The tiny Japanese prefecture of Toyama is set to emerge like a beautiful butterfly, writes Kris Madden.
Surrounded by mountains on three sides, embracing a deep bay, Japan’s Toyama Prefecture may only be 50km from north to south, but it punches well above its weight in attractions for a region of its size.
Within easy reach by train from Tokyo and a pleasant gateway to skiing, snowboarding and summer hiking in the Japan Alps, if you look on a map, Toyama is shaped like a butterfly.
The capital, Toyama City, is located almost at the centre of the prefecture, with attractions ranging from the ancient to the ultra-modern. Over the past 300 years, it has also become famous throughout Japan as the ‘City of Medicine’.
One of the most interesting places to visit is the store run by the Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten Company, where you can experience the art of traditional medicine making, or take in a ‘medicinal meal’ at the restaurant above the shop.
At the nearby Koukando History Museum and Museum of Medicine Peddlers, you can learn all about the history of this business of old Toyama. The museum exhibits precious articles including tools used by the travelling doctors.
Toyama Castle, first built in the Edo period around 1543, and set in a pleasant park, has been well restored after WWII and contains the Museum of Local History. The park also has another museum – the Sato Memorial Museum – which exhibits a range of beautiful antiques.
Toyama Bay, dubbed ‘nature’s fishtank’, is one of the richest fishing areas in Japan, with many fish species not found elsewhere in the country. Don’t miss the sushi, which is regarded as some of Japan’s best. It matches well with local sake brewed from the clear waters of the Alps.
Kamaboko (steamed fish paste cakes) carved in all shapes from Mount Fuji to dolls, are another speciality of the region, and have been used as lucky charms for wedding ceremonies since the olden days.
Takaoka City, 15 minutes by train from Toyama City, with its 400-yearold history, is the birthplace of Ecchu culture, and is renowned for its superb craftsmanship in copper and lacquerware.
The art of making the bowls
We visit the tiny single-roomed 100 year old shop of Shimani Shouryu Kobo, who is one of only 10 people in Japan with the craft of making ‘O-Rin’, a bell used for Buddhist altars. The Rin Master explains that the art of making the bowls is in making the sound last longer through shape and thickness. He bangs the bell to demonstrate and the sound of the Rin lingers long after it has been rung. Afterwards, a visit to the beautiful Zuiryu-ji Temple, designated a National Treasure, allows us to see the bowls in place. Takaoka lacquerware was also designated a traditional craft in 1975, and there are beautiful examples to buy from small plates to furniture.
Ainokura gassho village
The historic rural village of Gokayama, around 90 minutes’ drive from Toyama City, is a UNESCO World Heritagelisted site, where you can stay in one of the old thatched-roof houses called Gassho-zukuri. These precious examples of old farmhouse style houses only exist in two places in Japan: Gokayama and Shirakawa-go in Gifu.
There are 23 Gassho-style houses at Ainokura, including our home for the night – Syoshichi – a 200 year-old gassho-style inn. Looking like a fusion of a traditional European thatched roof, coupled with the sharp triangular shape of a mountain chalet, the name ‘gassho’ comes from the Japanese word for prayer, because the shape of the houses was thought to resemble hands clasped together.
Our host, Mr Ikehata, has collected many of the ingredients for our dinner: wild mushrooms and vegetables that grow in the mountains and fish caught from the cold, clear mountain streams. Sitting around the hearth, dining with and listening to a master storyteller, are just some of the pleasures of staying at this World Heritage Site.
Beyond the city, the Kurobe Valley – a hidden scenic spot you can travel to by gondola – and the Unazuki-onsen – one of the most famous hot springs in the Hokuriku region – are other must-see spots among many.
Old meets new
Contrasting the ancient with the contemporary, Toyama also boasts a new Starbucks, of which the residents are very proud. It was awarded the ultimate store design prize of all Starbucks worldwide. From the large windows one can gaze over Tenmoin Bridge, a prime cherry blossom viewing spot in spring.
The people of Toyama are also very excited about the new Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) and their sparkling new train station which opened in March this year. The new high-speed train makes access to Toyama much easier, connecting with Tokyo in a little over two hours – where previously it took three and a half. With this new access, the butterfly of Toyama is set to emerge.