Toyama road trip

Sceptical as he was, Mel went on this journey with doubts on his mind. This must be our 14th journey to Japan. Well, at least not including the many ones for work anyway. Where are we going again?

Toyama. Ah yes that’s where.

This region tucked away northwest from Tokyo, is about 300km as far as the crow flies. Why did Suan pour her effort into crafting this itinerary? Well, to be honest she believed that the seafood there would be wonderful – firefly squid, bluish transparent shrimps and all. So with great expectations we took the train to Toyama.

And picked the rental near the train station. In most larger train stations, there is the convenience of picking up a car. Because while public transport is legendary in Japan, it is not like you can easily get to anywhere in the country using the train and buses. In the cities perhaps.

16th February
The Shinkansen took 2 hours 10 minutes and we were soon driving our rental out of Toyama to Shinminato and onto Himi. All along, we were looking for views of the Tateyama mountains…
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So the morning taxi ride got us to the station, which surprisingly had little traffic. It was early enough to check out the different trains and buy our bento box lunches…Then it was time to get on the 2 hours 10 minutes ride to Toyama. We slept most of the way after eating, victims of too little rest from the last few days!
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Upon arrival, we picked up the rental car and were soon on the way to the coastal scene. First stop was at the Kaiomaru marine park. Now there is a training ship there, but we were only interested for views of the Tateyama mountains to be had from that vantage point. Thus we walked all the way to the furthest point we could. While it could be seen with our naked eyes, it was a little hazy on the photos – which don’t tell how majestic they looked! Perhaps the warmth has caused it to be hazier!
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Shinminato bridge connected us to the marine park is like the ones in San Francisco. A beautiful suspension bridge that is. Actually we drove over it twice, because we missed a turn! Next stop: Kitto-kito market place.
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A wide assortment of stalls are located in this market. And every day at 2pm, large snow crabs will be put on sale. They are boiled the whole morning! Here, we also found what is purported to be the largest squid in the world that has been caught.
Think of it, it is actually just one large “restaurant” where one can pick and choose fresh seafood and have it prepared for you! Take note that some seafood is best prepared certain ways. So we had squid, fish and scallops. All just for ¥1,600!
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On our journey to Himi, we drove past Uchikawa and the river of the same name. Tour brochures suggest this is the “Venice” of Japan. We are not too sure, but it was a nice photo stop.
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Oh finally got to the Amaharashi coast (by the JR train station) in the late afternoon. Here it was low tide and the sea looked like a sheet of glass. The water is so clear that the seaweeds can be seen! Many a photographer enthusiast was staked out here, probably waiting for the sunset! The only negative was the trash that had built up on some parts of the beach. Seems Japan is not immune from sea trash!
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And so ends our first day of this road trip. We checked into our Ryokan inn and headed out to the hot spring immediately. It is quite busy, hence no pictures. And dinner was fabulous too! Time to sleep and rest. Tomorrow another long day awaits!

Roadside stations will be a regular feature in this journalog.

In Japan these places can have gems waiting to be discovered. Food gems that is. You see, it is not usually the large chains that dominate these rest stops. And at these stops there are local produce and even the occasional stall that is wildly popular!

This is also our first night in a Ryokan on this journey. It is located along the coast. On Google, one cannot easily find it and when you do, it will be called “simple hotel with bathhouse and dining”. We kid you not!

We have not shared the sumptuous Ryokan dinner we had here. Curious we think you should be and if you read our handprint story here you will be amazed by the amount of exquisite dishes that were served to us!

17th February
Rainy day! So after Banya-gai market and Himi center to view the cartoon characters, we set off for Mitsui Hokuriku Oyabe outlet mall. Spent the whole afternoon there before we drove back to Takaoka
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Checking out in the morning to a sumptuous breakfast (and cliff view), we headed down Banya-gai, a market near the port of Himi. As with the others we went so far, the main offering is seafood. One of the highlight is that of fishcakes. They come in so many colors and designs!
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Fujiko Fujio is a famous cartoonist that hails from Himi. Thus the town center is “littered” with the characters of the ocean that he has created. As you walk past some, the motion sensor sets off a monologue by the character…
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Today we decided that the rain would not be conducive to go touring any outdoor attractions, so we drove to the Mitsui outlet mall at Oyabe. We had our lunch at the food court where they had this wonderful array of little stalls that serve food from famed chain restaurants around Japan, particularly this region.
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While the mall may not have any of the luxury end brands, they do have practical stuff, mid level or local Japanese brands that are marked well down from listed prices. Suan bought so clothes that had 80% discount on them! And quite many of them can be found in Japanese fashion magazines too!
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After a 30km drive to Takaoka, we had dinner at Coco’s restaurant across the hotel. It is a chain outlet like Royal Host, serving hamburger steaks. The 5-cheese one is definitely something to have again! And the premium one that Suan had tasted wonderful! Who says chain restaurants don’t do good food?

For one night, we determined it most economical to stay one night in a budget hotel. The coming day would be shopping day to an extent. Staying in a Ryokan would entail going a little further from the city.

Now we have written about this before, there has been a rise in micro hotels in Japan (read here). Around most larger train stations and especially in the cities, there are usually quite a few hotels (chain outlets they are) that cater to the budget conscious. This is more for folks who only need a night’s rest in the course of work related travel. There chains such as Toyoko inns, Chisun inns and Super Hotels.

The rooms are rather small, but they do the job – ie provide one with a restful place to crash for the night.

18th February
The day started sunny but turned cloudy. Our morning was to temples, but we moved on to searching for food at roadside stations before we headed for part II of shopping at Mitsui Hokuriku Oyabe!
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Our first stop was to the giant Buddha statue in the middle of town (Takaoka). It stands at 16m and is said to be the third largest in Japan. It had replaced a wooden one in 1933 after that was burnt. Unfortunately the morning sun meant that close up shots of the Buddha’s front only cast a silhouette.
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We went on to the Zuiryu-ji temple, constructed around the 1660s at the passing of the feudal warlord Maeda Toshinaga. This is a national treasure (国宝), so considered most precious of Japan’s tangible cultural assets. Lots of local tour groups come and get guided walks through the grounds. It is said that the architecture harks to the Edo period. But what was interesting was the amount of seeming Chinese influence there was here. See the crane stepping on a mythical sea turtle.
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There are several halls (seven we read from the web) and they are connected via the walkway that runs in a square perimeter around this Zen temple complex. The wide lawn spaces are covered with snow from the last few weeks and perhaps form a good place for devotees to gather when prayers are made.
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Now there is one more thing about Takaoka. And that is its famed metal casting industry. The story goes that in the mid 1600s, the local feudal lord invited artisans to aid in the industrialization of the city. The warlord had done so because the local castle had to be destroyed on imperial orders and there was concern that towns without castles would decline in importance.
Thus Kanayamachi was born. This street is the birthplace of the industry and boasts of a museum showcasing the exquisite work plus implements/tools used by the craftsmen of the time.
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These large displays of the bronze bell and castings used are next to the kiln where the product is heated up and shaped. And the street is adorned with wonderful metal casted sculptures of characters from Japanese film stories.
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We drove on to the Manyo no Sato roadside station. The highlight of coming to this roadside station was to taste the famous beef croquette that was featured on Japan hour. Two versions we tried, the normal one and the premium (definitely better). The price difference is only ¥90…
Marchen Oyable roadside station was the next stop before we went to the outlet mall just across the road. Lunch was had here and we had shrimp croquette + black sauce noodle – said to be the Toyama signature ramen dish. Then it was off for shopping…
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Once again there is no mention of our stay in the Ryokan in Hakusan. If you are really curious then this handprint story is where you need to go.

Well, today was cultural day. So, lots of religious grounds to cover…Buddhism was something that got transmitted via China to Japan in a big way during the hey days of the Tang dynasty there was an intensive amount of interaction that brought not only an exchange of culture, but also people.

Roadside stations.

Why we went to the respective roadside stations was because of Japan hour. This weekly feature on Singapore TV shares some aspect of Japanese culture and travel with viewers in our little red dot. In one episode, they showed where one can get the best croquettes. Well, one of them is the beef croquette in Manyo No Sato while the other was the Shrimp croquette…yep we literally drove around looking for this! Do we count as foodies? You tell us?

19th February
The day was beautiful. Clear skies for much of the day and some clouds, we enjoyed Kanazawa castle and fantastic views of Tateyama! And visiting markets topped off our day.
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It has snowed last night and a reasonable layer of snow has settled on the landscape and our car too! After another sumptuous Ryokan style breakfast, we started clearing snow from the car. Suan pretty much enjoyed doing this – it has been almost 12 years since we last did it. But soon we were ready and on the way to our morning attraction : Kanazawa castle!
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Spawn from the feudal warring states of the 16th century; this castle is very large and impressive. But it has been repeatedly destroyed by fire and earthquake and is today largely restored. The moat which is most beautiful was dug in 1592.
Then it was time to eat gold foil ice cream. Costing ¥891 at the Hakuichi (箔一) gold foil shop, we enjoyed the golden cone even as we soaked in views of the castle.
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A short drive away is Omicho market, located in the midst of the city. We were looking for lunch. But all the stalls on the ground floor had little/no seating and was all rather pricey…so we decided to head to the 2nd floor and found a small restaurant “Sensai Enishi” ordering two seafood don and a plate of pan seared beef. Still quite pricey but definitely better than the ground floor. And you have to take a queue…
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And then it was time to head towards Toyama. The drive was rather scenic and views of Tateyama opened up in front of us as we drove. We determined to make one more roadside station stop – this time at Shinminato. It was more of a toilet break, but we did spy the fresh seafood they had on display. We saw fresh blow fish (or puffer), not yet prepared for the table…
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But we were in a hurry, a hurry to catch views of Tateyama from a stationary vantage point. And that would be Kureha heights resort, home for one more night
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Not far from the hotel was a viewing tower, which is next to the site of an abandoned fort. The panorama was fantastic. One could see all of Toyama city with the entire mountain range stretched out in front of us. The sun was setting. It’s time to check in and have dinner. Sleep well for tomorrow we return the car.

Now today was sure fun! Initially we thought that the overnight snow would impact traffic, but to our surprise all of the snow was cleared from the roads! So it was a super easy drive to parking and to walk the beautiful grounds of Kanazawa castle. More importantly, we now have gold flakes in our gut – yup, we ate the gold foil ice cream for ¥891!

And all day we were blessed with views of Tateyama. Seeing it as we drove, watching the sun set slowly before we settled into our final Ryokan hotel stay. Once again if you are really interested, read more here.

20th February
A rainy day, we drove to Yatsuo to view the carriages used in the annual festival. Lunch was at an excellent Italian restaurant followed by Ice Cream. We finally returned the rental and explore Toyama’s station area on foot!
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A very rainy start to the day. So when we went to the foot of Kurehayama it was wet and we took photos of the thatched roof houses from inside the car. Same for Toyama castle too…since it was so wet we decided to drive about 20km to a little town called Yatsuo. They have these floats or carriages as we call them. And they deploy them for festivals.
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What festival? The Hikiyama festival of Yatsuo. In fact, most of the towns in this region celebrate with men moving these large floats through the streets of their town in early May. The origin of such a celebratory festival was in the 18th century and there are said to be six communities within the town that have made these elaborate floats. If you look closely these intricate carvings feature many mythical characters, some clearly of a very continental origin!
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The town of Yatsuo has thrived on the success of silkworm rearing, bringing it enormous wealth. Three of them are on display here tourism town hall (entry ¥500pp). The hall on the implements used in silkworm weaving is extensive, as was the silk clothes that were made from them. A good way to spend a rainy day. And it was time to leave, as we drove back towards town, stopping at a very busy Italian restaurant (La Locando Del Pittore). Again it was full of women, which till this date we cannot explain…
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We ended our day with a visit to Chill out, an ice cream parlor next to the Crown Plaza hotel. Mel had strawberry (¥980) while Suan took the chocolate that came with banana slices (¥670). And after checking in the hotel we returned the rental. The evening was spent walking around Toyama station and we eventually settled on Nisicho-Taiki ramen. Woah, not recommended!

You know there is this time in mid/late spring when lots of festivals take place. Some of them involve lots of men in loin cloth carrying and moving a huge and heavy float/carriage. Well, here in the small towns on the suburban fringe of Toyama, we found one of them. And these carriages are large! Imagine the amount of effort to carry and move it by sheer strength of just men!

Ah yes. The Japanese are good not just with their own cuisine, but also masters and innovators when it come to foreign cuisine too. Such is the pleasure of dining in an almost authentic Italian trattoria enjoying pasta and pizza! No better way there can be to top off the day with soft serve ice cream.

Today we return our rental. It has been a wonderful road trip!

21st February
What a way to end the journey! After the return to Tokyo, we took to the airport and flew over Mt Fuji! Clear views of the mountain as we made our way home…
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During breakfast we saw rain and then snow. Fortunately it stopped when we crossed over to the station. The scene changed as we made the 300km journey back to Tokyo, starting with views of Tateyama from the ground before it turned snow covered in Nagano.
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However once we crossed the mountains to Kanto, the clouds gave way to clear skies. At Omiya, we started to be able to see Mt Fuji in the distant.
And as if it cannot get better, the plane flew almost over Mt Fuji on our way home! Here we can see the skyline of the city and the lakes, before coming up to the mountain itself!
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This Journey was certainly fruitful not just from what we saw and ate, but also the drive experience.

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What a view!

Especially the drive, which we had anticipated to be tougher because of perceived (heavy) snowfall that did not really occur. Well for one night it did but that only added 2 inches of snow on the car and nothing on the floor.

The drive route had been articulated in the post leading to this page. And we hope that you are now inspired to delve into some road tripping around Japan.

Enjoy the country, it’s fabulous!

February 2017

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