Japan has so much to offer, and each area of the country is unique. One area that is often overlooked because it isn’t on the tourist track is Toyama Prefecture. I lived in Toyama city for a year, so I consider it my Japanese hometown. I explored as much as I was able to with public transportation on my days off, and I wish I could return as with the opening up of the internet, I have learned of many more locations I would love to visit.
1. Japanese Alps
The Japanese Alps span across Niigata Prefecture, Toyama Prefecture, Yamanashi Prefecture, Nagano Prefecture, Gifu Prefecture, and Shizuoka Prefectures, with the Northern Alps within Toyama Prefecture. Wherever you are within the prefecture you will see the Alps, and they are particularly striking during the winter months when the air is clear and the tops are capped in snow. It was one of my favourite sights. It’s best seen from the top of Toyama City Hall or up another hill or mountainside, but even when seen from down a stretch of street, they’re a sight to behold.
2. Pharmaceutical Center
Going back as far as the Edo period, Toyama was known to be a center for medicine, and this is still one of the key industries in the prefecture today. You can learn more about this, and see how traditional pills were made, and even give it a try yourself (it takes some practice to get it right) at Ikeda Yasubei Shoten (池田屋安兵衛商店). I used to walk by this beautiful building on my way to work each day. You can purchase health items here or dine at the restaurant upstairs.
3. Gohyaku Rakan (500 Budhas)
Way up on the hill overlooking Toyama City adjacent to the Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village (a place I’ve visited many times), is one of my favourite views, and a unique place. Going back to 1786, you’ll see Chokeiji Temple, along with its 500 stone statues of Buddhist disciples (gohyaku rakan). Every one of them has a different expression and it is said that if you look, you will find one that looks like you! I’m not sure if that also applies to gaijin (foreigners), but my friend and coworker, told me that she did find her double there.
If you turn and face the other direction you have the most beautiful view overlooking the city of Toyama with the Japanese Alps in the background. One of my most memorable Japanese sounds is actually standing here after a heavy snow and listening to the snow falling from the bamboo trees just out of the frame.
4. Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route
If you are a fan of transportation, a journey on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is for you! This trip can go from Tateyama to Kurobe Dam and back again, or you can continue on to Nagano (both trips take roughly 8-9 hours in total). Trains, buses, cable cars, ropeways, and tunnel trolleys are among the variety of transport systems you’ll enjoy. Mt. Tateyama is considered to be one of the three holy mountains in Japan, right up there with Mt. Fuji. There are areas where you can walk around and see the sights, such as Hell Valley Hots Springs (no going in, though as you’ll boil yourself with the temperature of the water, and the smell of sulphur in the air will put you off, anyway. Walk across the Kurobe Dam and in the autumn you can enjoy the colourful foliage and perhaps even a fresh frosting of snow in some areas.
5. Starbucks with a View
When I lived in Toyama, there wasn’t a Starbucks in the prefecture at all, and the first was in Takaoka, if I recall correctly, and that was after I left the area. Now, the Toyama City Starbucks has been voted as having the most beautiful view! The Fugan Canal was one of my happy places and I would go there every 2-3 weeks when I’d exchange my books at the English library at Toyama International Center. To be able to sit outside in the summer with a cold drink and listen to the water of the fountain and write a letter and enjoy the calm of the area would be a real treat.
6. Great Buddha of Takaoka
During my time in Japan there were said to be 3 Great Buddhas of Japan, and this Buddha in Takaoka was considered by the locals to be the 4th Great Buddha. Today you’ll often find it on the internet lists of Buddhas to see around Japan. Takaoka is located about 15 minutes from Toyama City by train, and you can walk from there. Takaoka is known for its metalwork, which you will know from the large items on display on the train platform. This daibutsu (buddha) is likewise, made from bronze. You can go through a small gallery below. If you visit during hanami (cherry blossom viewing season) then there is a large and very pretty park nearby where you can sit and enjoy the blossoms, and make new friends.
7. Chindon Festival
Once upon a time, in long-ago Japan, before there were big screens for advertising and you wanted to advertise your shop, you could accomplish this with Chindon players. They can come in small groups or as one-man/woman bands, playing instruments and advertising with signs on the instruments or by carrying sandwich boards on their torso. This type of advertising is starting to be used again in cities such as Osaka, but it’s mainly out of fashion now. However, each spring players gather together and compete in Toyama’s Chindon Festival. It’s such a part of the city that if you walk through the passageway beneath the Toyama train station at the top of the hour, you can see a clock open up and hear the animated Chindon players as they rotate around the structure before it closes again. It’s difficult to explain the sound of the players, so you can see a video here.
8. Shomyo Falls
Shoymo Falls is the tallest waterfall in Japan at 350m. In the photo above, you’ll see Shoymo-daki, but also notice that there is another waterfall to the right of it (Hannoki Falls), which tends to flow earlier in the year with the winter runoff from the mountains. I visited in the autumn to see the fall colours, which meant that I only had the opportunity to see the one falls in action. Technically speaking, I believe the right-hand falls is the tallest, but because it isn’t always running, it’s Shomyo-daki that is most-often observed.
9. Gokayama – Gassho-Zokuri World Heritage Site
Gokayama village is one of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and is in a remote area of Toyama prefecture. It’s famous for the Gassho-Zokuri style houses which have very steep reed roofs that help to keep the heavy winter snowfall from crushing them. You can take a bus tour that goes through the area, or drive yourself. While you’re in Gokayama, you can arrange to try your hand at traditional washi making (paper making), tour a home, including the attic under the eaves in which silk worms were once kept. You can even book accommodations in the village for a longer stay and a more rich experience.
The family of one of my colleagues in the English school where I taught owns a home in Gokayama, and I love to follow their Facebook page for the beautiful and scenic photographs of everyday life here. Have a scroll through and check out how deep the winter snow becomes!
10. Rice Fields
There are many places across Japan where you’ll see rice fields while on the shinkansen, or even while waiting for a bus after watching a movie at a cinema. Japan is of course, known for its rice, particularly in relation to sushi and bento boxes. Toyama prefecture also has the most delicious rice I’ve tasted, and is a little sweeter as well, which balances well with the tang of nori in rolled sushi. I recently found some in Belfast and although it’s more expensive than our usual brand, I just had to purchase a bag. This rice is grown in the Nyuzen area of Toyama prefecture; north of Toyama city, and although I didn’t travel to this particular area, I’d love to!