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 mind 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.
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.
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:
It was that singular act of unparalleled kindness that made my eyes glossy. An already beautiful 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.
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 and 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ancestors!” 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.
Jenson recommends: Visiting Toyama, exploring its many wonders and making your own list of favourite things. Also, please share your list of favourite places. =)