Hokuriku Shinkansen Explore Japan

Hokuriku Shinkansen Explore Japan

Discover the Beauty of Japan on the Hokuriku Shinkansen

The Hokuriku Shinkansen (or Hokuriku "bullet train") is a high-speed train line operated jointly by JR East and JR West connecting the Japanese capital, Tokyo, on the Pacific Coast with Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea Coast to the north-west.

The Hokuriku area is the four prefectures of Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui, immortalized in the novel Snow Country by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author, Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972). The Hokuriku Shinkansen currently links Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa and is due to extend to Fukui in 2022. And although it goes through Niigata, most of that prefecture, including its main Niigata City, is accessed by the Joetsu Shinkansen line, which splits off at Takasaki.

Hokuriku Shinkansen, Japan.
Hokuriku Shinkansen

In March 2015, a new stretch of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line opened, between Nagano and Kanazawa, further reducing the time needed to reach some of central Japan's most beautiful and least-visited places. The newly accessible Kanazawa is just 2 hours, 30 minutes away from Tokyo on the fastest of the line's trains.

The journey to Kanazawa from Tokyo is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, making this pleasant and exciting journey north and west from Tokyo an enticing option for both first-time and veteran visitors to Japan.

Depart Tokyo Station on a luxurious, new train with stops in greater Tokyo at Ueno Station and Omiya in Saitama. At Omiya you could break your journey and change to the Tobu Urban Park Line for a side trip to Kasukabe to see the modern architectural wonders of the Kasukabe Underground Flood Protection Tank, where the monstrous subterranean caverns protect Tokyo from possible inundation.

The Edo period buildings and temples of Kawagoe are also close to Omiya. Kawagoe offers an historic atmosphere reminiscent of old Japanese towns. Many wooden houses that once belonged to merchants line the old part of town and Kita-in Temple is well worth a visit to see its quirky statues of the 500 Rakan.

Kumagaya, the next stop, also in Saitama Prefecture, offers access via the Chichibu Main Line to the idyllic, rural areas of Nagatoro, Wadokuroya, Chichibu and Mitsumineguchi: all of them historic areas with a tale to tell and ideal for a quick and easy getaway from Tokyo for hiking and strolling in the hills.

Next up, Takasaki, in Gunma Prefecture, is less than an hour from Tokyo Station. Takasaki is the main production center of daruma dolls in Japan. These cute, Buddhist good luck charms, come in all colors, shapes and sizes and are ideal as a souvenir of your time in Japan. Buy a daruma in Takasaki at Jiganin Temple to make a wish come true on your return home.

Also in Takasaki, the Byakue Kannon (White-Robed Kannon), is a huge statue of Buddha in the Kannonyama district, south-west of the station. At over 40 meters (130 feet) tall, it's one of the biggest in Japan and well worth the visit.

Kawagoe Bell Tower, Saitama, Japan.
Kawagoe Bell Tower, Saitama
Kita-in Temple, Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan.
Kita-in Temple, Kawagoe, Saitama

Saitama - Kawagoe

The Edo period buildings and temples of Kawagoe are also close to Omiya. Kawagoe offers an historic atmosphere reminiscent of old Japanese towns. Many wooden houses that once belonged to merchants line the old part of town and Kita-in Temple is well worth a visit to see its quirky statues of the 500 Rakan.

Kawagoe, became known as "little Edo" due to the prosperity of its citizens, who constructed over 200 kurazukuri warehouses to store goods on their way into Edo (Tokyo) via the Kawagoe-kaido highway. These warehouses were expensive to build and had thick clay walls to secure them from fire and thieves.

Kawagoe, Saitama, Japan.
Kawagoe traditional street, Saitama

This warehouse district, Kurazukuri no Machinami, now preserves about 30 of the classic warehouses and includes that well-known landmark of Kawagoe, the Toki no Kane (Bell Tower), which is now rung four times a day.

Some kurazukuri have been turned into small museums, such as the Kurazukuri Shiryokan, an old tobacco warehouse rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1893, which also claimed the original Bell Tower, which was also reconstructed in 1894. Others host souvenir shops or cafes.

Kawagoe Castle was dismantled in the 1870's but the Honmaru Goten, where the feudal lord dwelt, still stands, and is well-worth a visit.

Kawagoe also has a number of temples of interest, chief among these is Kita-in, an important Tendai sect temple which includes the only remaining original buildings from Edo Castle.

One of the richly-decorated rooms is believed to be where Iemitsu (1604-1651), the third Shogun, was born. The grounds of Kita-in contain over 500 statues of the disciples of Buddha (rakan) and a shrine - Toshogu - dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa dynasty, Ieyasu. Kita-in Temple celebrates a popular daruma festival in January where visitors can purchase a doll to wish for good luck.

Kawagoe has a number of excellent traditional Japanese sweet shops congregated in Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley). Here around 20 traditional stores sell Japanese confectioneries such as rice crackers and sweets made with sweet potatoes and red bean paste. The atmospheric environment of the street is reminiscent of past days.

Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley), Kawagoe.
Kashiya Yokocho (Candy Alley), Kawagoe

Gunma - Takasaki & Kusatsu Onsen

Takasaki offers easy access to Kusatsu Onsen, a major hot spring resort in Japan. Indeed, Kusatsu Onsen is one of Japan's "Three Famous Springs" (Nihon Sanmeisen) along with Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture near Kobe and Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture.

Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture.
Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture

Don't miss the Yumomi Dance inside the Netsu-no-Yu Bathhouse. This special performance sees dancers singing Japanese folk songs, while dancing around the hot spring baths with long wooden planks. During this performance the water is cooled down using the planks as paddles. Certain people from the audience are selected to participate, so be ready to dance! Performance times are shown outside Netsu-no-Yu Bathhouse (500 yen).

Kusatsu Onsen holds the record for the largest volume of spring water of any hot spring in Japan and has been drawing visitors to its healing waters since the Edo period. It is estimated that over 32,000 liters of spring water are released every minute, which adds up to almost 18 and a half Olympic swimming poolfuls of hot water every day.

Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture.
Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture

Kusatsu Onsen holds the record for the largest volume of spring water of any hot spring in Japan and has been drawing visitors to its healing waters since the Edo period. It is estimated that over 32,000 liters of spring water are released every minute,which adds up to almost 18 and a half Olympic swimming poolfuls of hot water every day.

The chemical make-up of the water at Kusatsu Onsen includes sulfur, iron, alum, aluminum sulfate, chloride and arsenic - all, of course, in quantities well below those harmful to human health (but under no circumstances to be ingested!) The water temperatures ranging from 60 to 67 degrees Centigrade. These chemical elements are anti-bacterial, so the water is held to help mitigate a number of ailments including arthritis, diabetes, fatigue, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, burns and muscular disorders.

Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture.
Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture

The "slow" shinkansen stops at Iiyama (Nagano), Joetsumyoko (Niigata), Itoigawa (Niigata) and Kurobe-Unazukionsen (Toyama). We are now in Japan's "Snow Country," and from Iiyama there is easy access to the Nozawa Onsen Snow Resort.

The Joetsumyoko area is famous for its snow, sake and salmon while Itoigawa is where the Japan Alps meet the sea. Itoigawa Global Geopark is an outstanding area of natural beauty famous for its pebble beaches and deposits of jade.

Kurobe-Unazukionsen gives access to one of Japan's most scenic places - the Kurobe Gorge, a deep ravine in the Northern Japan Alps famous for its fall colors. Ride the 20km (12-mile)-long Kurobe Gorge Railway, built for the construction of the towering Kurobe Dam (Japan's highest dam at 186 meters [610 feet]) from Unazuki Onsen to Keyakidaira passing through numerous tunnels and bridges, the latter with spectacular views of the gorge below.

Itoigawa Onsen, Niigata Prefecture.
Itoigawa Onsen, Niigata Prefecture

Niigata - Itoigawa

Next stop on the slower Hokuriku Shinkansen is Itoigawa, a small city on the Sea of Japan known for its geological heritage. In recognition of the area's geological wonders, Itoigawa became the first member of the Japanese Geoparks Network and is also a part of the Global Geoparks Network.

The 1,188 meter-tall Mt. Myojo, is one such feature formed from these ancient coral reefs and contains a number of marine fossils. The 450 meter limestone rock face is popular with rock climbers from Japan and overseas.

The nearby Takanami-no-ike Pond has views of Mt. Myojo and legend has it that the mountain lake, at an altitude of 540 meters is inhabited by a huge fish called "Namitaro".

Takaname-no-ike Pond.
Takaname-no-ike Pond, Niigata

The area as a whole rises from sea level along the coast up to 2,766 meters at the top of Mount Korenge. Renge Onsen, at an elevation of 1,475 meters, has a number of outside baths set in a natural mountain environment with fantastic views of the surrounding peaks. Here hot water bubbles to the surface of the mountain accompanied by billowing clouds of steam.

Itoigawa is also known for its jade which has become a symbol of this area of Japan. The Kotakigawa Gorge at the foot of Mt. Myojo is home to considerable deposits of this precious stone. Other materials that have been extracted from the mineral-rich area include coal at the Kotaki Coal Mine and gold at Hashidate Goldmine. Back in the Edo period Itoigawa was the start of the "Salt Road" that transported sea salt from the Japan Sea coast to Edo (present-day Tokyo).

Hisui-en Garden, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture.
Hisui-en Garden, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture

Jade is also a theme in the beautiful Hisui-en Garden, where jadeite rocks have been used throughout this modern Japanese garden, which also uses the surrounding mountains for "borrowed scenery." Hisui-en, which opened in 1978, covers an area of 17,000 square meters with three waterfalls, a pine grove, a pond, and a large number of stones and boulders containing jade. Visitors can relax and enjoy a snack in the garden on a jade table, while taking in the views of the garden and surrounding mountains.

Close by is the Gyokusui-en Garden which opened in 1981 and is another beautiful strolling garden. An 8 meter statue of Kannon in natural stone stands at the entrance.

Virtually next door is the impressive Tanimura Art Museum, designed by architect Togo Murano, which exhibits 10 exquisite Buddhist statues by Sawada Seiko.

All three facilities: Hisui-en, Guokusui-en and the Tanimura Art Gallery can be entered on a combined ticket and are a short walk south from Itoigawa Station.

Toyama - Gokayama

Zuiryuji Temple, Takaoka, Toyama.
Zuiryuji, Takaoka, Toyama Prefecture

From Toyama ride one stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Shin-Takaoka Station within easy reach of the superb Zuiryuji Temple - a large, very stately Edo period Soto Zen temple known for its long, wooden corridors which are unique among Japanese temple architecture.

Takaoka also boasts a pleasant castle park and its emblematic Daibutsu, a copper statue of the Buddha cast in 1933. From either Takaoka Station or Shin-Takaoka Station there are buses to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gokayama, famous for the gassho-zukuri ("praying hands") style of large A-frame, thatched farm houses in the villages of Suganuma and Ainokura, around Mt. Gokayama itself.

Gokoyama, Toyama Prefecture.
Gokayama, Toyama Prefecture

Suganuma lies 15km north of Ogimachi in a beautiful location near a bend in the Sho River surrounded by hills.

The village consists of 14 gassho-zukuri farmhouses with the oldest dating back to 1830's during the late Edo Period. The newer farmhouses date from around 1925. The village also has a small Shinto shrine, Jishu Jinja.

Although Suganuma is the smallest of the three gassho-zukuri villages it has two museums: Gokayama Minzoku-kan (Tel: 0763 67 3652; admission 210 yen), which has displays of local folk crafts and Ensho no Yakata (Tel: 0763 67 3662; admission 210 yen), which has displays of the secret gunpowder production that took place here. A joint admission ticket for the two museums costs 300 yen.

Ainokura, 4km north of Kaminashi and 10km north of Suganuma, is another extremely beautifully located village with 23 gassho-zukuri farmhouses and a small shrine and temple. The village has stone walls and small copses of trees to help protect the vegetable patches and other cultivated areas from the heavy winter snow of the region.

The gassho-zukuri farmhouses in the Gokayama district have slightly steeper roofs than those in Shirakawa-go as the snow is heavier in this region.

The Gokayama district is known for its folk songs that have been passed down orally for generations. Both Suganuma and Ainokura are at their best in spring for the cherry blossoms and in fall for the autumn colors.

Ishikawa - Kanazawa & Kenrokuen

Currently the last stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen is Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture. From your arrival at Kanazawa Station, which has one of the most striking designs of any station in Japan (and is in the top ten for most beautiful stations in the world), the city is full of delights.

Kenrokuen Garden, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Kenrokuen Garden, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture

Chief among these is Kenrokuen, one of Japan's top three gardens,the other two being Korakuen in Okayama and Kairakuen in Mito. The name of Kenrokuen literally means, "the garden of six sublimities" or, "a garden combining the six aspects of a perfect garden". These six features were what the Chinese traditionally believed were necessary for the ideal garden - spaciousness & seclusion, artifice & antiquity, water-courses & panoramas. It is rare to find a garden that combines all these characteristics and so the people of Kanazawa are particularly proud of theirs.

Kenrokuen is big, covering over 11 hectares (almost 25 acres) so in spite of being one of Japan's most popular tourist attractions, you're usually able to find a corner just for yourself. One of the best places to retreat to is at the top of either of the two small hills in the garden - Yamazakiyama is at the back of garden as you come in past the Kasumigaike (pond) and keep walking straight on.

Yamazakiyama has a lovely little shelter and bench (useful if it is raining) where you can look down through the trees. The other is Sazaeyama, reached by a winding path up to the side of Uchihashitei (tea house). Very few visitors make the effort to climb up here and you will have wonderful views over the pond, the tea house and the Kotoji-toro stone lantern at the far end of the pond. In winter when the leaves aren't so thick, you can see right down the hill into the city of Kanazawa and onto the river. The only people here are usually those sketching or simply contemplating peacefully.

Kanazawa Castle in snow, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Kanazawa Castle, Ishikawa Prefecture

Close by is Kanazawa Castle the seat of power of the local Maeda clan (the Maeda family were the hereditary feudal lords [daimyo] of the local Kaga province from 1583). Kanazawa is also famous for its traditional arts and crafts, chief among them gold leaf, along with pottery, lacquerware and kimono-dyeing.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa.
21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa

Kanazawa is not just old and traditional, however. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa is a beautiful, low-rise glass circle by architects

Sejima Kazuyo and Nishizawa Ryue/SANAA, which features contemporary art, exhibitions and installations from around the world. The building has won many prizes,both in Japan and overseas, for its stunning, contemporary design. The 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art Kanazawa exhibits modern Japanese and international art as well as related exhibitions from the fields of film, music and performance art.

The list of artists whose work can be seen at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is Kanazawa long and includes such luminaries as Kusama Yayoi, Damien Hirst, Anish Kapoor and Runa Islam. The museum's acquisition policy is to collect works from 1980 onwards that "propose new values."

This wealth of Hokuriku recreational and cultural experiences is all yours by way of the easy, comfortable, high-speed Hokuriku Shinkansen that, with a Japan Rail Pass, is also very economical. The above sights and activities are just some of the stars of a huge cast of Hokuriku adventures that are yours for the making.

Hokuriku Shinkansen Explore Japan II
Hokuriku Shinkansen Explore Japan III

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