Journey on the Hokuriku Shinkansen
Hokuriku Shinkansen (Hokuriku "bullet train") connects Tokyo with Toyama and Kanazawa on the northern coast of Japan. The line was extended past Nagano to these cities in March, 2015.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen reaches Omiya Station in Saitama Prefecture in 25 minutes from Tokyo Station and in just 19 minutes from Ueno Station.
Saitama - Omiya
Omiya was once a post town on the old Nakasendo highway that went through the central mountains of Japan between Tokyo and Kyoto. Now it is a modern, high-rise city, and the Omiya Station area is a cluster of towers.
Saitama Railway Museum was one of the first of Japan’s now numerous excellent railway museums. The Railway Museum preserves many trains from Japan’s rich rail heritage and also provides an insight into the future of rail travel in the country. Visitors can enjoy a meal in a dining car and a ride on a miniature train in the outdoor rail park area.
Saitama’s Bonsai Museum and Bonsai Village are located near each other, between Toro and Omiya Koen stations, and make for a delightful experience for those with an interest in these quaint and elegant little trees.
Shinrin Park, covering an area 65 times larger than Tokyo Dome, is located in rural Saitama Prefecture between Omiya and Takasaki and is a popular place for young families and couples to visit on weekends and national holidays. Shinrin Park is an area of mixed landscapes and includes lakes, rivers, woods and marshes. There are fun opportunities galore here, including an adventure playground for children as well as a disk golf course, a hiking course, jogging course, cycle course (bicycles can be hired in the park), a Segway tour, herb garden and a wild flower garden, plus lots of places to shop, rest and eat. There are even toilets for your dogs and special cakes to feed them. Shinrinkoen Station is the nearest railway station on the Tobu Tojo Line.Kumagaya, another old post town on the Nakasendo, has the nearby Fukaya Cinema, a mini theater with just 57 seats housed in a 300 year old sake brewery. The area has becoming a location for film shoots and draws people for its Showa-era (i.e., pre- and post-WWII) nostalgia.
The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama (MOMAS) located in Kitaurawa Koen Park is the work of award-winning architect Kisho Kurokawa, who also designed the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Art Center in Tokyo and the Ehime Prefectural Science Museum. Set out in a striking grid pattern, the museum exhibits work by artists with a connection to Saitama Prefecture and artists who have influenced them. On display are pieces by Paul Delvaux, Moise Kisling, Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso among other notable artists.
The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama seeks to promote art by residents of the city of Omiya and Saitama Prefecture and provide a space to exhibit it. One fun feature of MOMAS is the number of stylish and artistic chairs in its collection which visitors are encouraged to sit in.
The Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka City, Gunma Prefecture, was the first modern industrial complex in Japan, opening in 1872. The original silk mill buildings from the earliest days of operation are still intact today and form an impressive architectural and historical site. In 2014, the Tomioka Silk Mill was recognized as UNESCO World Heritage, and was the first industrial site in Japan to receive that honor.
The Silk Mill, located in central Tomioka City, has shaped the whole city. For over a century, it was the main industrial site in town, and almost everybody in Tomioka was in some way related to the silk mill. This is still the case today – it’s the silk mill that brings in the visitors and, with them, a good part of the business Tomioka depends on.
The aim of the new silk factory when it opened was not only to produce silk - the most coveted product in Europe at the time - but also to introduce Western industrial production methods to Japan. The silk mill was from its onset a model for the future of an industrialized Japan.
Most buildings within the Tomioka Silk Mill complex date from the 1870’s and they have been kept in their original form. Even the French-made window glass dates back to this period.
Those original buildings include the East Cocoon Warehouse, the cocoon drying facility, the silk reeling plant and Brunat House, where factory director Paul Brunat resided.
About 5 km south of the silk mill is the Gunma Safari Park for an unexpected taste of tropical Africa and its fierce fauna.
Joetsumyoko Station is a new station completed for the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen line in March 2015. It is located in Joetsu City, in Niigata Prefecture’s south-west. North of Joetsumyoko Station is Takada Park with its Takada Castle: a modern reconstruction of part of the original, much grander, fortress. The original castle was first built in 1614 by a son of Tokugawa Ieyasu but flattened during the Meiji Period.
Joetsu City's Takada Park is famous for its 4,000 cherry trees which, during the cherry blossom season, are illuminated at night for beautiful reflections in the old castle moats, and with numerous stalls set up in the park serving refreshments late into the night. The area west of Takada Park still retains something of the atmosphere of an Edo Period castle town with its quaint wooden buildings and sake breweries.
This area of Niigata was once called Echigo province, and was home to the fearsome samurai warriors, and legendary rivals, Kenshin Uesugi and Takeda Shingen. Kenshin Uesugi had his base in nearby Kasugayama Castle.
The areas north and south of Joetsumyoko can be explored using the Echigo Tokimeki Railway's Myoko Haneuma Line, as far south as Myoko-Kogen five stations down (after which the line becomes the Kita-Shinano Line which takes you further south, another seven stations, to Nagano City), and as far north as Naoetsu, four stations up. From Naoetsu, on the coast, you can go west along the coast on the ETR Nihonkai Hisui LIne (connecting you again to the Hokuriku Shinkansen at Itoigawa), or east up the coast on the JR Shin'etsu Line all 136 km to Niigata City.
The fourth station on the Shin’etsu Main Line from Naoetsu is Katamachi Station, and nearby it is Unohama Onsen, a small hot-spring town somewhat off the beaten track with several ryokan: Japanese-style inns where you can enjoy hot baths at your leisure and filling meals of locally-caught seafood twice a day, especially the area’s signature snow crabs, when in season.
Go south from Joetsumoyo on the Myoko Haneuma Line, and the ski resorts of the Myoko Kogen mountains offer some of the best skiing in Japan or, for that matter, the whole of Asia. Located within the Joshinetsu National Park are Niigata Prefecture’s two highest peaks, Mt Myoko and Mt. Hiuchi, both just over 2,450 meters (8,000 feet). Myoko-Kogen is also home to a lot of very good onsen resorts.
The Joshinetsu National Park area is known for its fine powder snow and high snow walls. Seki Onsen and Akakura Onsen are rightly famous with skiiers and snowboarders for their combination of powder snow and hot springs. Akakura began in 1816 and is the largest of the onsen resorts in the area. Seki Onsen is the oldest of the Myoko Onsen hot springs and started welcoming visitors to its therapeutic waters back in 1729.
Just south of Myoko-Kogen is Ikenotaira, another alpine resort with the winning combination of fine powder snow and hot springs. There are three ski slopes depending on your ability level and fine views of the towering Mt. Myoko. Also just to the east of Mt. Myoko is the remote and peaceful Tsubame Onsen, named after the many swallows that nest in the cliffs here in summer. The waters of the onsen are milky white and the area experiences heavy snow in winter.
In summer there is so-called “Forest Therapy” hiking on the Sasagamine Plateau with its lovely alpine flowers, beech and spruce forests, waterfalls and marshes, somewhat reminiscent of the European Alps. Sasagamine Ranch is the name for the pastures of local beef cattle. Imori Pond has a visitors’ center and a path around the small lake, best visited in April, when the shores of the lake sees the sudden bloom of thousands of white alum flowers. On a clear day you can see the reflection of Mt. Myoko in its crystal waters.
Best reached from Toyama City, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park and an outstanding natural highlight of the Hokuriku region, particularly in the autumn foliage season when the colors are truly amazing. The route is crossed by bus, cable car, ropeway, KEPCO trolley bus and can also be traversed on foot.
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route includes a passage through snow corridors reaching up to 20 m (65 ft) in parts through Mount Tateyama in the Hida Mountains. The route also includes the spectacular Kurobe Dam, the tallest dam in Japan at 186 m (610 ft). It is 492 m (1,600 ft) long and discharges 10 tons of water every second.
Part of the Alpine Route was built during the construction of the dam which opened in 1963 to provide hydro-electricity for this remote area of Japan. Murado, at an altitude of 2,450m, has the most spectacular section of the snow walls especially in April and May when the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route first opens. This section is open to pedestrians to admire the huge walls of snow packed up on either side of the road.
Other points of interest include Mikurigaike (みくりが池) - the deepest alpine lake in the Japan Alps, still snow-covered until June. Its deep blue waters reflect the snow-covered peaks of the Tateyama mountain range and the lake teems with bird and plant life.
Nearby is Mikurigaike Onsen,a mountain lodge at an altitude of 2,410 m and a short walk from Murodo. It claims to be the highest hot spa in Japan. Its restorative waters are drawn from the so-called Jigokudani (Hell Valley) surrounding the area. The nearby four-star Tateyama Hotel is Japan’s highest hotel and makes for an unforgettable stay far from the bustle of city life.
Tateyama Museum of Toyama (立山博物館展示館) has exhibitions on the flora and fauna of Tateyama, the Shugendo religious tradition practiced in these mountains since the Heian Period, and the complex geology and ecology of this highland place, which was viewed as sacred by the many pilgrims who have made the dangerous journey to its slopes.
The whole Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route takes around five hours to complete and involves six transfers. It goes from Dentetsu-Toyama Station, next to Toyama Station, to Shinano-Omachi, from where there are trains north to Nagano or south to Matsumoto. The route is generally open from mid-April until the end of November and is closed the rest of the year. The entire route can only be done using public transport as the section between Tateyama Station and Ogizawa is closed to private vehicles.
Kaga Onsen (Kagaonsenkyo) is a generic term for the four main hot springs located in Kaga and Komatsu, Ishikawa Prefecture: namely Awazu Onsen, Katayamazu Onsen, Yamashiro Onsen and Yamanaka Onsen.
The history of these hot springs goes back over 1,300 years and the hot springs themselves were supposedly discovered by wandering Shugendo ascetics visiting the holy mountain of Hakusan.
Some of the traditional Japanese inns in Kaga Onsen also have a long and distinguished history. Hoshi Ryokan in Awasu Onsen began in 718 and is the world’s second oldest running hotel, having been run by the same family for over 45 generations. (The oldest hotel is believed to be the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan in Yamanashi where Tokugawa Ieyasu stayed twice).
Famous visitors to Kaga Onsen over its long history include the priest Rennyo (1415–1499) and the famous haiku poet Basho (1644-1694) who both came this way to take the healing waters.
Awasu Onsen was supposedly discovered by the same monk who founded nearby Natadera Temple. The waters here are said to be good for curing a number of illnesses and can be enjoyed in your inn or at the modern Soyu public bath.
Katayamazu Onsen is located along the Shibayamagata Lagoon. Discovered in 1653, it was developed as a spa town from the Meiji Period on. There are spectacular views to be had here while in your bath, with Mount Hakusan in the distance.Katayamazu Onsen was known as the “pleasure onsen” (kanraku onsen 歓楽温泉) and besides hot baths there are still a number of things to do for entertainment including the Museum of Snow and Ice, the Kitamae Ships Museum and an artificial geyser that shoots up from the lake every hour.
Yamashiro Onsen is best known for its two large, distinctive public baths: the Soyu and the Ko-soyu (old public bath). The Ko-soyu has been faithfully rebuilt in Meiji-era style.
Yamashiro Onsen is located close to the Kakusenkei Gorge in the Japanese Alps. The main street to visit is Yuge-Kaido, which runs from Kino-no-yu. Local arts and crafts including lacquerware and woodwork are available for sale and there are many Japanese restaurants and bars to sample the fare at. Basho was one of Yamashiro Onsen’s early admirers who included it, along with Arima Onsen in Hyogo and Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma, among his top three hot springs.
Elegant Kanazawa City is at the terminus of the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Nicknamed "Little Kyoto," Kanazawa preserves something of the feel and culture of old Japan.
Taking the Hokuriku Shinkansen between Tokyo and the Hokuriku region of Japan, between the Pacific Ocean and the Japan Sea, is to come upon a whole new, and very photogenic, expanse of Japan: a traditionally agrarian, rice-growing region that is now home to both cutting edge industry, age-old cultural pursuits and a bounty of leisure opportunities. From ski fields to thermal pools, from rice fields to good restaurants, bask in what this richly varied region of north-eastern Honshu has to offer. All aboard!