Fall Bliss in Toyama: A 2-Day Road Trip in Kurobe and Uozu
This weekend road trip took us away from our crowded city lives to the blissful Niikawa area of Toyama. In Kurobe, we rode on an antique trolley train in the depths of Kurobe Gorge to witness vivid fall foliage while taking a dip in the beautifying hot springs. In Uozu, we marveled at the enchanting Uozu Buried Forest of underwater trees and experienced the traditional craft of Uozu lacquerware. Join us on our relaxing fall trip to uncover the charms of this lesser-known slice of Japan!
Jan 19 2022 (May 27 2022)
*This article was written in collaboration with the Toyama Bay, Kurobe Gorge, Etchu Niikawa Tourism Zone Council.
The Niikawa Region: Nyuzen, Asahi, Uozu, and Kurobe
The Niikawa region of eastern Toyama Prefecture is a vast sightseeing district consisting of two towns and two cities: Nyuzen Town, Asahi Town, Uozu City, and Kurobe City. From 3,000-meter-high mountains to the pristine waters of the Kurobe River and the rich, mysterious seas of Toyama Bay, the diverse local geography of Niikawa yields a stunning array of natural wonders to enjoy.
Getting to Toyama
Toyama, located in the Hokuriku region of Japan, has both airport and bullet train access, so it can be easily visited from other Japanese cities along with countries like Taiwan, Korea, and China. Using the bullet train from Tokyo will take you to Toyama in around 2.5 hours.
Getting to Toyama Via Airplane
・Tokyo Haneda Airport to Toyama Kitokito Airport: Approx. 1 hr
*Exact flight details are subject to change due to COVID-19. Please confirm the details at each airline’s official website.
*Rental car service counters can be found in the 1F Hall of the airport.
Getting to Toyama Via Bullet Train
・From Tokyo Station to Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen: Approx. 2 hrs 20 mins, 12,000 yen/person.
・From JR West Shin-Osaka Station to Kanazawa Station via the Limited-Express Thunderbird, then to Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station via the Hokuriku Shinkansen: Approx. 3 hrs 30 mins, 10,000 yen/person.
*There are several rental car companies within a 3-minute walking distance from Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station, allowing you to rent a car as soon as you disembark.
Day 1: Kurobe
Katsubei Kurobe: Savor the Mega Popular Kurobe Meisui Pork
Although many associate Toyama with fresh seafood, it actually has another lesser-known, yet equally noteworthy gourmet specialty. This is the brand-name “Kurobe Meisui Pork,” which is sourced from pigs raised on the mineral-rich underground water of the Kurobe River and is distinguished by its soft, juicy, and fatty meat.
Earning the name Kurobe Meisui Pork is no easy feat – only pork determined to be in the top 20% to 30% are permitted to use the title. Katsubei Kurobe is a restaurant adored by the locals, serving a variety of dishes featuring this one-of-a-kind delicacy. The tonkatsu (pork cutlet) set boasts a thick cut cooked crisp on the outside, with firm red meat and sweet, light fat. The pork used here is actually in the top 5% of Meisui Pork, making it a once-in-a-lifetime luxury not to be missed. First, try it with salt to savor the natural flavors of the pork. Then, cover it with freshly ground white sesame seeds and their special sauce to tie it all together.
Kurobe Farm Makiba no Kaze: Fresh Farm-Made Sweets Enjoyed Together with Views of Toyama Bay
Kurobe Farm Makiba no Kaze is a farm up on the hills of Kurobe City boasting stunning panoramas of Toyama Bay and the Noto Peninsula on a clear day. Along with taking in the scenery, you’ll also get the chance to interact with friendly animals like goats and sheep raised in a rich natural environment while relishing fresh dairy products such as milk and soft serve ice cream.
The milk is a thick, original blend from three breeds of dairy cow bursting with that distinctive farm freshness. The pudding is made with Toyama eggs and milk, yielding a rich, exquisite flavor popular amongst all ages. The homemade gelato is also a hit, boasting ten different flavors, including creative seasonal renditions. The cream cheese flavor we ordered had a subtle tanginess with a pleasant aftertaste.
Kurobe Gorge Railway: A Trip Through Endless Landscapes of Breathtaking Fall Foliage
Kurobe Gorge Railway, which runs through Kurobe Gorge – known as one of Japan’s foremost V-shaped valleys – was originally built to transport materials for a hydropower dam and was later transformed into a train service for tourists. It takes approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes to travel the roughly 20 km from Unazuki Station to Keyakidaira Station. Despite the lengthy trip, passengers will be continuously rewarded by a barrage of jaw-dropping seasonal views, including the fresh verdure of spring, deeply frozen snow that remains even in the height of summer, and gorgeous multicolored foliage in the fall.
Kuronagi Onsen: A Remote Ancient Hot Spring in the Valley
There are numerous tourist destinations along the Kurobe Gorge Railway, including remote hot springs that can only be reached via the trolley train. Kuronagi Onsen, one of these deep mountain valley hot springs, is a 20 minute walk from Kuronagi Station on the Kurobe Gorge Railway. The quaint “ryokan” inn boasts the largest open-air bath amongst all inns in the gorge, with bathtubs made of natural stone sitting by the riverbank. Soak in the steamy water, absorb the rustic charm of the surrounding nature, and in the evenings, look up at the starry skies to ensure both your body and soul are thoroughly rejuvenated.
Unazuki Onsen: The Gateway to Kurobe Gorge
Unazuki Onsen is a historic hot spring town that will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. The thermal spring water here is so clear and pristine that it is said to be the most transparent in all of Japan. It’s also renowned for its beautifying properties and for being exceptionally gentle on the skin.
The high temperature of the water (about 90°C at the source) also ensures it thoroughly warms you to the core. Being in total abundance, there are free foot baths all around town allowing you to casually experience this gift from nature for yourself!
• Train Station Foot Bath: Eki no Ashiyu Kuronagi
This footbath sits on the platform of Unazukionsen Station on the Toyama Chiho Railway and can be accessed from both inside the station and out. Soak your feet, zone out, and watch the trains passing by.
• Foot Bath: Ashiyu Momohara
This foot bath is located outside Yumedokoro Unazuki, a facility housing a tourist information center and public hot spring. The foot bath’s name “Momohara” (peach field) comes from the numerous peach trees that once grew here.
• Foot Bath: Ashiyu Omokage
This foot bath under a gazebo in Unazuki Park was built to commemorate 80 years since the opening of the hot springs in Unazuki Onsen. Just 5 minutes from Unazukionsen Station, it is a great destination to walk to while checking out the restaurants and souvenir shops along the way.
Yamabiko Bridge/Yamabiko Walkway: Fantastic Views of the Trolley Train
There are two red steel bridges in Kurobe Gorge: Shin-Yamabiko Bridge, on which the Kurobe Gorge Railway runs, and the Yamabiko Bridge, a decommissioned railway bridge turned into a walkway. These bridges were named “yamabiko”, which means “echo” in Japanese, due to the sound of the wheels passing over the rail joints echoing throughout the hot spring town. The path between Unazuki Station and Unazuki Dam is about 1 km and provides the perfect opportunity to see the trolley train traveling over the steep valley. In the fall, you can experience the magic of being utterly encompassed by colorful fall foliage, making it feel as though you have stepped into a painting.
Kurobe/Unazuki Onsen Yamanoha: Relish Autumn Splendor From Open-Air Baths
Kurobe/Unazuki Onsen Yamanoha is a hotel built along the Kurobe River around the theme of nature and the four seasons. The liberating open-air baths are the perfect place to soak in the warm spring water and rejuvenate while enjoying magnificent views of the golden valley adorned by colorful foliage.
Toyama Prefecture is filled with natural treasures including mountains, seas, and rural landscapes. With a wealth of fresh produce ready for harvest and perfectly fatty seafood, autumn is a great time for gourmands to visit this wonderful region. At the hotel restaurant, guests can relish rare and elegant seasonal food from both the land and sea prepared in an open kitchen right before their eyes. The dinner buffet option boasts a wide variety of dishes to try, ranging from seafood such as shrimp sashimi, grilled shrimp, steamed crab, and crab pot rice to steak and Toyama “black ramen” noodles. There is also a wide selection of Western and Japanese breakfast foods in the morning, including seafood such as the Toyama specialty of firefly squid pickled in soy sauce along with cod roe rice balls and crab miso soup. What a wonderful way to start the second day!
Day 2: Uozu
Uozu Buried Forest Museum: Discovering Two Local Wonders
We followed up day one of our Toyama adventure in the mountains with a seaside road trip along the Uozu Coast for day two. First up was the Uozu Buried Forest Museum, where you can witness two of the so-called "three strange landscapes of Uozu."
Uozu Buried Forest: A 2,000-Year-Old Natural Treasure
The Uozu Buried Forest is an ancient virgin forest of cedar trees that was buried by sand and stone when a river flooded around 2,000 years ago. Years later, people were amazed to uncover numerous tree roots when the site was dug up for the construction of Uozu Port. Uozu Buried Forest has since been designated as a Special Natural Monument of Japan and the Uozu Buried Forest Museum was built to ensure the preservation of this priceless treasure.
The museum has a dry area and wet area. In the dry area, dried roots and trunks that were buried are exhibited and are available to touch. In the wet area, giant roots and trunks of trees thought to have been 500 years old are preserved in tanks filled with clean, cold ground water. They can be seen from above or through windows in a basement room. It’s an utterly enrapturing experience to witness these ancient treasures up close, making one realize just how small and fleeting humanity really is.
Shinkiro: Natural Art Woven Together by Light and Wind
Uozu Buried Forest Museum also showcases another one of Uozu’s bizarre sights: the mirage, which is known as “shinkiro” in Japanese. A mirage is a natural phenomenon by which distant objects appear distorted – such as being expanded or inverted – due to light rays curving when cold air on the ocean’s surface intersects with hot air. While conditions differ by temperature and wind direction, they can generally be divided into “superior mirages” and “inferior mirages.”
Superior mirages can only be seen under specific climate conditions and are rarer than inferior mirages, which can be seen all year. They typically only appear between late March and early June, about 20 times a year, with short ones being just a few minutes and long ones lasting for several hours. Being so difficult to predict makes them all the more magical.
Uozu, renowned for its mirages since the Edo period (1603 – 1868), is also nicknamed the “city of mirages.” The Uozu Buried Forest Museum boasts exhibitions providing additional information behind these spellbinding phenomena for those who want to learn more.
Haritaya: Taking in Toyama Bay From Mirage Road and Eating Masuzushi
Along with the Uozu Buried Forest Museum, there are several other places in Uozu City to witness and enjoy the mirages. One of these is the roughly 8 km “Mirage Road” that runs north-south along Toyama Bay. While the springtime mirages cannot be seen in the fall, the fantastic views of the grand blue ocean remain an invigorating sight.
The best food to enjoy alongside the beautiful views of Toyama Bay is the regional specialty “masuzushi.” Masuzushi is a kind of sushi pressed in a wooden box and wrapped in bamboo leaves. This particular version is made with Donaldson trout carefully marinated in vinegar for a period measured down to the second to ensure the ideal rareness. This trout is then pressed together with perfectly flavored vinegared rice using bamboo and rubber bands.
Located near the Mirage Road, Haritaya is a local seafood wholesaler with a history reaching back 100 years that draws on its expertise to offer products made of the highest-quality fish. Their masuzushi is created using the traditional technique of putting the fish at the bottom and layering tangy vinegared rice on top to prevent the rice from becoming soggy. If you open it right-side up, you’ll only see rice, so flip it over with the lid on before opening and then use the lid as a board to cut up the masuzushi with the provided knife. Topped off by subtle bamboo aromas, this wonderful delicacy presents a satisfying, thick layer of fish bolstered by rice with just the right amount of vinegar to maximize the intrinsic umami flavors.
Umi-no-Eki Shinkiro: Pick Up Fresh Fish and Local Specialties
Umi-no-Eki Shinkiro, located by the Uozu Fishing Port, just 5 minutes on foot from the Uozu Buried Forest Museum, is the perfect place to browse and purchase local specialties. There is a fishmonger on site, as well as a restaurant serving tasty seafood at great prices. In addition to seafood, there are also seasonal local specialties on sale, such as edible wild mountain plants in spring, vegetables in summer, and fruit (including the famed kazumi apple and tomomichi pear) along with beloved Toyama confectionery, making it the ideal place to explore Uozu through its food. For a glimpse at the daily lives of the locals, we recommend visiting the Uozu Morning Market held at the fish market on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of every month.
Kobo Yamasen Tsujibutsudan: Make Your Very Own Uozu Lacquerware Sake Cup
Aside from the scenic bay and fantastic food, one additional unmissable highlight of Uozu are the stunning traditional crafts. The Niikawa area has long been the Hokuriku region’s foremost producer of lacquerware. Uozu lacquerware, which combines wood grain with intricate lacquer art, is sturdy, durable, and well priced. It will serve to brighten up your table as delightful everyday tableware.
Kobo Yamasen Tsujibutsudan is a lacquerware workshop that has passed down the craft through four generations over a century. These dazzling traditional crafts are delicately formed by hand and range from small items such as tableware and decorations to large altars for shrines and temples. They have also received special orders from customers overseas.
Kobo Yamasen Tsujibutsudan holds lacquer art and woodworking workshops to help familiarize everyday people with this traditional craft. For this article, we tried making “shuki urushi maki-e” (lacquerware sake cups with gold and silver decorations) through the gentle guidance of a professional lacquer artist. Participants can decorate their cups with any pattern they like using special maki-e brushes and cover them with pure gold or silver powder to create their very own, one-of-a-kind treasures that are perfect as souvenirs.
The Perfect Local Souvenir (Or Treat for Yourself)
Pack of 3 Unazuki Beer Cans: Born From the Great Nature of Kurobe
Unazuki craft beer, brewed from Kurobe River spring water and barley nurtured by the exquisite local nature, has won numerous prizes in various competitions, including international awards. Being canned, you can easily bring them home to continue relishing the tastes of Kurobe in your own time.
Jujikyo is a kölsch beer flaunting a beautiful semi-transparent amber color and perfectly combining refreshing hoppiness with a sharp and fresh mouthfeel. Torokko is an altbier beer with a deep copper color characterized by the delicate aromas of top-fermenting yeast and the perfect harmony of a light sweetness and rich body. Premium is a rice ale made with the added ingredient of “fufufu,” a special rice variety from Toyama. It presents a light, invigorating flavor with a slightly dry aftertaste that goes wonderfully with seafood.
Patissier Nokki: Tangy Apple Pies Made of Uozu Kazumi Apples
Kazumi apples from Uozu, which are only available in Toyama Prefecture, are sharp and flavorful and highly valued by those in the know. Despite being too acidic to eat on their own, they yield wonderfully complex flavors when cooked in desserts.
Patissier Nokki, a dessert shop popular amongst locals, layers thick slices of apple cooked in sugar atop its apple pies while adjusting the amount of lemon and citrus to complement the sharpness of the apples available that day. The natural flavors and sweet acidity of the apples are delicately coaxed out to become pleasing rather than off-putting. The pillow-shaped apple pies are filled with sweet and soft apple jam cooked with plenty of sugar, which, when combined with the flaky pie crust, forms an unforgettable mouthful. Kazumi apples are harvested in autumn and winter, so definitely don’t miss them if you’re around!
Map of the Locations We Visited in Kurobe and Uozu
A Fall Trip in Kurobe and Uozu
Despite being just two days, this exciting road trip through Kurobe and Uozu presented us with a plethora of unbelievably fresh seafood, enchanting relics of giant trees, beautiful foliage right out of a painting, and open-air baths augmented by stunning views. Each and every experience served to both thoroughly excite and rejuvenate us. If you’re searching for somewhere to relish the bounties of autumn in Japan, Kurobe and Uozu are the places to do it!
Consider also visiting the Nyuzen and Asahi areas of Niikawa in addition to Kurobe and Uozu.
Check out the article here: A Casual Drive Through Nyuzen and Asahi: Relishing a Springtime Carnival of Flowers in Toyama (1 Day, 2 Nights)
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.