Toyama Prefecture | An Oft-Forgotten Part of Hokuriku

The many meters-high mountains of Japan's Toyama Prefecture are covered by snow early in winter.

Today, I am going to take you to Toyama Prefecture. Sandwiched between the Sea of Japan and the mountainous core of the country, Toyama is a treasure trove of both natural and cultural wonders. Alas, many overseas visitors to Japan are still completely unaware of the prefecture’s many attractions Though Toyama has indeed gained a bit more notoriety in recent years thanks to the likes of Gokayama and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, many of the other local allures are still largely unknown.

Why one should consider Toyama is going to take some time to explain. In the following sections, I’ll dive into the weeds on each of the prefecture’s different areas. For now though, I want to note for you, the reader, that Toyama is part of what has been somewhat embarrassingly called the New Golden Route. Beginning in Tokyo, this awesome itinerary arcs up through Kanazawa. Thereafter, the course comes down through the heart of Japan before ultimately ending in the ancient capital of Kyoto.

While first-timers to Japan are likely to want to do the standard Golden Route, repeat visitors are better off opting for something a little bit different. Here, Toyama and the New Golden Route are the perfect solutions. Those who opt to take this trail will still be able to check out the eternally popular city of Kyoto but will tour a number of hidden gems en-route. As such, it is a great option for those who have been to Japan before and are looking for somewhere new.

How to Get There

The primary bus and train station for Toyama, one of the biggest cities in this part of Japan

Despite being enveloped by nature, Toyama is a prefecture that is rather simple to reach. Thanks to the comparatively new Hokuriku Shinkansen, those hoping to check out this part of Japan will be happy to know that they can get there in a little over two and a half hours. All you really need to do is hop on one of the bullet trains to Kanazawa (refer to Jorudan or a similar service for schedules) and take this to whichever station is closest to your destination in the prefecture.

If you’re going to be doing the New Golden Route or otherwise just exploring Toyama, I highly suggest that you snag one of the many rail passes for the area. During my recent tour, I made extensive use of the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass. With this, I had access to all of the trains and buses that run through the area. Moreover, the pass even affords somes access to the bullet train. With it, you can ride in non-reserved seating from Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station to Kanazawa Station.

In addition to the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Tourist Pass that I heavily abused as part of my adventure to promote it, there is also the Hokuriku Arch Pass. Unlike with the one I was using, the Hokuriku Arch Pass was something that was made to encourage travel along the New Golden Route. Thanks to this, those making use of the Hokuriku Arch Pass will be able to travel all the way from Tokyo in the east to Osaka, Kobe and Nara in the west. To be honest, it’s insane how much of a bargain the pass is.

Enough about the passes though — let’s get back to talking about travel logistics. Once you’re actually in Toyama, know that local access varies depending on what part of the prefecture you’ve elected to explore. Some parts can be reached by trains alone whereas others require using buses. Rather than make this portion of the piece unnecessarily long, I’ll cover further information below in the dedicated sections for each of Toyama’s many attractions.

Eco-friendly Toyama City

While not a historic castle, Toyama Castle is a nice addition should you have some hours in the city

Let’s begin this exposé by looking at the prefectural capital, Toyama City. Situated right along Toyama Bay, this mid-sized metropolis is akin to Goldilocks’s porridge in that it’s juuuuuust right. In contrast to Tokyo, Toyama City is not overwhelmingly huge. At the same time though, the urban areas have more than enough allures to keep you busy. To be frank, I was really surprised with just how well Toyama City had its act together.

Seeing as Toyama City is a major stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, I highly suggest that travelers make this spot their hub for their adventures in the prefecture. Though the most iconic attractions in the region are indeed found far outside of the city limits, Toyama City will provide you with everything you’d otherwise need. As such, it is a great home base for when traversing the rest of Toyama Prefecture.

Of course, Toyama City itself is not without its share of attractions. The following is a list of spots that I managed to squeeze into an extremely aggressive half-day itinerary. To help you plan out a route, I’ll include a Google Map link to each of the locations below along with a short blurb about why you ought to consider visiting…

  • Toyama Castle Park
    In the days of yesteryear, the city of Toyama was once an important castle town that oversaw this portion of the Hokuriku region. Today, you can learn about this legacy at the Toyama Castle Park. Inside of the reconstructed keep, you’ll find the Toyama City Local History Museum which documents much of the city’s history over the centuries.
  • Toyama Glass Art Museum
    Found within the chic and modern Kirai Building that was designed by none other than the renowned architect Kuma Kengo, the Toyama Glass Art Museum is a must visit for anyone in the city. The facility curates a number of amazing sculptures that are made entirely from glass. You’ll find it on the top echelons of the Kirai Building, just above the local public library.
  • Ikeda Yasubei Shoten
    Situated but a mere stone’s throw away from the Kirai Building and the Toyama Glass Art Museum, Ikeda Yasubei Shoten is a traditional medicine store that has been in business since 1936. The shop pedals all sorts of local remedies that have their origins in Toyama’s historic past when it was a major pharmaceutical center.
  • Toyama’s Hie Shrine
    Initially founded in the year 1335, the local Hie Shrine is all-important to the city of Toyama. Situated just outside of the Toyama Castle grounds near the former temple district, this shrine is famous in the region for its Sanno Festival. Taking place in June, over 200,000 visitors from the nearby parts of the prefecture flock to the little shrine for the annual celebration. Check it out if you’re in town during early summer!
  • Fugan Canal Kansui Park
    Home to what is allegedly considered to be the most picturesque Starbucks in the world (personally, I don’t get the hype), Fugan Canal Kansui Park is an open green space on the far side of Toyama Station. Cherished by residents of the city, this spot is definitely an iconic locale that visitors to Toyama should swing by.
  • Iwasehama Beach
    This one is a bit of a one-off but I witnessed the best sunset of my life here when I was in Toyama Prefecture. It’s a bit removed from the city center but you can easily make it down to Iwasehama Beach in around 30 minutes from Toyama Station. If you can time it right, the view from the sandy coast of the sun setting in the west with the Tateyama Mountain Range to your back is to die for.
  • Firefly Squid Viewing
    Should you be in Toyama City during the months of April or May, you can experience the amazing spectacle of firefly squid viewing out in the bay. While the season only lasts for a few months while they are spawning, the blue light that these creatures emit is an amazing visual, especially when set against the pitch black of the Sea of Japan. Once the sun goes down, the firefly squid transform the darkness of the ocean into an enchanting otherworld that is hard to describe in words.

In addition to its collection of noteworthy spots, one other intriguing upsell for Toyama City is that it is one of the most sustainable cities in the world. Everywhere in the downtown areas is interconnected by an extensive series of ecologically-friendly tram lines. Moreover, the city is also incredibly walkable. When combined with other SDGs initiatives, this makes Toyama one of the most progressive cities in Japan.

Venture Into the Kurobe Gorge

The Shin-Yamabiko Bridge in the central parts of the Kurobe Gorge

When it comes to Toyama Prefecture, the Kurobe Gorge is one attraction that I would consider to be a must visit. Located deep into the mountains, this V-shaped crevasse is one of the deepest of its kind in all of Japan. The beautifully forested ravine cuts far into the northern Japan Alps and is surrounded on either side by nearly vertical cliffs and untouched virgin forests. Though its at best in autumn, the Kurobe Gorge is breathtaking to behold at any time during the year. Whether for the fall foliage in October and November or as a way to cool off during the sultry months of summer, this spot is one you shouldn’t miss.

By far, the best way to experience the chasm is via the Kurobe Gorge Railway. This narrow-gauge sightseeing tram was originally built to aid in the construction of the Kurobe Dam. Today, it has been repurposed for tourism and runs the 20-kilometer stretch between Unazuki Onsen and Keyakidaira Station. An attraction unto itself, the 80-minute adventure will take you across a number of bridges and through countless tunnels. En route, passengers will be treated to panoramic views of the Kurobe Gorge. Moreover, there are even stations along the way that you can get off at. The ones worth mentioning are…

  • Kuronagi Onsen Station
    This is the first major station that you’ll encounter on your way to Keyakidaira Station. Should you opt to hop off, you’ll have the chance to hike over to a secluded hot spring known as, you guessed it, Kuronagi Onsen. While not a must-visit by any means, it’s a nice add-on for those with the time.
  • Kanetsuri Station
    Of all of the locations that you can disembark at when traveling to Keyakidaira Station, Kanetsuri Station has the best makings of a detour. Here, you can enjoy a riverside hot spring or check out the Mannen Yuki (lit. “10,000-Year Snow”) which supposedly is an accumulation of so much snowfall that it never melts, even during the hellish summers.

While the real fun is the ride to Keyakidaira Station, there’s a few locations of note to explore after arriving. For example, if you cross the Okukane Bridge, you’ll come across the so-called Hitokui Iwa (lit “Human-eating Rocks”). These cliffs jut out over the path and look like they are going to devour anyone who walks under them. If you continue on, there are also a pair of small ryokan known as Meiken Onsen and Babadani Onsen respectively. Both require a bit of a trek to reach so those not looking to work up a sweat might instead consider Sarutobi Sanso Onsen and its ashiyu foot bath back by the station.

Back at Unazuki Onsen, there are a few more spots to check out but nothing major to really write home about. For example, right by the station for the Kurobe Gorge Railway, you’ll find the Kurobe River Electric Memorial Hall. This facility is dedicated to the history of electricity production along the Kurobe River. Inside, you’ll find some curations that highlight the difficulties that went into building the Kurobe Dam. Nearby, there is also the Selene Museum of Art but I elected to skip it and therefore cannot comment on whether it’s worth your time.

Getting to Unazuki Onsen and the Kurobe Gorge is pretty simple. Just take the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen. From there, you’ll need to ride the Toyama Chiho Railway to the small hot spring village. Note that the Kurobe Gorge Railway only runs from late April through to the end of November. The reason for this halting of service is that, come December, this part of Japan gets absolutely blanketed with snow. As a result, the small trams simply cannot safely run. Be sure to keep this in mind if you’re planning to visit Japan during the colder months of the year.

Before moving on, I have a word of caution for you, the reader. While the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is indeed nearby, it is nigh inaccessible from the Kurobe Gorge. Unless you’re down to do some serious hiking, you’ll need to access this part of the prefecture via another means. I’ll detail how to do so in the final section of this article but for now, know that the Kurobe Gorge and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route are essentially two divergent locations that do not combine well with each other.

Takaoka & the Daibutsu

Found nearby the local castle park, Takaoka’s giant Buddha statue is a must visit if your close by.

We’ll head back to the mountainous areas of Toyama Prefecture in the final chapter of this epic guide but first I want to introduce Takaoka. Officially the second most populated city in the prefecture, Takaoka is the epitome of a craftsmen town. Historically, it was an important center for metal casting and this long legacy is still very apparent today. Prior to the Edo period (1603–1868) when Japan was still in the midst of a civil war, Takaoka once had its own castle but this was removed when the Tokugawas ushered in an age of peace.

Today, Takaoka is best known for its trio of attractions. Of these, the most emblematic of them all is the Takaoka Daibutsu. Completed in 1933 after three long decades of work, the Buddhist effigy makes extensive use of Takaoka’s proprietary bronze casting techniques. Today’s Takaoka Daibutsu is actually preceded by a wooden statue of a similar size. The locals decided to make something a bit more lasting after the original was damaged time and time again by fires (though the wooden head of the previous version is still on display inside the bronze bust). You’ll find the Takaoka Daibutsu here, by the old castle grounds.

Following closely behind the Takaoka Daibutsu, we have the brilliant temple complex of Zuiryu-ji. Located on the opposite side of Takaoka Station from where the Takaoka Daibutsu is, this Soto Zen Buddhist temple dates from the year 1659 and is considered to be a national treasure by the Japanese government. As is typical of most monasteries from the Soto Zen Buddhism sect, Zuryu-ji has a symmetric layout with corridors connecting its extensive collection of buildings. As you’ll see when you visit, Zuiryu-ji sports a pair of main halls that are extremely picturesque when set against the vivid green of the lawn.

As far as temple compounds are concerned, Zuiryu-ji has a ton of secrets. The best way to learn these hidden histories is by taking one of the tours that the temple offers. Unfortunately, the obfuscated knowledge is only conveyed in Japanese meaning that most overseas tourists are going to need some sort of guide to interpret for them. That said, if you can somehow overcome the language barrier, you’ll be treated to a truly epic performance by some very well practiced monks.

Rounding out the trifecta of notable locations in Takaoka are the town’s historical merchant and craftsman districts. Even today, these parts of Takaoka retain the vibe that they would have had centuries ago. The two most notable are known as Yamachosuji and the Kanayamachi District. The former was a lane that ran straight through Takaoka and connected the region with Kyoto. The latter on the other hand was the center of Takaoka’s metal casting industry. Seeing as the Kanayamachi District produced upwards of 90% of all of Japan’s bronzeworks, it’s definitely worth visiting if you’re a fan of Japanese craftsmen.

Anyway, like with Toyama City, Takaoka is easily accessed via the Hokuriku Shinkansen which makes a stop at Shin-Takaoka Station. Thanks to these convenient logistics, many people who visit Japan use it as a jumping off point when making their way to Gokayama. While this is indeed a sound route, do yourself a favor and at least swing by Zuiryu-ji. It’s not too far from Shin-Takaoka Station and is therefore a simple add-on for those heading down to the villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go.

Before going over Gokayama though, allow me to end this section on Takaoka with a final tidbit for the anime fans out there. You see, Takaoka was the hometown of the creator of the famous Doraemon series. As such, you’ll find all sorts of homages like this to the earless robotic cat. Should you be a fan of the eternally popular series, you definitely will want to check it out while in Takaoka.

The Villages of Gokayama

The village of Ainokura in Gokayama during mid-June is a UNESCO World Heritage site destination in Toyama ken

One of the most iconic attractions in Toyama Prefecture is Gokayama. I’ve saved it for last since it’s likely the best known destinations in Toyama. Considered to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this collection of several villages is known for its so-called “Gassho-Style” domiciles. Though there are a number of smaller hamlets to see in this part of Toyama Prefecture, Ainokura is the biggest and the one that I suggest that people check out during their visit due to the simpler logistics.

While Gokayama is indeed an extremely rural part of Japan, Ainokura is actually surprisingly easy to get to. All you need to do is take one of the World Heritage Buses that run from Shin-Takaoka Station. A one-way ticket to Gokayama will set you back 1,200 yen. Alternatively there are also hop-on, hop-off passes available for 2,500. Should you have one of the previously noted Takayama-Hokuriku Area Passes though, you can ride these buses without any further charge.

Once you’ve arrived in Ainokura, know that there isn’t exactly a whole lot of things to do per say. Like with the seaside town of Ine in Kyoto Prefecture, the best way to experience Ainokura is to just wander around the 20-some-odd Gassho-style farm houses. While there are a few attractions to be had such as a Japanese washi paper workshop, the main allure here is just the charming environment. Just be sure not to miss the lookout high above the city as it offers the best vantage point to be had.

Most travelers who visit Gokayama’s Ainokura also opt to continue to head down south to Shirakawa-go. During my recent stint in the region to promote the Takayama-Hokuriku Area Pass, I ended up heavily abusing mine and kept on traveling all the way down to Gifu City. While you need not go that far south, I’d encourage you to also cross Shigawa-go off of the list if you’re going to visit a village in Gokayama.

The Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route

Water spews from the Kurobe Dam during the months of summer in Toyama Prefecture

I’ve elected to save the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, what is arguably Toyama Prefecture’s most famous attraction, for last. The reason for this is that it doesn’t really combine well with a typical trip to Toyama. Instead, those looking to do the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route will want to begin in the town of Omachi over in Nagano Prefecture. From there, travelers looking to traverse the Northern Japan Alps can make their way over to the prefectural capital in Toyama via various means of transportation.

Before getting into what to expect, allow me to first point out that the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is only open from April 15 to November 30 and is entirely inaccessible during winter. Moreover, the famed snow corridor is only around from when the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route opens on April 15 to June 25. This means you only have a few months to witness the spectacle. What’s more, this period also conflicts with a lot of the spring flowers so you’ll need to plan your trip well.

Though it is indeed possible to do the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route in reverse, I am going to go out on a limb and say that you should do it before exploring Toyama Prefecture. Opting to do it last puts you in rural Nagano and you’ll be left with no recourse other than to take the last (or close to the last) limited express train back to Shinjuku. Rather than risk it, do yourself a favor and just heed my suggestion.

Anywho, let’s quickly go over the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route for those who are unfamiliar. Basically, you’ll start in northern Nagano and take the Ogizawa-Omachi Bus from Shinano-Omachi Station. Thereafter, you’ll need to take one of the Kanden Tunnel Buses through the depths of Mt. Akasawa to the Kurobe Dam. This 186 meter-high monstrosity was completed in 1963 and withholds a reservoir with a capacity of nearly 200 million cubic meters of water. Allegedly, the Kurobe Dam is the most popular structure of its kind in all of Japan.

After taking in the Kurobe Dam, you’ll want to then hop on the Kurobe Cable Car. This will be the next leg of your epic journey and it will take you deeper into Toyama Prefecture. Unfortunately, the entirety of the ride will be within a tunnel so you’ll not be able to enjoy any majestic views of the mountains. The entire trip is only five minutes though so you’ll soon find yourself at Kurobedaira, the transfer station for the Tateyama Ropeway.

At Kurobedaira, you’ll encounter a restaurant, a souvenir shop and some truly stunning views of the surrounding peaks. Should you be feeling #hangry, this is a good time to snag a bite to eat before continuing on to the Tateyama Ropeway. Officially the longest one-span ropeway in Japan, this 1.7 kilometer stretch operates without any support towers between the two stations. Note that due to the limited capacity of the Tateyama Ropeway, this can often become a bottleneck.

Following the Tateyama Ropeway, you’ll need to transfer to the Tateyama Trolley Bus via Daikanbo Station. For what it’s worth, this spot has a great view so if you’re feeling like you need a quick breather before continuing on, know that this is one of the most scenic sites on the route. When you’re ready to advance again, take the Tateyama Trolley Bus through the tunnel for about 10 minutes or so to your next destination, Murodo.

Besides the Tateyama Ropeway and the various viewpoints, most of the expedition thus far will be within tunnels through the mountains. Murodo, the next locale on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is different. Here, you’ll find fantastic views of the surrounding mountain range as well as some hiking trails that lead up to some of the closer peaks. There are also paths to the nearby Jigokudani (lit. “Hell’s Valley”) where you can see volcanic activity.

In addition to all of outdoor fun to be had in Murodo, you’ll also encounter Hotel Tateyama, Japan’s highest hotel, within the confines of the Murodo Station complex. Though I’ve yet to stay here myself, it is my dream to one day do so during the beautiful months of autumn. I mean, imagine staying at a hotel that is literally located 2,400 meters above the Sea of Japan way down below!

Though closed for winter, the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is one of Toyama’s most iconic destinations

Near Murodo Station you’ll also find the famous Tateyama Snow Corridor. This road runs from where Hotel Tateyama is all the way down to Bijodaira Station. From April 15 to June 25, this lane is lined with towering walls of snow that can reach up to 20-meters high (as seen above). All in all, the trip on the highway bus to Bijodaira Station will take you around 50 minutes if you don’t disembark to explore the Midagahara Wetlands.

From Bijodaira Station, your next step is to take the Tateyama Cable Car to Tateyama Station. By this point, you’ll rapidly be making your descent down to the sea level parts of Toyama Prefecture. In just seven short minutes, the Tateyama Cable Car will take you down to Tateyama Station. Note that much like with the ropeway, this leg can often become a bottleneck on the busier days so plan accordingly.

Finally, once you’re at Tateyama Station, your last task will be to take the Toyama Chiho Railway. This train line runs all the way to the center of Toyama City. Once on board, you can have a seat and finally relax knowing that you’ve had the opportunity to fully experience the famous Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route. The journey back to Toyama City, civilization and most importantly for weary travelers, your hotel, will take around an hour.

Seeing as most of the traveling is done via bus, ropeway cable car, etc. the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is actually easily doable for people of all fitness levels. In fact, there’s even a bit of a gag about the trip being able to be done in high heels for the fashion-conscious female readers out there. Talk about the journey being the destination though…

Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering just how much all of these miscellaneous forms of travel are going to cost you, know that completing the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route will set you back just under 12,000 yen. Though that is indeed expensive, it’s the only way that the various transportation companies can justify this infrastructure through the heart of the northern Japan Alps.

Other Nearby Attractions

There’s a lot more to Toyama ken than the destinations listed here. For example, along the sea of Japan, travelers can explore the Amaharashi Coast Quasi-National Park

Seeing as characters for Toyama Prefecture (富山 県) literally mean “Rich with Mountains,” it should come as no surprise that this section of Japan is rich with natural splendor. Between the northern Japan Alps, the nearby ocean with its savory seafood and the relaxing hot springs, there is so much to enjoy. To be frank with you, despite these thousands of words, I’ve really only scratched the surface when it comes to what’s located up here.

Outdoor enthusiasts are encouraged to really look into the various hiking courses. Seeing as I really only ever haul my behind up a mountain if there’s something historic waiting for me at the top, you’re better off referring to people who are more of the mountaineering type. Of course, there’s also all sorts of options for traditional crafts to be had in Toyama Prefecture too. Additionally, you’d be a fool if you didn’t gorge yourself on the local seafood that is sourced directly from the Sea of Japan as well.

If you’re hankering for some more things to see and do in Toyama Prefecture, you might consider looking at the Amaharashi Coast Quasi-National Park. This area stretches from the Amarashi Coast to Matsudae-no-Nagahama in Himi and has been lauded as “One of Japan’s Best 100 Beaches.” The coastline affords majestic views of the 3,000 meter-tall Tateyama Mountain Range as well Toyama Bay. It’s easily one of the more picturesque scenes in Toyama Prefecture.

Finally, know that the city of Kanazawa is but a mere few minutes away from Toyama Station. If you’re looking to continue your adventures in Hokuriku, I highly suggest that you head on over to this historic capital for the region. You can refer to my area guide on Kanazawa for more information but suffice to say, this city is one that really delivers on its promise of being “Mini Kyoto.” I honestly just can’t more highly recommend it!

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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