[From July Issue 2012]
Toyama Prefecture is located along the Sea of Japan, just about in the center of Honshu (Japan’s main island). Located in the Northern Alps, it’s surrounded on three sides by steep mountain ranges like Tateyama, and is blessed with an abundance of beautiful nature. The Kurobe Gorge is a deep v-shaped gorge that runs between the Tateyama Mountain Range and the Ushiro-Tateyama Mountain Range.
The distance between the mountaintops and the bottom of the gorge can be as much as 1.5 to two kilometers, and until around 1927 the area was a secluded region, off limits to tourists. Today, however, trains nicknamed “Torokko Densha,” run through the area, allowing anyone to easily visit the Kurobe Gorge. Torokko are carts used to carry dirt and stones from construction sites. Torokko Densha have roofs, but unlike normal trains, they have no windows, enabling passengers to get a physical sense of the vast wilderness. A one way trip is an adventure of about 20 kilometers, through 41 tunnels and across 22 bridges, and takes about one hour and 20 minutes.
A trip on the Torokko Densha starts out from Unazuki Station, Kurobe Gorge Railway. In the vicinity is the hot spring town of Unazuki, bustling with tourists who have come to enjoy the onsen. A characteristic of Unazuki Onsen is its smooth, transparent water, which has been long been known as “hot water for beautiful skin.” As much as 3,000 tons of hot water bubbles out of the spring each day, and you can see 60-degree hot spring water shooting up like a fountain in front of Unazuki Onsen Station, Toyama Chihou Tetsudou Honsen Line.
After departing from Unazuki Station, the Torokko Densha travels through some spectacular scenery, stopping at Kuronagi, Kanetsuri, and Keyakidaira stations. Kuronagi has the oldest open-air baths in the gorge, and in Kanetsuri there is an observation deck which commands a view of “Kurobe perpetual snow” – mounds of snow that have accumulated from avalanches. At Keyakidaira, the last stop, there are paved walkways so that visitors can enjoy seeing the Kurobe Gorge up close. Around each station, there are hot spring inns, which are popular because they can only be accessed by Torokko Densha.
Walking up a gentle slope from Keyakidaira Station for about 50 minutes, you arrive at Babadani Onsen. The name “Babadani” (baba means an old woman) comes from a legend about an old woman who went up the mountain to look for her adulterous husband, but she died without finding him and her flames of jealously caused a hot spring to bubble up from the ground. On the banks of the river in Babadani, hot water can be seen boiling up everywhere.
Along with the Kurobe Gorge, the most famous scenic spot in Toyama Prefecture is the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. Running through the Tateyama Mountain Range – which comprises of mountains that reach 3,000 meters high – this world famous mountain trail connects Tateyama-machi, Toyama Prefecture, with Omachi, Nagano Prefecture. Although it’s just less than 25 kilometers as the crow flies, it should be noted that it spans 2,000 kilometers from its lowest to highest points, offering fantastic and beautiful views from above the clouds.
One of the charms of the Alpine Route that it’s impossible to overlook is its many unusual modes of transport. On these you can enjoy rides unique to the Alpine Route, such as: the Tateyama Cable Car, which goes up slopes as steep as 29 degrees; the Kurobe Cable Car, the like of which cannot be found anywhere else in Japan, which runs underground for its entire route; and a trolleybus that passes through a tunnel that is situated at the highest altitude of any other in Japan. The Ropeway in particular has been called a “moving observation deck” and offers panoramic views of the magnificent scenery.
Starting from Tateyama Station, this cable car travels for about one hour until it gets to Murodo Station which sits at the highest point of the Alpine Route. There are a number of must-see spots along the way. On the Midagahara Plateau, located 1,600 to 2,100 meters above sea level, you can enjoy a stroll while looking at the Alpine flora. At Shomyo falls, water collects from the Tateyama Mountain Range and flows down rapidly in four stages from the Shomyo Gorge; taken as a whole this is the biggest waterfall in Japan and has been designated as a national natural treasure.
Located at the highest point of the Alpine Route, Murodo is extremely popular with tourists and mountaineers who use it as a base. From there, you can enjoy views of 3,000-meter-high mountains, including three mountains in the Tateyama range. You can also walk around a variety of tourist spots like Mikuriga Pond, one of the most beautiful sights in Murodo, and Jigoku-dani (Hell Valley). About a two hour climb up from Murodo is the highest point of the Tateyama mountain range (on Mount Oyama). At the summit of Mount Oyama is a shrine, Oyama-jinja Mine-honsha, from which you can see Mt. Fuji far in the distance as well as Mt. Ontake and the Toyama Bay.
The Alpine Route has attractions unique to each of the four seasons. April begins with walls of snow that have built up during winter along the Alpine Route. In years when there have been heavy snowfalls, these walls can be as high as 20 meters, giving the route its nickname “Yuki no Otani” (Great Valley of Snow). In summer, the alpine plants on the plateau begin to simultaneously burst into bloom. When the short summer is over, the whole mountain range turns yellow, heralding the arrival of kouyou, or autumn leaf viewing, season. When the autumn leaves have all gone, the first snow of the year falls, and silence returns to Tateyama.
Tateyama is a mountain range high above sea level where a wide variety of animals and plants can be seen. Bijodaira is known as being a treasure trove of wild birds and many kinds of birds can be spotted there, such as the Bush Warbler, the Robin, and the Blue-and-white Flycatcher. The sight of alpine plants like Cotton Grass and Tateyama-rindo (Gentiana thunbergii var. minor) delights tourists. In Murodo, if you are lucky, you might encounter a Japanese ptarmigan, a bird that has been designated as a special national natural treasure.
Flowing through the 3,000-meter-high Tateyama Mountain Range and running along the Kurobe Gorge, the Kurobe River is one of Japan’s major rivers, and has been chosen as “the clearest stream in the country.” The snow falling deep in the mountains of Kurobe doesn’t melt until early summer, bringing with it an abundance of water even in midsummer. A wide range of products unique to the region, that are popular as souvenirs, are made using this famous water, including local beer, sake, and curry.
It takes about one hour to fly from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Toyama Airport. From the airport, located in a suburb of Toyama City, it takes approximately 25 minutes by bus to Toyama Station. If you’re travelling by JR railways, it takes about one hour to get to Echigo-Yuzawa Station by Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, transferring there to the Hokuriku main line, you arrive at Uozu Station in roughly one hour and 50 minutes. To access the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and the Kurobe Gorge, transfer at Uozu Station to the Toyama Chihou Tetsudo Line and get off at Tateyama Station and Unazuki Onsen Station, respectively.
Text: HAMASAKI Yayoi