10 Must Do Things in Toyama, Japan

Peering out of the window of the Kurobe Gorge Railway with my face pressed on the foggy window on a rainy September day, I couldn’t help but think, “Toyama is truly beautiful.”

When people think of Japan, images of the bright neon lights of Tokyo, geishas gracefully strolling along Gion Alley in Kyoto and the frenzy of Osaka quickly come to mind. The simple retreat of Toyama never registers in people’s minds because people simply don’t about the prefecture.

In light of this I have decided to share my humble list of my ten favourite things to do in Toyama, Japan.

 Number 1: The Kurobe Gorge

The Kurobe Railway is easily one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had in Japan. The BBC reports that this slow train has Japan’s best views and rightfully so. The train effortlessly snakes it way through the Hida mountains filled with lush evergreens. You immediately become hypnotised by the unequivocal beauty that surrounds you. Glimpses of pristine rivers, the infamous Dam and the never ending carpets of forest are simply breathtaking.

The Kurobe Railway in fall. Photo courtesy of The University of Toyama.

This 80-minute train ride is perfect for every type of traveller. The stops along the way provide routes to hiking trails where families can go trekking or spend a day relaxing at an onsen (natural spring). The solo traveller can sit back, listen to music and slowly lull off into a peaceful place.

But most of all, this area is perfect for lovers. There is something devastatingly romantic about this ride. The views in September are exquisite and I could only imagine the brilliance waiting to unfold as the trees morph into a kaleidoscope of colour in autumn.

Number 2: Zuiryuji Temple

I have written this once before, “Some images will forever resonate in you.” They become deeply etched in your brain, forever stored in your heart that sometimes come flooding back when you least expect it, inundating you with a plethora of emotions.

Visiting the Zuiryuji Temple in Takaoka became one of those everlasting images. Known as a national treasure of Japan, this wooden temple with an intricately designed massive lead roof is perhaps one of the most calming temples I have visited. Once you enter the gates, a welcoming sensation pulsates through you. Built more than 400 years ago, the Zuiryuji temple provides glimpses into the Maeda era of Japan.

Zuirjuji Temple Illumination, Takaoka. Photo courtesy of Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association.

Truthfully, this temple is no more beautiful than any other I have seen in Japan but a single experience at this temple will eternally remain with me.

A Jamaican friend had confessed to us that he suffered from sleep deprivation and he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in many years. A kind American friend did a selfless act, bought a 500 yen ($5 US) piece of wood and made a wish, not for himself, but for my friend plagued by insomnia. He quietly wrote:

Raul-san

Breathe well

Sleep well

Rest well

One love.

It was that singular act of unparalleled kindness that made my eyes glossy. An already stunning temple had instantly become the most beautiful temple I had ever visited.

Number 3: Mt.Tate

Mount Tate (or Tateyama 立山) which stands a towering 3,015 m (9,892 ft) is one of Japan’s “Three Holy Mountain’s” along with Mt. Fuji ( 富士山) and Mt. Haku (白山).

Calling its landscape magnificent is a terrible understatement. Tateyama is blessed with spectacular foliage that seems to undulate as far as the eye can see. Sporadic outbursts of brightly coloured flowers of pleasant purples, warm yellows, blushing pinks and innocent whites make this magnificent landscape that more beautiful.

The clouds and fog briefly disappear to reveal a couple enjoying the enchanting beauty of Mt. Tate.

Tateyama’s truest beauty, however, is the hundreds of people who climb it every day during the hiking season and kindly wish every person a welcoming “Konnichiwa.” Struggling to meander your way to the peak and having elementary students, grandmothers and grandfathers utter an encouraging “Ganbarou” (Let’s do our best) fills your heart with much needed courage.

Making it to the top, listening to a monk draped in a humble orange robe, chant in a language I barely understand and offer me a cleansing sip of osake was well worth the trek.

Number 4: Yotaka Festival

As spring ends and the tulips withers, Tonami, a lovely town in Western Toyama, welcomes the theatrical Yotaka festival usually held in the second weekend of June.  This festival is a colorful celebration as young and old come together to give prayers for good harvest in the rice fields.

The most unique aspect of this night festival is that neighbouring regions carry intricately designed mikoshi, Shinto shrines, made of paper ready for a spectacular battle. Thousands of spectators line the narrow streets of Tonami to see these seemingly magically lit floats prepare for barrage.

Details of Mikoshi or Shino shrines used in the Yotaka festival, Tonami

Before the whistle is blown for battle, there are thunderous shouts of encouraging “Yoiyasa” that continues until the epic battle ends. It is an utterly remarkable experience to see these beautifully crafted floats that took months to create crumble within minutes in a glorious fight. As the battle unfolds, you can’t help but be filled with passion and join in the chants of “Yoiyasa”.

Number 5: Gokayama

When my Singaporean friend and photographer, Kai Ching Ong had posted a picture of the Ainokura gassho village of Gokayama covered in snow, all I could think after staring at her photograph was, “This is extraordinarily stunning. The picture perfectly captured the magic of Gokayama.”

Ainokura Gassho-Village, Gokayama, Toyama. This image belongs to Kai Ching Ong.

A designated UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, Gokayama, which means five valleys, is infamous for its unique “gassho –zukuri” (constructed like hands in prayers) architecture that was impressively built without the use of nails and consists of steeped 60 degree thatched roofs.

Walking around in Gokayama feels like stepping into a delightful postcard. The aroma of rice being reaped in summer, the peaceful slow-paced life of the locals and the friendly smiles are a photographer’s dream and perfect for anyone wishing to discover a hidden part of Japan.

As time passes and my memory slowly fades, I am sure I will forget some aspects of Gokayama but what will forever linger, I am quite certain, is sitting in the shade on mossed covered steps with my friends on a very hot Saturday afternoon listening to our tour guide Yamada-san sing a captivating rendition of a traditional  folk song.

As she sang, I remember quietly thinking, “This must a dream. I am surrounded by immaculate beauty with people I thoroughly enjoy and listening to a moving rendition of a traditional Gokayama Folksong. I am lucky and this is a perfect day. Just perfect.”


 Number 6: Namerikawa Hanabi

In Japanese, hanabi (花火) means fire flower (bi=fire and hana= flower) which translates to fireworks in English. There is something about fireworks that always seen to evoke “Ouuuus” and “Ahhhhs” in everyone, despite their age, race, nationality or economic background.

I have been lucky enough to witness some extraordinarily amazing fireworks in some extraordinarily amazing countries but there is something special about the annual Hanabi Namerikawa City, Toyama that has a special place in my little heart.

Perhaps, it is because Namerikawa is my home in Japan and I biasedly favor it, but I reckon that is only part of it. There is more to this small town’s electrifying fire flower display.

Every July men, women and children with radiant smiles dressed in yukatas (summer kimonos) sit along the beach just before the sun sets anxiously awaiting for the sky to be painted into a dazzling array of colours.  When it starts it is always greeted by an appreciative applause by hundreds of people when fireworks in unique shapes of fishes and firefly squids brighten the dark skies.

The Namerikawa Hanabi is above all a celebration- a celebration of the beginning of summer, a celebration of friends and family but most of all, a celebration of love.

Every year as I sit near the sea and stare innocently as the sky explodes, I can’t help but think, “This is what life is about.”

7. Toyama’s  Art Museums

With every place I visit, I always try to make a concerted effort to visit at least one of its museums. I vehemently believe that through art we gain insight, through insight we are empowered with knowledge which gives understanding and through that understanding we learn about compassion towards others.

Toyama has a wide array of enchanting museums. The Toyama Prefectural Museum of Modern Art may not have the mass appeal of the neighbouring 21st Centural Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazwa but this museum who’s central theme “The essence of the 20th century and preview of the 21st century” provides glimpses into several famous impressionist painters such as Andy Warhol and Picasso as well as local artists. Exploring “The Permanent Exhibition-IV” you quickly enter the mind of infamous Toyama poet and art critic, Shuzo Takiguchi and become mesmerized by a tidal wave of beauty.

Toyama Museum of Modern Art. This photo is courtesy of Wikipedia.

The  nearby Takamura Gyujin Memorial Art Museum is a quaint museum that has pieces of the late Toyama born India-ink artist, Takamura Gyujin. His artwork is evocative as it is charming. Many pieces, when you quietly observe them, surprise you with delightful little secrets.

Number 8: Sand Bath at Hanayama Onsen Hotel

For those seeking a new, exciting and somewhat unusual experience, the sand bath at Hanayama Onsen Hotel in Nanto provides just that. At the top floor of this ryokan, or traditional Japanese hotel that means mountain flower, guests can be treated to a relaxing spa experience involving being buried in sand in a sauna.

With sand being placed over your body and a welcoming cold rag gently folded on your forehead, you quickly doze off into very zen state of mind removing all thoughts and simply enjoying the euphoria of the present.

Friends enjoying the sand bath at Hanayama Onsen Hotel, Nanto.

If being buried isn’t for you, disrobe and step into the the warm waters of the outdoor onsen (hot spring) and soak in the breathtaking views of Nanto as your body and mind slowly relaxes and your spirit soars.

Number 9: Uozu Aquarium

Inside each of us resides a little child refusing to grow up, forever clinging on to the happy memories of our childhood.

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of aquariums but my friends, Sheila and Kim, insisted that I join them to the Uozu Aquarium on a beautiful summer afternoon.

The aquarium is by no means large or modern but it has a truly fascinating selection of unique Toyama marine life that all kids, young and young-minded, will quickly become immersed in. Touching starfishes, trying to spot a leaf fish among a sea full of leaves or chuckling as upside-down fishes eerily swim by is a satisfying way to enjoy an afternoon.

Mirage Land outside the Uozu Aquarium.

And, when you are finished exploring the wonders of the Toyama Sea, walk to the adjacent Mirage Land (ミラージュランド), a bewitching little amusement park with several rides that will brighten up any child’s day. Hop on the Ferris wheel, as you slowly rise you will witness enchanting views of the juxtaposition of the Toyama Bay and towering Mt. Tate that will leave you enthralled.

Number 10: Gohyaku-rakan, the 500 Buddhas of Chokeiji Temple

A co-worker of mine once told me that when you visit the Gohyaku-rakan, or 500 disciples of Buddha, it is said that after spending some time there you find yourself.

Nestled outside the Chokeiji Temple in the Kureha Hills, the 500 disciples of Buddha statues stand in quiet reverence next to each other overlooking Toyama City as if stoically protecting it.

While looking at the many faces of Buddha almost two years ago, an old woman informed me that if you touch them and feel a warmth coming from them it indicates that they are your ancestors.

After touching scores of Buddhas and getting nothing but a cold return, I finally placed my hands on one and there was a warmth emanating from it. “I have found my ancestor!” I shouted in glee.

Not one to refuse a photo opt, I placed my hands on the Buddha ready to smile but I accidentally touched the Buddha next to it. From it, I also felt an incredible warmth.

The first thought that registered in my mind was that my grandmother and grandfather had finally reunited after almost seventeen years apart. That single thought and the possibility that it may have been true deeply moved me.

I may not have found myself that day, and those many not have really been my ancestors, but that little Toyama myth had made me exceedingly happy that day.

g

Jenson recommends: Visiting Toyama, exploring its many wonders  and making your own list of favourite things. Also, please share your list of  favourite places.  =)

- Jenson

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8 Responses to 10 Must Do Things in Toyama, Japan

  1. Maruf M AKBOR says:

    Splendid Jenson Jonathan.It was nicely depicted. I had been to almost half of those places yet but looking forward to visit the rest of…Arigato ne..

  2. Kyle says:

    Thanks for sharing, Jenson! Totally brings back memories, as I have been to 8 out of the 10 places. I’m sure everyone has their own top 10 list. I think I would add “eating” to my list. Toyama’s food is the best and is one of the things I miss most.
    kyle

  3. joanielim says:

    Hello Jenson,
    I’ve decided to visit Toyama after reading your blog! Where is the best area in Toyama to stay/use as a base to explore at least 3 or 4 from your list? I’m coming from Takayama and will be in Toyama at the end of March so I won’t get to see Hanabi or the tulips. Must see is Kurobe Gorge! Is it worth staying a night there or just a day trip? I’m travelling alone as well, limited Nihongo and won’t be driving. Any advice would be tremendously appreciated! Thank you!

    • Thank you so much! I am so happy to hear this. If you tell me which 3 or 4 you’d like to visit most, I can definitely give you an idea of where your base should be. Also, if you let me know exactly what days you are coming, I can look around for any local festivals in those areas to enhance your visit. If you want, please let me know your e-mail address so I can send you some more information. Have a good day! =)

  4. Eunice says:

    Hi, Jenson

    Very similar to the poster above. I have a plan to visit Toyama (after changing my mind about Takayama) late March/early April. I will take the 9 a.m. Thunderbird express train from Kyoto and leave the next day by Air DO to Chitose at 2 p.m.

    I would like to visit Kurobe Gorge, do the Matsu river cruise, and if in season watch the firefly squid as well as going to ainokura. If this is too ambitious, I can live with doing only 2 and a nice outdoor onsen.

    Where should I stay? I initially wanted to stay at a gassho style minshuku, but is willing to change to a “normal” ryokan if it serves as a better base.

    • Hi Eunice,

      My sincerest apologies for my tardy reply.

      Regarding the Kurobe George, I do believe it is closed in winter. In Toyama winter usually ends sometime in March. I would suggest e-mailing the Toyama Prefectural Tourism Association to confirm if it will be open.

      With respect to the Firefly squids, in order to ensure you see it, you will have to make a reservation. It is often booked weeks in advance. Do note that the boat sails at about 2/3am. Take train schedules into consideration.

      I love Ainokura. It’s stunning regardless of the season.

      Truthfully, I think your schedule seems a bit to ambitious because the sights are quite sprawled out in Toyama. I would suggest staying either in Takaoka, or Toyama City. I believe it’s a good base to some of the sights you mentioned. For me, minshukus and ryokans are also the same. :)

      I would have loved to show you around but I no longer live in Japan. Please contact the Tourism Association. If no one responds, please let me know I will have one of my friends contact them for you.

      Happy planning! (n_n)/

  5. Eunice says:

    Hi, Jenson.

    Thanks for responding. An advice from you is priceless.

    Thanks for pointing out that my plan was too ambitious. I will cross out Kurobe at this stage because you said it would be closed. And you are right, some part of it is not open until later in the year. I also cross out the firefly squid because travelling solo does not really suit being out there at 3 in the morning (or maybe I’m just a wuss).

    So realistically speaking, how long will I need to see and do the Matsu river cruise, Ainokura and maybe Yuki no Otani? Considering I stay at Ainokura (which means I only have to travel to 2 places), does that make more sense?

    Thanks again.

    • Hello Eunice,

      Again, apologies for the late reply. Recently I haven’t been blogging as much because of my job.

      I contacted a friend of mine and here is what she said:

      Here’s it the Matsukawa Cruise website: http://www.goodlucktoyama.jp/yuuran/
      There’s the 2014 calendar. It says they open on March 21 on a limited basis (11:00-3:00), March 24-27 is reservation only, and then from then until late April, it depends on the sakura. They operate every day while the sakura are in bloom.

      Gokayama: They are currently running a “World Heritage Bus” on weekends and holidays only. It’s 2000 to 2500 yen round-trip from Takaoka and takes about an hour each way. The flyers say that it’ll run through March 30. I hope they continue it but I don’t know if they will. Otherwise, I know that there are regular buses, but it takes nearly 2 hours and 1450 yen (each way) from Takaoka to Ainokura. Here’s the timetable: http://www.kaetsunou.co.jp/nori/201312-11.html

      I would say you can do it in two days IF you plan well. Three days to be comfortable. If you have extra time, take a side trip to Kanazawa. It will definitely be worth it.

      With respect to the Snow Wall you need to check when it is open. I believe March/ early April might be a bit too early to visit.

      Regardless of when you do get there, Toyama will be beautiful, but it is truly the people that make it the best prefecture in Japan.

      Hope you have a great trip. =)

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