Hokuriku. The North-East of Japan, facing the Japanese Alps on the West and the Japan Sea on the East. A place where the famous nature of contrasts of the island comes alive. A place where you would endure a Siberian cold during the winter, but also enjoy the sun and the waves during summer on one of the most picturesque beaches you’ve ever seen. A place where you would get lost in the deep woods, meet some nice monkeys on the side of the road, warm yourself up in one of Japan’s best onsens, and treat yourself with the fanciest and freshest sushi in the area.
Toyama prefecture, by its old name Etchu, was so far from the capital, that its influence cannot be perceived as well as in other areas. It was also a small province, with a mostly rural population. Also a place for outcasts running away from the empire and hiding in the deep woods. All in all, Toyama is a place of amazing natural beauty, of mystery and deeply rooted traditions.
The Kurobe Dam, built in 1963, offers amazing scenery to anyone who visits between April and November.
This is the time when the Dam is open to the public, in that you can get out of the car at the parking space and literally walk across the dam. The view is breathtaking. Understandable, since it’s the tallest dam and also the largest arched dam in Japan, with a height of 186 meters.
As long as you are in Toyama prefecture, Takaoka is a place you shouldn’t miss. The old capital of the Etchu region, Takaoka is famous for its parks and of course, for it’s bronze Daibutsu. The statue, of the three big Buddhas of Japan (after the one in Nara, and the one in Kamakura) stands in the middle of a quiet neighborhood, in a place where you would definitely not expect to find a statue of Buddha.
The original burned several times, and what we can see today is a replica from 1907. Well, 1907 is the year the construction started, but it took workers and craftsmen of the prefecture 26 years to finish the bronze-covered statue. The pedestal is made of concrete and is hollow. Its inside is filled with 13 types of Buddhist pictures, and also a photo of the last Takaoka Daibutsu, the one that burned in 1900. Also, if you’ve seen the other 2 main Buddhas of Japan, expect it to be a lot tinier, but much more handsome.
Ok, not really maybe. However, in Japan, the Takaoka Daibutsu is considered the only “Binan” (or good-looking man) Buddha.
This unique village is famous worldwide for the shape of the houses. The houses were built so that they can withstand the thick snow and the strong winds of the mountain area where it was built. The village is part of UNESCO world heritage and thousands of tourists gather every year, especially in winter, to see the breathtaking scenery. The night view is even more beautiful, as it almost makes you feel you are in an enchanted winter wonderland.
The name comes from the steep rafter roof shape, which resembles two hands put together in a prayer (which is what gassho means). Japanese place it in their top 10, must-see-before-you-die places on the island, and it is definitely a must-go when in the area.
When you mention Toyama, everyone immediately thinks of the mind-blowing amounts of snow that fall every year. Did you know that there are as many as 40 words to express snow in the northern parts of Japan? I never had the opportunity to count all the dialect words for it in Toyama, but as far as I heard the locals talk there are at least 15.
Yuki no Otani is an amazing example of how the local people of Toyama managed to live with the snow and conquer it. During the strong blizzards, the snowfall sometimes reaches 20 meters from the ground. That is, the normal height of a 3 story building. Until I went to Toyama I thought it is virtually impossible to clear away that much snow. But apparently the experience and wit of the locals managed to conquer this natural difficulty too. The snowplows make miracles. And the result is so beautiful, you can barely believe it exists in this world.
“The snow valley” refers to the corridor plowed through the snow, in order to clear the motorway. However, people mostly use it for walking (there is even a phrase yuki no otani walk 雪の大谷ウォーク), because of the amazing scenery. The extremely low temperatures make it safe for tourists to walk by the huge snow walls, without the fear of them collapsing over them. The best season to go for a walk is unexpectedly spring.
Or the Kurobe Gorge Railway is one other place that seems like a tiny piece of heaven on earth. The Kurobe Gorge is considered the steepest V-shaped gorge in Japan, yet technology was able to build something to make it easy to visit. If you don’t like trekking and walking is not your favorite, you can admire the mountains and the valleys, from a trolley (torokko ressha トロッコ列車) which runs throughout the gorge. The brilliant red of the railway contrasts with the green of the nature in summer, offering a once in a lifetime view. It is actually extremely beautiful in any season, even though during the winter it might shut down depending on the amount of snowfall and the weather.
Speaking of valleys there is one that seems to be taken from a post-apocalyptic movie. It’s called Hell Valley and the name speaks for itself. The volcanic mountain slopes create a barren monochrome scenery dominated by black and grey rocks. To complete the picture there is smoke rising from the ground most of the time in the area, which makes it look even more grim.
The name of the place was given by the Buddhist monks living in the mountains to do their religious training. During the Heian period, rumors regarding the hell valley reached even the remote capital. As you can imagine from the way the place looks, it is quite dangerous to walk through it. In fact, the path through the valley has been closed since 2011 and now, you can only view it from an observation deck. Needless to say, the valley deserves its name.
The famous mountain ridge that actually defines Toyama prefecture. We’ve seen so far some of its breathtaking sceneries, from valleys to gorges to mountain passes. However, the whole mountain ridge itself is a miracle of nature.
Japan, as a country situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, has mostly volcanic mountains. It’s therefore difficult to find mountains resembling the Alps and even more, mountains that allow winter sports fans to have a ride down their slopes. Tateyama are perfect for any winter activities and because of their shape they have been called the Japanese Alps. It’s easy to see them from almost any part of the prefecture, but if you don’t want to get too close to them, the best spot for a perfect view is from the observatory at Toyama Town Hall.
There’s one more spot from which Tateyama are seen at their fullest beauty, and this place is actually the number one most beautiful scenery of the whole prefecture. This is the Amaharashi Kaigan beach, where you can see the Tateyama mountains across the sea.
The gorgeous scenery is best seen when the tide is high, or when the sea is rough (which usually happens in Toyama). Also, it’s better to go after lunch, before sunset to get a glimpse like in the picture above. In the morning, the mountains are in the sun’s shadow, and if you don’t know they’re there you might even miss this once in a lifetime view.
The name of the beach – literally The Coast Where the Rain Stops – comes from Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who apparently waited on the shore there for the rain to stop. For the same reason, the rock that can be seen in the background is called Yoshitsune Rock (Yoshitsune Iwa).
Last but not least is the Shoumyou falls. Not many people know that this is the largest waterfall in Japan, with a height of 350 meters. What’s special about this waterfall is not necessarily its height or its volume. If you look on the right you can see there is another waterfall, almost similar to Shoumyou. It is called Hannoki Falls, and it is Shoumyou’s twin. The way the two waterfalls merge into one at the bottom is the view of a lifetime. Also, to enjoy the place at its fullest, the best season is during summer, when the snow from the Tateyama mountains melts, and the falls reach the top of their volume.
All in all, Toyama is definitely a place you can enjoy all year round, with landscapes that never grow old and will never cease to amaze a whole world. Once you get to know the place, you will discover that you are somehow drawn to it, urged to visit it again and again. Don’t worry because there will always be new places, new tiny spots of heaven awaiting you here. And this is what makes this prefecture uniquely beautiful.