The train event

Old and new blend on a mem­o­rable rail trip

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - JU­DITH ELEN

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-


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.

• ja­ • for­ • •

Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Toyama Pre­fec­ture.

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