Tuesday, July 30, 2019

JAPANKURU Recommends: The Gorgeous Scenery of Toyama's Kurobe Gorge

A Japanese Natural Treasure, Kurobe Gorge

The city of Kurobe (黒部市) is known around Japan, and overseas, for its "Snow Corridor", where a narrow road is carved out of high walls of piled snow, making for an impressive sight. Travelers who go straight to the Corridor and then leave the area are missing out on some of Japan's most beautiful scenery.

Toyama Prefecture (富山県), where you'll find Kurobe, is in Japan's central Chubu region, which is right in the middle of the main island, and butting up against the Sea of Japan in the west. With Toyama Bay never far away, the prefecture is never lacking in fresh seafood and aquatic delicacies. Move towards the mountains, and whisps of hot steam come curling through the peaks and crags, just a sign of the amazing hot springs in the Unazuki Onsen (宇奈月温泉, onsen = hot spring!) part of Kurobe. Thanks to all this geological variation, rivers carve deep valleys into the area, and the region around Kurobe Gorge is a great place to explore this natural resource (and perhaps try canyoning?) Take a ride on the local Torokko Train, from the Kurobe Gorge Railway, and peaking out from the mountainside, the views of Kurobe will take your breath away.

The Unazuki Onsen area is rich with mountains and rivers.

How to Get to the Unazuki Onsen Area of Kurobe

This time in Kurobe, we spent our time in Unazuki Onsen, home to some pretty fantastic scenery. To get to Kurobe, the easiest route is probably on the shinkansen (Japanese bullet train). From other parts of Toyama Prefecture, including the airport, you'll probably want to look into local buses and trains to get to the shinkansen station - a short trip on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line will get you to the area before you know it.

Getting there via Hokuriku Shinkansen

Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station (黒部宇奈月温泉駅)

Tokyo Station (東京駅) - 2 hours 20 minutes, 11,860 yen
Kanazawa Station (金沢駅) - 35 minutes, 4,020 yen
Toyama Station (富山駅) - 12 minutes, 2,940 yen

Once you get to the area, you'll need to hop on one more quick train ride. Exit the shinkansen station and you'll see Toyama Chihou Railway's Shin-Kurobe Station, where you can get on a train towards Unazuki Onsen  (round trip discount tickets are 1,100 yen). Don't fall asleep or stare at your phone screen the whole ride over; the scenery out the window is pretty picturesque! After about 30 minutes or so, you'll find yourself at Unazukionsen Station. You've arrived!

(Note: this article mentions three train stations with very similar names, so it's easy to get a bit confused. The JR station, where you get off the shinkansen, is "Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen Station", the Toyama Chihou Railway station that serves as our final destination is "Unazukionsen Station", and in the article below you'll hear about "Unazuki Station" which is on the Torokko Train line! The names are all a little different.)

You'll find Shin-Kurobe Station across the street.
The round trip ticket is the best deal.

Outside of Unazukionsen Station is a steamy hot spring fountain!
If you are coming from the Toyama International Airport, you can just take the airport bus to Toyama Station, and then follow the same route from that point. All of these prices are subject to change, but this should cost you about 3,370 yen.

Take Advantage of Unazuki Onsen by Staying in a Ryokan!

When you're staying in a little village like Unazuki Onsen, you shouldn't miss the opportunity to stay at a more traditional kind of establishment, like a local ryokan-style hotel. Ryokans are built to help you enjoy your local experience, bringing you the best of nearby hot springs and regional gourmet specialties, plus great scenery.

Unazuki Onsen Togen Ryokan

We made the most out of our time in Kurobe by staying at Togen Ryokan, a conveniently located Unazuki Onsen ryokan. We wanted to live it up and take advantage of all Kurobe had to offer, so we checked out the private open-air baths available for rent, and the pretty luxe kaiseki ryori multi-course meals the ryokan offered. We'd definitely recommend trying all of the local Toyama specialties there!

If you're interested in making your own visit to Togen Ryokan, they have a few different kinds of rooms available. If you're most comfortable with a standard bed, there are certainly rooms with those, but there are also more traditional Japanese-style tatami rooms. The picture above shows a room perfect for families or groups of friends, with a variety of places to sit, a bevy of traditional futon mattresses hidden away until bedtime, and pretty fantastic views of the river below the window. If you're still a little unsure, we'll just remind you that most of these rooms have fragrant tatami mat floors, 70% of the rooms also have state-of-the-art massage chairs, and every room also provides yukata in a few different sizes, for lounging around the hotel.

Unazuki Onsen Togen RyokanAddress: 22-1 Unazuki Onsen, Kurobe City, Toyama
Phone: 81-765-62-1131
Check-in/Check-out: 15:00/10:00
Official Website (en)

Benefits of a Ryokan:
1. Private onsen!

At ryokans you'll often find "kashikiri onsen" (貸切温泉), or hot springs that you can rent for private use. Luxuriate in the hot water for a while, away from the rest of the guests, on your own or with a special someone. With public baths being an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, you really shouldn't worry about bathing with the other hotel patrons, but the kashikiri onsen are a way to enjoy the hot spring experience without any nerves. They're also a more relaxing way to bath for those of us with obvious and hard-to-conceal tattoos, since ink is still sort of frowned upon in Japanese public baths.

There are three of these barrel-shaped private tubs available for rent at Togen Ryokan, all for no additional charge. Their hot spring water is mildly alkaline, supposedly making for beautiful, clear skin after your bath. Reserve a time upon check-in, or call the front desk whenever to check availability.

(Available 15:00 - 22:00/7:00 - 10:00, for 40 minute periods.)

If the 1~2 person baths just don't cut it, and you want to stretch out or rent a bath for ~8 people, you can pay a 2,000 yen fee for access to Togen Ryokan's larger open-air rental bath. Reserve a spot when checking in, and you'll have 45 minutes all to yourself (and whoever else you choose), to lounge in the hot water.

(Available 15:30 - 23:15/6:00 - 9:45. 2,000 yen plus tax for 45 minutes. )

Benefits of a Ryokan:
2. Also, public onsen!

For that real onsen experience, the way to go is really to share with the rest of the hotel, and enjoy the public baths. The huge baths are a spectacular experience, and Togen Ryokan's examples include facilities built from hinoki cypress, which has a pleasant fragrance that wafts through the air. Sit in the wooden tub and watch the Kurobe River run swiftly by, so close you could almost touch it.

Head back indoors for a boulder bath (岩風呂) and a granite bath (御影石風呂).

(15:00 - 23:30 – rock bath open to men, granite bath open to women.
24:00 - 10:00 – rock bath open to women, granite bath open to men.)

Aside from the smooth stone floor of the bath, the back corner also has headrests, so you can relax, stretch out, and totally submerge yourself.

Before getting in, use their toiletries to clean off. After getting out, take advantage of all the ammenities, from nice face creams to hair dryers! All you need to bring from your room is a towel.

You'll find simple yukata in your room, perfect for relaxing in, but if you want to try on something a little more colorful, you'll find a selection available for rent for 500 yen each. After emerging from the onsen with glowing skin, it's a perfect chance for a little yukata photoshoot.

Benefits of a Ryokan:
3. The kaiseki multi-course meal experience.

Any good ryokan will offer exquisite multi-course traditional Japanese meals, called "kaiseki ryori." At Togen Ryokan the meals are not only delicious, but they also feature some of Toyama's local agricultural specialties. Our meal included seafood like firefly squid (ホタルイカ) and startlelingly fresh abalone, plus some of Toyama's local variety of high-quality wagyu called “himi-gyu” (氷見牛).

Shabu-shabu hotpot with firefly squid, eaten whole.

The melt-in-your-mouth himi-gyu beef, on a little ceramic grill.

Abalone do a morbid little "dance" in the steam, but the unbelievably fresh taste is hard to beat.

See What Kurobe Has to Offer!

With all the natural resources in Kurobe, you know that Unazuki Onsen is going to have some amazing scenery. Not sure where to get an eyeful, though? Let us tell you all about it!

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ① Canyoning!

If you want to push yourself a little further than a little hike in the mountains, Kurobe's deep canyons and rushing rivers provide the perfect location. Try canyoning and you might find yourself an exhilarating new hobby, which still allows you to admire the surrounding natural beauty.

Obviously canyoning is a bit of an extreme sport, and you want the support of experts, especially when you don't know the lay of the land. That's why we went on a tour guided by J-WET Adventures, where the pros coached us through everything and made sure we all had a great time. They lent a helping hand whenever one of us was struggling (mostly the writer herself), and they're there to keep everyone safe. Interested? Here's how to go canyoning in Kurobe:

1. Choose a tour course. (Find your options here.)
- 3 Hour Course: 13+ y.o., 10,000 yen per person.
- 6 Hour Course: 20+ y.o., 15,000 yen per person.
2. Book your tour online, or over the phone.
From the homepage, email them with your details.
- Make phone reservations in English or Japanese.
3. Confirm your reservation completion by e-mail.
4. Meet your J-WET Adventures guides at Nakajima Ski Center
- If you’re staying within a five or ten minute drive, they offer a shuttle service. Just ask!
5. Pay for your tour, get ready to go canyoning, and then go for it! - Don’t forget to bring your bathing suit or clothes you don’t mind soaking through, along with a towel, and anything else they recommend.
- If you use contacts, make sure to bring a pair of goggles.

(Available from early June through to the end of October.)

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ② Unazuki Dam

This dam was built as a hydroelectric power plant, taking advantage of the rushing river's ample energy. In the years it took to build all of the local dams, construction workers settled nearby, breathing life into the Unazuki Onsen area. You could say that the town is now there thanks to the dam!

If you want to hike over to the impressive dam, it's 2.7 km (1.7 miles) from Unazukionsen Station (Google Maps), but you can still see it if you'd rather skip that trip. The Torokko Train passes by, giving you a nice look at the dam!

Nearby you'll also find an aqueduct bridge, designed almost a hundred years ago by Bunzo Yamaguchi, a famous Japanese architect.

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ③ Kurobe Gorge Railway's Torokko Train

One of the key attractions in Unazuki Onsen is the Kurobe Gorge Railway's Torokko Train, the secret to seeing the best local views. Cars don't have access to much of the surrounding mountainous land, but the Torokko Train winds along Kurobe Gorge, showing passengers the spectacular landscape.

Built in 1923, this railway was originally just meant for carrying cargo around the area, but it eventually opened for general passenger use in 1953, and that shift from freight train to passenger rail actually comes with some interesting history. Originally the only passengers on the train were dam workers, riding along with the cargo to get to their construction sites along the Kurobe River. Of course, their eyes weren't exactly closed the whole way, and these construction workers noticed that the route offered some pretty fantastic views. The rumors spread, becoming gossip for the local upper class, many of whom lead lives of leisure. Because the original railway was really just constructed to transport supplies, it was not a safe ride, but the local chatter refused to disappear, and some of the local wealthy started to say "even if the ride might kill me, I just have to get a glimpse of this breathtaking scenery, once in my life!" This brought a new era of sightseeing to the area, with the Torokko Train becoming the go-to method.

Image Source: Kurobe Gorge Railway Official Website

The Route from Unazuki Station to Keyakidaira Station

It's a good idea to do a little planning for your Torokko Train excursion in advance, because it only runs a set number of times a day. Check the official time table, and think about how much time you want to allot for different spots along the route. The ride between each of the stations takes about 20 ~ 30 minutes, and prices vary a little depending on which kind of train car you go in. We took an open-air car, and would definitely recommend it! One way from Unazuki Station to Keyakidaira Station, the length of the train line, costs 1,980 yen (or 990 yen for children).

From end to end, the trip lasts about an hour and ten minutes, but you should really get off at the stations along the way to see the sights. It makes a great day trip! Read on and we'll let you in on all the best things to see along the way.

1. Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅)

There are some cool spots around the very first station, meaning you can check them out before you even get on the train.

Walk up a little hill next to Unazuki Station and you'll find the Yamabiko Observation Deck, which gives you a great look at the orange train rushing through the surrounding green leaves, along a gleaming red bridge.

(Also nearby: if you're carrying any heavy bags or lugging around suitcases, you can stash them in the station's lockers before heading out. You don't want to be dragging bags around the mountains!)

Looking out from the Yamabiko Observation Deck, you'll get a good look at the tracks.

Climb in and take a commemorative Torokko Train photo!
Next to the train yard is a totally free food bath, perfect for resting your tired feet before heading home.

2. Kuronagi Station (黒薙駅)

With a name like Unazuki Onsen, you know the area will have some good hot springs! Water reaching temperatures above 90°C (194°F) gush forth from crevices in the ground. Take a little hike from Kuronagi Station and then stomp down a prodigious staircase, and you'll find the gorgeous Kuronagi Onsen. Bath in the great outdoors, with natural hot spring water lapping up against you, and the cold river flowing just feet away.

One thing to know about this outdoor open-air hot spring is that it's open to people of any gender. You can actually wear a swimsuit in, if you'd be more comfortable that way, but plenty of bathers just go for it. There are some indoor hot springs separated by gender at the next door ryokan.

(Kuronagi Onsen day pass: adults 700 yen, children 300 yen.)

This is the next-door Kuronagi Onsen Ryokan, where you'll find the onsen's reception, and places to stay!

Not far from Kuronagi Station you'll also find Atobiki Bridge (後曳橋), crossing far above the river, at the gorge's deepest and steepest point.

3. Kanetsuri Station (鐘釣駅)

When the weather is right, you can spend time on the river's beach near Kanetsuri Station! Dip into the water and lounge on the sand, or look for one of the spots where onsen water bubbles up through the riverbank. If you surround one of those mini hot springs with some rocks, you can build yourself a private little natural hot tub! (This area is just for local lodgers after 16:00.)

This station is also where you'll find the Kurobe Mannen Yuki (万年雪), or "perpetual snow" bank.

Kurobe's giant "tiramisu"... probably wouldn't taste great.

When we were in the area, we couldn't explore the river's beach because heavy rain had unfortunately raised water levels too high. We did get to see the perpetual snow of the Kurobe Mannen Yuki, though, a snowbank that sticks around even through the heat of summer. It earned the "tiramisu" nickname thanks to the bits of leaves and dust that really do look a bit like cocoa powder from afar, and while we don't really think snow and dirt would taste very good, keep staring long enough and taking a little bite does start to get tempting.

4. Keyakidaira Station (欅平駅)

The final stop on the line is also the biggest, with the station building also containing some fun gift shops and a place to grab a bite while you admire the view. The area around the station is dotted with interesting spots, making it a good place to take some fun pictures to remember the day by!


Want to take a group shot that really encompasses your day out? Look out for this spot, where the drama of the river and the elegant Okukane Bridge make a great backdrop. Take a truly insta-worthy shot, and don't forget to tag #japankuru !


Sarutobikyo (猿飛峡) literally means "monkey jumping gorge." With the two sides of the canyon coming so close here, the locals named it believing that it's where any sane monkey would choose to jump across. We didn't spot any from the observation platform, though!


Stroll under this rocky overhang and you might feel like the craggy edges are closing in to eat you right up, which is why the spot's name (hitokuiiwa, 人喰岩)  literally means "people-eating crag."


Bridges for transport, bridges for hydroelectric powder, and bridges for sightseeing, you'll find all three in Unazuki Onsen. The Okukane Bridge (奥鐘橋) is the last kind, built to help sightseers get a good look at the Kurobe Gorge as they walk the bridge's length.


You'll probably be eating lunch at Keyakidaira Station's food court, but you'll still get a view of the lovely scenery while you sample the local specialty of "black ramen." Before getting on your return train, don't forget to run to the roof for a last chance to take in your surroundings.

What's With the Tunnels?

During your trip, you might notice a little tunnel following alongside the Torokko train tracks. Think back to the train's origins, and you'll remember that it was used to bring supplies to dam workers. Well, that particular part of the train's function has never disappeared, since the train still reaches places that other vehicles can't. Unfortunately, when the railway stops running in the winter, that also means that the main form of transportation between the town and the dams is cut off, halting the standard train deliveries of food supplies and newspapers that go to the dam maintenance workers.

Of course, everyone knows this is coming every year, and the show must go on! So when winter rolls around, the tunnels are regularly traversed by workers called "forwarders" (逓送さん), who take on the burden of delivering necessary items. No matter the weather, these forwarders slog through the tunnels and make sure their colleagues doing maintenance have the things they need, carrying the precious cargo in big backpacks. Saddled with the goods, the trek takes about two hours there and another two back. What a job!

(The Torokko Train runs from April to November every year.)

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ④ Local Specialties for Foodies

Known for seafood fresh from Toyama Bay, Kurobe is a great place to try some new oceanic delicacies. The bay's abundant plankton means that 500 or so varieties of fish make their home nearby, plus some great seafood that you'll only find here.

Japanese Glass Shrimp (白エビ)

"The Treasure of Toyama", these jewel-like shrimp can only be caught in Toyama Bay. Locally you might find them deep-fried as crunchy bar food, or you can head to Togen Ryokan to try carefully shelled glass shrimp sashimi. If you head to the Keyakidaira Station food court and aren't in the mood for ramen, the shrimp curry is also a great choice! Our impression was that the Japanese glass shrimp gave the curry a cleaner, more refreshing flavor than pork or beef might have.

Firefly Squid (ホタルイカ)

Firefly squid bioluminesce when found in the water of Toyama or Hyogo Prefectures, but catch the little squid and you can prepare them in a number of ways. If you pickle them in a mix of soy sauce and sake, as "okizuke", they're supposed to be so delicious that just the squid and some white rice will be all you need. A more unusual preparation of firefly squid is as shabu-shabu hotpot, which you can sample at Togen Ryokan.

⇩ How to enjoy firefly squid shabu-shabu. ⇩

Unazuki Onsen, Kurobe
Enjoy Japan's great outdoors!

Whether you're in Japan with family or friends, a day on the Torokko Train or canyoning through Kurobe Gorge is a fun way to see the natural beauty of Japan's landscape. Delicious local agricultural specialties, dynamic activities, and views you'll never get tired of, Kurobe has everything you need.

Be sure to look out for more exciting articles every day at JAPANKURU!
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