The train event
Old and new blend on a memorable rail trip
As I journey between Tokyo and Toyama, adding in side trips to Takayama and Takaoka, a soundtrack plays in my head. With all those T towns, plus the fabulous new train that gets me there, Duke Ellington’s A Train has become the “T Train”. And the T Train plays a key role in a curious conjunction of old and new.
I’m here just days after the March opening of Japan’s latest high-speed rail link. The Hokuriku Shinkansen bullet train has extended the Tokyo to Nagano Shinkansen line all the way to the Sea of Japan, adding new trains and seven gleaming stations. The line sweeps northwest from Tokyo to Toyama Bay, via Nagano, then on to Kanazawa on Honshu’s west coast. The sleek-nosed pearly-white and blue trains, with side-flashes in burnished copper (standing for Hokuriku’s traditional copper inlay crafts), were designed under the supervision of Kiyoyuki Okuyama, feted as the first non-Italian to design a Ferrari.
There are two services. The fastest, Kagayaki, stops at only three stations between Tokyo and Kanazawa, while Hakutaka trains service most stops on the new line. Both offer Standard, Green (first) and luxurious Gran-class options. High-backed standard seats are in a three-two configuration. Green-class cars, stylishly decorated in two-tone grey and jonquil yellow, have two-two seating. And Gran-class cars are the icing on the cake. Carpeted in dark rust-red, with large individual windows and six rows of twoby-two seats in creamy quilted leather upholstery that recline to 45 degrees, they have head and footrests, armrest consoles, tables, desk lights, partitions and shoe trays. They would look snugly at home in the pointy end of a plane. (All classes have in-seat power points.)
Reaching a silky smooth 260km/h, Hokuriku Shinkansen is the height of 21st-century land travel, yet it links sites steeped in some of Japan’s oldest heritage.
Kanazawa, the line’s ultimate destination, embodies Japan’s mix of innovation and tradition with its famous feudal castle in a city of wide boulevards, sleek shops and one of Asia’s leading modern art museums. I’m not staying aboard, but leaving the train at Toyama, a little more than two hours from Tokyo (90 minutes shaved from the old trip). And adding to all this novelty, or perhaps tradition, we leave Tokyo’s city streets to head for hills shrouded (in places, deeply banked) in snow.
We’re four women with an interest in food and shopping, so tearing ourselves away from GranSta, the “station market” ensconced in the basement of Tokyo Station, is a wrench. But we’re soon gliding through dormitory suburbs, which give way to vegetable fields, rice paddies and, finally, our first snow, with local children skiing between the trees down trackside hills.
Emerging from the tunnel that links Nagano (site of 1998’s Winter Olympics) and Toyama prefectures, the distant Tateyama mountains materialise on our left, with the Sea of Japan on our right. Nineteenth-century climber Walter Weston described the Toyama plain as “a mag-
IN THE KNOW
The funky guidebook Tokyo Precincts by Steve Wide and Michelle Mackintosh (Hardie Grant, $39.95) is divided into 19 neighbourhoods and the creators have winkled out the best shopping, d dining and unexpected finds. There are maps for each precinct and handy transport tips; a bunch of T Tokyo artists and designers also reveal their favourite haunts. nificent amphitheatre enclosed on three sides by tall peaks”; on the fourth, is the sea.
It’s the high country we’re headed for. We step from the train into brand new Toyama station, another shrine to modern rail travel and, by nightfall, we’re in a remote highlands village, tramping through deep-packed snow in the rapidly falling dusk. We’re headed for a vantage spot to catch a last glimpse over the clustered village of dark gassho houses below, their yellow pinpoints of light gleaming into the snowy landscape. This is one of two villages founded in the 11th century at Gokayama (nearby Gifu Prefecture has a third; all are UNESCO listed).
The heavily thatched roofs of these farmhouses, some from the Edo era of the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, form a deep A-line that shelters multiple floors within. One house reaches five floors, most have three or four, the upper levels capturing the heat rising from the human activity below. Attics here have traditionally kept silkworms snug in the wintry depths. Mountainous, and inaccessible until recent years, the region’s few marketable products have been paper made from native mulberry tree fibre, and sericulture, the cultivation of silkworms and raw silk thread.
We stay overnight in one of these houses, eating a traditional dinner around a fireplace sunken into the floor beneath a heavy, suspended iron pot, sleeping (well wrapped-up) on tatami matting and bathing in the hot-tub bathhouse a few steps through the snow. The village and steep, wooded landscape are buried in white mounds lasting into April, but every season has its treasures here.
In the morning we drive to the Amaharashi coast, visiting a solitary, windswept beach before boarding a little blue train at the local station. Cartoon characters cover the train in celebration of a much-loved local artist. Stepping from one travel extreme to another, we’re still on time.
Precisely 21 minutes later, we’re at Takaoka in Toyama Prefecture. Here, the region’s traditional bronze workers have crafted the Great Buddha; we walk in Takaoka Kojo Park with its castle ruins and around the vast dark-wood Zuiryuji Temple.
At Shimatani Syouryu, a traditional metalcasting workshop, we meet a father and son (fourth-generation) who are bell-makers for monasteries and temples throughout Japan.
A great speciality here is the unique seafood fished from Toyama Bay, a crucible of waters fed by the region’s rivers and subterranean alpine springs. At an L-shaped counter at tiny Sushikan in Takaoka, another specialist fashions his craft, this time ephemeral art that disappears in minutes, including sushi from local squid (in spring, look for firefly squid), broad velvet shrimp, and winter specialities of fatty yellowtail (buri) and red queen crab.
Heritage-listed Takayama, in nearby Gifu Prefecture, is our next port of call. We take the JR Limited Express Wide-View Hida No 18 (one hour and 28 minutes from Toyama City), which seems to hunker down, as it cuts through driving snow, past white forests, over engine-red bridges. In Takayama, light flakes fall; snow etches grey-stone shrines, dark bells and red torii temple gates; snow crunches underfoot. Takayama’s heritage is different from the farm villages. The Old Town here preserves long-held festival traditions, with spring and autumn parades and, for visitors in between, a museum of towering, intricate, red-and-gold festival floats. Explore the Edo-era government offices (Takayama Jinya), canal-side Miyagawa Morning Market and old sake breweries, still operating and offering a fascinating tasting range.
A couple of nights later, we’re at Shogawaonsen-kyo, a hot-springs temple of tranquillity back in Toyama, enjoying a steamy bath and more memorable seafood.
The following day, before boarding Hokuriku Shinkansen’s Hakutaka service at one of the inbetween stops, we make a final flying visit.
In Toyama’s suburban Kureha Hills 540 stone disciples of the Buddha sit shoulder-to-shoulder in terraced ranks on the east hillside of Chokeiji Temple. They’re the Gohyaku-rakan, protective saints, carved between the 1780s and 1825. Each endearingly individual figure, several wrapped by devotees in a bright scarf or knitted bonnet, stares out at the Tateyama Mountains on the horizon. Keeping an eye on the future, perhaps.
• japan-guide.com • foreign.info-toyama.com • travel.kankou-gifu.jp • jnto.org.au
Judith Elen was a guest of Toyama Prefecture.