Hokuriku Shinkansen Explore Japan: Journey on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
The Hokuriku Shinkansen (Hokuriku "bullet train") is a quick and easy way to access the beauties of the Hokuriku region of north central Honshu. The Hokuriku Shinkansen is managed jointly by JR East and JR West and links Tokyo with Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture on the Japan Sea Coast. The whole journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass and with the opening of the Nagano to Kanazawa stretch of the route in March 2015, the whole Tokyo-Kanazawa journey takes just 2 hours and 30 minutes.
The Hokuriku region consists of the four prefectures of Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa and Fukui though the Hokuriku Shinkansen also passes through Saitama and Nagano prefectures on its way to Kanazawa.
Saitama Prefecture, closest to Tokyo, is a prefecture largely ignored by many visitors to Japan, but which has much to offer.
Saitama - Chichibu
Kumagaya, once a silk market post town on the old Nakasendo highway, is only 38 minutes from Tokyo Station on a Toki or Asama Shinkansen train. From Kumagaya, the Chichibu Railway provides easy access to the scenic and historical delights of Saitama's mountainous Chichibu district in the mountains and river valleys in the west of the prefecture.
Nagatoro is a particularly popular spot for day trippers from Tokyo for hiking, river boat tours and wild water sports in largely unspoiled nature. Especially popular are hour-long cruises in traditional wooden boats on the Arakawa River, notably in the autumn leaf viewing season in late October and November.
Shallow bottomed tour boats steered by two men with long, wooden poles carry about 20 passengers past high rock walls and through some excitingly rough rapids.
Misotsuchi no Tsurara ("The Icicles of Misotsuchi") is a wintertime natural phenomenon also on the Arakawa River in the Chichibu area of Saitama prefecture. Visible only in the depths of winter from around mid-January to mid-February, the icicles are illuminated every evening from 5pm-9pm and make for an awe-inspiring spectacle. Viewing platforms have been erected and there are stalls serving warming local delicacies.
Also in the Chichibu area, and of great natural beauty, is Hitsujiyama Park at the foot of the impressive Mt. Buko. The park is known for its massive carpet of pink and white Moss Phloxes (shibasakura in Japanese) in April and early May. There are an estimated 40 million plants of nine species covering an area of 17.6 hectares (over 4 acres).
Hitsujiyama Park takes on a festival-like atmosphere especially at weekends and public holidays. There are beer gardens and vendors of various foods including fried fish and barbecued meat plus tennis courts and a petting zoo. Expect big crowds for this fun, floral extravaganza.
Gunma - Minakami Onsen Region
From Saitama Prefecture, the Hokuriku Shinkansen passes into Gunma Prefecture and the pleasant town of Takasaki famous for its production of cute round wooden daruma dolls, purchased to bring good fortune or make a wish come true.
From Takasaki you can easily access the Minakami area of the Japanese Alps and the snow resorts and onsen (hot springs) of Gunma Prefecture. Travel through Numata and Jomo Onsen into the lofty mountains of the Minakami area with peaks such as Mt. Hotaka and Mt. Shibutsu, both well over 2,000 meters (6,600 feet).
Minakami Onsen area is accessible by a 15-minute shinkansen ride from Takasaki Station to Jomo-Kogen Station, followed by a 20-minute bus ride from Jomo-Kogen Station.
The Minakami Onsen area in the mountains of northern Gunma Prefecture contains a number of different hot spring resorts. These include Takaragawa Onsen, Hoshi Onsen, Sarugakyo Onsen, Tanigawa Onsen and Yubiso. These onsen in Gunma, along with Kusatsu Onsen, are considered by many onsen connoisseurs to be the best in Japan.
Takaragawa Onsen, known for its remote, riverside hot springs, is particularly beautiful and its historic ryokan guesthouses are extremely popular at weekends and public holidays (so book as far ahead as you can). The natural setting here is unforgettably adorned in autumn colors or, in winter, under deep gleaming snow. Takaragawa Onsen's baths are, unusually, for mixed-sex bathing, and with just one women-only bath for ladies who'd rather not.
Takaragawa Onsen is one of the 18 hot springs in Minakami Onsenkyo (Minakami Onsen Region). Tamagawa Onsen was the only Japanese hot spring selected by Reuters for the world's best ten.
Niigata - Sado-ga-shima
Situated off the coast of Niigata city and reached by high speed ferry, Sado Island, was long a place of banishment throughout Japanese history. Emperor Juntoku (1197-1242), Nichiren (1222-1282), the founder of Nichiren Buddhism, and Noh master Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) were all exiled here.
Gold was discovered on Sado in 1601 and the wealth that was extracted from its gold mines (Sado Kinzan) in the town of Aikawa helped finance the Tokugawa government in Edo (now Tokyo). The miners worked in terrible conditions using only simple tools. One of the symbols of gold-mining on Sado is the Doyu-no-wareto outcrop where a small hill has been cut away by human hands in search of gold.
The Sado Island Gold Mine & Museum is a must for visitors interested in Japanese history. There are two shafts: the earlier one dating from the Edo Period and mostly dug by hand and a later one started in the Meiji Period when Western machinery was introduced and the work was supervised by a German mining engineer.
Sado Gold Mine was Japan's largest gold mine and was in operation from 1601, when gold was first discovered, for 388 years until 1989, when mining operations finally ended at the site. In total, 15,000,000 tons of ore were mined at Sado Kinzan producing 78 tons of gold and 2,300 tons of silver.
After spending time underground you may now be in need of some fresh sea air. The northern coast of Sado Island has some very craggy cliffs – some almost fjord-like - and small bays which can be directly approached or enjoyed from tour boats when the weather allows.
The symbol of Sado is without doubt the Japanese Crested Ibis (toki), images of which can be seen throughout the island adorning advertising signs, tourist posters, noren curtains on shops and restaurants, and even sake bottles.
The Japanese Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon) became extinct on the island in the 20th century but is now being reintroduced with birds from China. This small wildlife conservation success story means that there are now thought to be around 2,000 birds in existence in the wild in China, South Korea and Japan.
Toyama - Toyama Glass Art Museum
After Niigata, journey west along the rugged Japan Sea Coast into neighboring Toyama Prefecture.
Toyama provides the ideal base to explore the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in April through early June when visitors can travel along snow corridors in the Northern Japan Alps on roads sometimes banked with up to nearly 20 meters (65 feet) of snow.
The route from Toyama in Toyama Prefecture to Omachi in Nagano Prefecture includes segments by cable car, ropeway and trolley bus through outstanding natural scenery. In summer, the highest peaks around Murodo afford walkers and hikers beautiful mountain views as well as the scent of the numerous alpine flowers that bloom on these high altitude slopes.
Friendly, laid-back Toyama city is known for its traditional industries of alternative medicine (as well as modern pharmaceuticals) and glassware. Beautiful, contemporary glass art and artifacts from Japan and around the world are on display within the striking modern architecture of the Toyama Glass Art Museum.
Fugan Canal Kansui Park is rated the number one thing to do in Toyama by Japanese users of TripAdvisor and is just a short walk from Toyama Station. The spacious lawns, canals, ponds and bridges are reminiscent of scenes from the Netherlands and from here visitors can enjoy a leisurely boat trip along the canal to the coast. Fugan Canal Kansui Park is also home to maybe the world's most imposing Starbucks coffee shop, overlooking the still, calm waters of the lake and its rich birdlife.
Ishikawa - Wajima
Finally we arrive in Ishikawa Prefecture and the present terminus of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in Kanazawa. From here it is no longer possible, unfortunately, to explore the Noto Peninsula to the north by train, so visitors must strike out by bus or rental car. Most people head for Wajima, famous for its lacquerware, the Kiriko Lantern Festival, morning market and the Senmaida rice terraces.
For a small town, Wajima offers quite a bit to see and do. The best way to start a day in Wajima is a visit to the Morning Market, known locally as the Asa Ichi. The market starts at 8am and stretches for about 350 m along a pedestrian street in central Wajima with the easily recognizable name Asa Ichi Dori.
The market in Wajima claims a history of more than 1,000 years which means that its origins are somewhere in the Heian Period (794 - 1185). It is one of the oldest continuously operating markets in Japan.
Wajima is Japan's capital of lacquer and the best place to purchase a lacquerware souvenir to take home.
Ishikawa Wajima Urushi Art Museum has a great collection of lacquerware on display, or visit the Wajima Kobo Nagaya studio where you can see artists creating it. You can purchase lacquerware bowls, trays, chopsticks, cutlery and other items at many places in Wajima. Try the shops on the same street as the Morning Market.
The Kiriko Kaikan houses the huge paper lanterns paraded in Wajima's summer and autumn festivals. During the Kiriko Lantern Festival, great wooden lanterns are carried through the city. These lanterns, called kiriko, are four to six meters tall and demand a keen sense of balance when borne through the streets. Loud shouting between the men holding the ropes that keep the kiriko in place serves to coordinate every move - and provides a unique sound track to the ceremonies.
North up the coast in Senmaida, which means "1,000 rice paddies" and, (almost) true to its name, there are 1,004 tiny rice fields, each on a terrace close to cliffs, stretching stair-like down to the sea. The Senmaida Rice Terraces are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for their long agricultural tradition. They are illuminated in winter making for a spectacular sight.
Speaking of rice, the Koshihikari rice that you are sure to be served on your travels in Hokuriku is one of Japan's best-tasting varieties of rice, and was bred here in Hokuriku in the 1950's.
Awaiting you are the bounty of Eastern Honshu's nature, recreational opportunities aplenty, the region's culture, industry, history and, most importantly, its people. It's as simple as boarding the Hokuriku Shinkansen and speeding in comfort to meet a more tranquil, settled - and always welcoming - heartland of Japan.