats that cover their faces form a procession and dance through the streets of Yatsuo.
They dance to melancholic music played by traditional Japanese string instruments like shamisen and kokyu. Although the performers’ dance officially ends at 23:00, you’ll often find people, visitors included, dancing until dawn!
Toyama Prefecture is filled with tons of treasures and treats just waiting to be enjoyed, be it awe-inspiring nature, relaxing hot springs, unique local traditions, or delicious food. Be sure to check them out the next time you visit!
With the extension of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in 2015, JR Toyama Station (富山駅) is just around a 2-hour ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tо̄kyо̄ Station (東京駅), making it a very quick and convenient getaway.
Hokuriku Arch Pass
The Hokuriku Arch Pass is a convenient way to get around the Hokuriku Region. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are visiting Toyama and the Hokuriku Region, check out the Hokuriku Arch Pass, an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on Hokuriku Shinkansen, as well as JR East and JR West lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 7 consecutive days.
At only ¥24,500 when purchased overseas, it costs less than a round trip between Tokyo and Toyama (~¥26,000), and is cheaper than the 7-day Nationwide Japan Rail Pass. In addition, pass holders can get discounts for various other transport passes and admission fees, which you can check here.
Header image credit: とやま観光推進機構