Monday, July 24, 2017

初めて北陸旅行 (Part 2: Toyama)

14-18 July: Toyama & Kanazawa
(Part 2)

15 July: Toyama (City area)

The next day, Iggy and I got off to a slow start. We really just didn't want to do anything in the morning because it was really hot out, so we decided to stay in and watch... my very first Bollywood movie, Om Shanti Om. What a way to spend a holiday. I was absolutely mindblown by this movie. It was AMAZING. Everyone please go and watch it. You can find it easily on the Internet with subtitles, as we did.

This is the view from her apartment. I can only dream of waking up to a view like this every day. Instead of opening my curtains and seeing... someone in the next apartment building 10 metres away flashing everyone after a morning shower. (I'm not making this up. I don't actually think the person is aware that everyone can see them either. Buildings are just built way too close to each other in Tokyo.)

We eventually headed out to explore the city, and visit one of Iggy's favourite cafes.

This is actually kind of what Toyama is known for - the Northern Japanese alps on one side, the Sea of Japan on the other, and a ton of snow in winter.

We found a lovely gigantic sunflower growing in the middle of nowhere.
I find this image to be a very accurate portrayal of our friendship.

This is a quaint little cafe tucked away in the neighourhoods - bookstore/cafe by day, bar by night. It's run by a young woman who's very interested in the arts, especially theatre, and a lot of the books in her store are curated as such. There's also a range of other books as well and it's a very calm and quiet space.

There was also an advertisement in the cafe: 
To have coffee with a 21-year-old (the shop owner mentioned he was a university student), and talk to him or have a discussion about any topic for just ¥500 an hour (basically, just a coffee charge.) The place really reminds me of a Murakami-esque cafe - with its quiet ambience, quirky characters that frequent the establishment, each with different stories to tell. All in a quiet, unsuspecting neighbourhood in Toyama.

The chef (the owner's friend who comes in occasionally to cook meals for customers) also prepared a really delicious butter chicken curry.

After we left the cafe, we wandered around for a bit before deciding to visit the city's public library - built only recently, and houses the Toyama Glass Art Museum in its upper floors. Since Iggy had never visited it before either, was a fun afternoon for both of us.

Another tidbit for architectural geeks: if you're wondering why the style of this building looks familiar - the city commissioned Kengo Kuma (隈研吾) to be its architect. Several of his buildings can be found in Tokyo, as well as locations scattered across the country. My favourite of his works is the Nezu Museum in Tokyo, but this building definitely comes in a close second.

The Toyama Glass Art Museum was located on the 4th and 5th floors of the building. Toyama prefecture is one of the main exporters and manufacturers of glass in Japan, and boasts skilled production of glass crafts. The fourth floor is open to the public, and features works from local, regional and international artists. It's absolutely stunning. 

The fifth floor is dedicated to Dale Chihuly (American glass sculptor - familiar name in the arts!) An entry ticket to the museum only costs ¥200, and there's actually a lot to see. Some of his famous works, as well as works exclusively made for the city, can be found here.

Toyama Float Boat (2015) - my personal favourite, inspired from his previous Niijima Floats. Except this one didn't require the use of water and instead made use of a marbled black surface to create the reflection needed.

Toyama Mille Fiori (2015)

As evening drew closer, we headed back to the city centre for other plans.
One thing I really appreciate is that Toyama City has very good public transport infrastructure - extremely helpful for people who don't drive in this area. They have trains (both JR and private railways), trams (like the one pictured below) and buses that bring you to most places.

I decided to try the ramen attributed to this prefecture: Toyama's Black Ramen.
What is black ramen?

This cafe probably got irritated by customers asking if they serve black ramen. Lol.

Black Ramen only gained attention recently - it's not one of the long standing traditional ramen styles like Hakata Tonkotsu, or Hokkaido Miso) so it's a pretty recent invention. I ordered a bowl of it, bracing myself for an extremely salty or heavy broth - but it took me completely by surprise. The broth was very light in taste, even for something this opaque, and it's mainly fish-based, with a peppery flavour that's not too overwhelming. Not too salty either, and not too viscous (I find that collagen-rich broths tend to make me gag if I force myself to finish a bowl so I'm not exactly a fan of those.) I actually do recommend this to those who are curious.

16 July: Tateyama

The next day, Iggy had to work, so I embarked on another solo adventure. I did have to do a lot of planning for this segment of the trip beforehand - mainly because in the countryside, train and bus timings aren't frequent and if you miss a train you mess up the entire route. For this day trip in particular, I had to do a total of 3 transfers just to get to the destination.

This time I was headed for: Tateyama.

I started my journey at... 5.30am. I'm so glad the sun rises at 4am in the summer. There's no way I would've been able to do this in any other circumstance.

No one here, just me, the crickets and the sounds of nature.

The train I took was nearly an hour, but there were some delays so it ended up being around 1.5 hours. I was heading straight into the heart of Toyama's countryside. Fields everywhere. A scene like this takes my breath away every time. As much as I'm a city girl, I really wish I didn't have to stare at concrete structures all day.

Still very freakin' early. At this point I was prepared to not be able to get a good view at the top, because the morning had already started off cloudy. Still, I was excited for the experience.

Like I mentioned at the beginning, Toyama is home of part of the Northern Japanese Alps. It shares one of its most famous features with its neighbouring prefecture, Nagano - the Tateyama Alpine Route. I tried to do more research on this because I know for a fact that I'm prone to altitude sickness (and motion sickness, which unfortunately was triggered on this trip too lol) and I just wanted to be as prepared as I can be before heading up to the highest point of elevation in my life at this point, without being on an airplane.

I only wanted to do a return trip on the same day, so my final destination was at Murodo Plain, located around two-thirds up Mount Tateyama. It stands at 2,400m above sea level. Most travellers come here from late spring to end of summer, to make their way through the entire Alpine Route - bringing them past Kurobe Dam and finally arriving in Nagano Prefecture. This usually takes a full day.

The first way up was a cable car, which acted like a lift. The cable car take us up the first 500m (altitude) to Bijodaira. It has a very unique shape (it's a trapezium?) and it was quite a strange experience boarding it the first time.

The next part of the journey is the bus, that takes us up another 1,500m in altitude to Murodo Plain. It takes around 50 minutes and gives us a preview of some attractions along the way (like waterfalls, the remains of the 19-metre tall snow walls that never fully melt away, etc.) For someone who gets motion sickness pretty easily, the ride up was actually okay. However, it was the trip coming down that really almost wrecked me. Because of gravity, the bus driver had no choice but to keep applying the brakes every couple of metres. I even took a pill beforehand but it didn't work - I was so ready to throw up by the end of the bus ride, that I had to sit at the rest stop for half an hour for the nausea to ride over. In fact, I think it's pretty common to feel that way, because every seat on the bus has a plastic bag in the pocket in front. So be prepared for it. Play music on your Spotify repeatedly. Anything to distract you from the ride down. Later, Iggy commented that the nausea could also have been triggered by the drastic change in altitude. Definitely a possibility.

Even during the warmest days of the year, the famous snow walls stand at least 3m in height, so the snow never really fully melts away. For all we know, there may still be snow that fell a decade ago in that block!

Upon arriving, I realised that I was definitely not prepared for the weather. The website says that on a clear day in July, the temperatures at Murodo are usually 18 degrees, so a light jacket would be comfortable. However, the day I ascended Tateyama was a cloudy and foggy day, so temperatures dropped to 12, and the winds were bone-chilling. Iggy even let me borrow her scarf in the morning but without a solid jacket, I was freezing. After ten minutes standing outside I gave up, went in and bought myself a TNF fleece. Expensive, but ultimately a worthy investment. (Update: 1 year later, I've used that same jacket to survive most of the winter nights in Tokyo!)

There was fresh spring water - straight from the top of the mountains - that anyone can take to drink.

I snapped a picture of the area map. Some sections are no entry-zones because of no accessible or clear paths, and some because they are too close to the geysers emitting sulphur and toxic fumes, such as the one below:

As I continued on the path up, the fog started to get a lot more dense and soon I could barely even see five metres ahead of me. It felt a little Silent Hill, but it was also weirdly calming. As I climbed a flight of stairs I felt my heart pounding in my ears, and very rapidly - it quickly reminded me that my body wasn't operating at sea level anymore and that it was lacking a lot of oxygen up here, so I took my time to ascend any flight of stairs.

On a clear day, the Mikuriga-ike Pond would be visible against alpine greenery and display a bright blue colour. Truthfully, I wasn't entirely disappointed that I didn't get to see it at its most famous state. There was something incredibly magical about the version I had, trying to find my way around the fog, feeling my hair get damp from the dense humidity in the air, seeing so much snow even in the middle of July. I never imagined I'd get to experience something like this. 

I found a bench halfway and it looked out into a vast nothingness - I couldn't see anything but white fog past the green hedge in front of me. I was feeling a little tired and breathless from climbing (lack of oxygen, yeah) so I sat down and just closed my eyes and tried to listen to the howling of the winds, and the occasional chirping of the alpine birds. I swore I even heard the sound of the ptarmigan once - the ptarmigan (or raichou 雷鳥) is a bird that lives exclusively in the Northern Alps in Japan (and also in Arctic regions). It has a very low chirp, almost like a frog's croak. If you hear it, you won't mistake it for anything else. 

I think I sat there for nearly an hour. I loved the cold, I loved the silence, I loved the peace. It was an incredibly sublime experience.

Look at how damp my hair became - all this from the fog.

I continued climbing to the next rest station, a little past Mukuriga-ike Pond. At this point I was really hungry, so I decided to get a small bowl of kakiage udon.

Next, I decided to take a bath at the onsen (said to be the onsen on the highest elevation in Japan.) With the cold temperatures outside it was definitely a relief to soak in some hot water for a bit. I also continued to spend another two hours up at the plains, before reluctantly leaving and returning to the ridiculously hot summer heat at sea level.

So, a summary of advice if you want to see the Alpine Route:
1) Dress well and always bring a spare insulating jacket - you never know when you'll need it
2) Plan your routes and transfers well so that you can maximise the time spent up there. Everything stops and closes once the sun begins to set at 4+pm.
3) Be prepared for altitude/motion sickness because of rapid ascent and descent. Go easy, go slow whenever you can.
4) If you're planning to hike to the peak of Tateyama (~3000m above sea level), it is actually a moderate level hike so train and prepare yourself well.

Some things I left out but you should definitely see if you're making the full route:
1) Kurobe Dam. This was something I slightly regretted not seeing. Someday I may do this route again, starting from the Nagano side.

I returned to Tateyama Station around 4.30pm, and Toyama Station by 5.30pm. The whole journey took nearly 12 hours!

17 July: Toyama (City area)
Happy Marine Day (海の日)!

Iggy and I headed out to explore more of the city area. The first stop was at Kansui Park (full name: fugan unga kansui kōen 富岩運河環水公園). Our original plan was to head to the beach for the national holiday, but it was once again too hot for us to function properly, so we decided to head to the... nearest body of water in the city. And that was Kansui Park.

In the background, there's the Tenmon-kyo Bridge. Visitors can climb the observatory towers on both sides and legend has it that if a pair of lovers go up each tower and send a message to each other through a red wire (think of the string telephone that kids play with), their love will be eternal. Or something along those lines. Iggy and I didn't really care about the details of that because... #foreveralone.

Instead, we worked our skills to create an excellent 'bad tourist shot' for Marine Day: skilfully blocking the background scenery, umbrella and sunglasses combo, posing next to a body of water that isn't even the sea. Happy Marine Day, y'all.

Kansui Park also has a Starbucks - and this outlet was once named the most beautiful outlet in Japan. Its location gives customers a gorgeous scenery of cherry blossoms in the spring, and it looks right out to the canal and the rest of the park.

Back in the Toyama Station area, we spotted Kitokito-kun - Toyama's mascot!

The image below is a mural located at the terminal stop of the Toyama City Tram. Its design caught my eyes from the very first day and I finally managed to get a good picture to remember it by.

We headed towards Toyama Castle, which stands in the middle of the city. The original castle was destroyed, so this is a is reconstruction. I also heard this park is one of the prime spots for cherry blossom viewing in spring.

This was the last of Toyama's sightseeing attractions I saw on this trip.
That evening, when we returned to the apartment, I caught the most gorgeous cityscape sunset I've ever seen. I'm grateful to have been able to see this view before I left.

We had time to kill in the evening, so we decided to head over to a nearby onsen by foot.
I never thought summer would be a time to go for the hot springs, but if the evenings are cool enough, it's actually a pleasant experience.

Mandatory coffee milk after a bath!

The next morning, I packed to leave, and sent my luggage home via Yamato's courier delivery (takkyubin 宅急便). A lot of people in Japan do this so they don't have to carry their heavy luggage onto the trains if they're travelling across prefectures or even islands. It's especially frustrating once you switch to the local trains in Tokyo because they're always crowded. The delivery charges are also very affordable.

Before I took the train back I thought I'd get some thing to eat, and I realised there was one more thing I didn't try: shiroebi (white shrimp) - one of the foods Toyama is known for in Japan (meibutsu 名物).

Shiroebi Rice Bowl 白エビ丼

Time to go home!

This trip was definitely the highlight of my summer this year. I'm so grateful I got to see Iggy before she returned to Singapore, and be the last guest at her apartment. Without her, I would also never be able to gain as much insight into this beautiful prefecture facing the Sea of Japan.

Travel-wise, Toyama has a well-developed transport system and it's pretty convenient to get around the main city, and to neighbouring cities or prefectures as well if you don't drive. On the other hand, Ishikawa still only has one main line connecting the major cities and both friends and students (who visit their relatives there every year) have mentioned that it is much more convenient to get around by car. I only visited one area of Ishikawa this time, and it most definitely isn't enough to do it justice, so I'd love to be able to come back after having learnt to drive, or having found a travel buddy who can drive and further explore the Hokuriku region.

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