Autumn in Japan is one of the most beautiful I’ve seen – the colour of leaves changes and crops are at their best. It is the season where food is tastiest especially when it comes to fruits, vegetables and rice. I visited Japan last month, after more than a year and as usual, this country (never ceases) to amaze me with its beautiful landscapes, good food and friendly people.
We drove from Toyama to Nagano, then onwards to Gifu Prefecture before calling it a day. This driving trip was an eye-opener as the roads are easy to navigate and signages are prominent. Even the plugged in GPS guide in the car is updated so you’re notified of any road closures, constructions or traffic obstruction.
For travellers who planning to drive around Japan, the ETC Card is now available for tourists for only 300yen per rental. You no longer need to worry about preparing the exact amount for toll or finding your toll ticket so driving around is a lot easier. The ETC Card comes with the rented car (at the airport) so all you need is an international driving license and an international credit card.
We stopped for lunch at this traditional Japanese guesthouse called Eboshi Sanso in Kurobe for a Samurai Gozen (2,500 yen) of fresh local produce and homemade pickles. There was sea bream and yellow tail, both freshly caught, rice with harvested sweet potato, chawanmushi, miso soup and vegetables cooked in light stock.
After lunch, we hopped onto the Kurobe Gorge Railway from Unazuki Station for some of the best scenic views in the area. The open cabin allows you to take better photos of the surrounding so I suggest going for that option. As the leaves are changing colour, the landscaping is particularly beautiful throughout the journey (3,600 yen for a round trip).
We stopped at Keyakidaira and explored the gorge and the beauty it has to offer. The view from Okugane Bridge is really a sight to behold and it’s even more beautiful in videos. To book your tickets, click here.
I’ve heard about Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten from a Japanese friend of mine who is from Toyama. According to him, there’s a “magic” medicine that cures hangovers better than the commercially available ones. I didn’t fully understand what he meant until I saw the Hangotan for myself and even attempted to make some.
Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten has been around since the 1930s and it is one of the must-visit places in Toyama for its tradition and also unique products. I find it similar to a traditional Chinese medicine shop, but in Japanese variation. While walking around, I spotted a preserved cobra (!!!), bear’s gut and various herbs in jar – quite a sight.
Seafood lovers will love the Shinminato Kito Kito Market where you can buy freshly caught fish and various types of seafood that is unique to Toyama Prefecture. There’s this white prawn ice cream which you must try, essentially vanilla soft serve with white prawn powder for flavour.
I’m not a crab lover but the boiled red snow crab in Toyama is one of the nicest crabs I’ve eaten. It’s quite easy to eat; I learnt a technique to eating these crabs and getting the most out of each crustacean. For 5,400 yen, you get to tuck into a snow crab buffet at Kanigoya for an hour. In that time span, one can probably eat 3-4 crabs which is great value for money!
One of the highlights during my time in Toyama is the live crab auction in Imizu, where thousands of snow crabs are displayed for sale to the highest bidder. It’s really interesting to see the line-up of crabs as only the best ones are presented during the auction.
The Shomyo Waterfalls is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in Japan thus far. It’s a one-hour drive from Imizu to Tateyama, and despite the drizzle, the waterfall is truly a sight to behold against the autumnal background.
This is the largest waterfall drop in Japan at 350 metres high, and the hike up to the viewing point is worthwhile as you can see (and feel!) the Shomyo Waterfall up close. The best time to visit Shomyo Falls is from May through November – the roads are closed from end November till April due to snow.
It’s a pity that we only stayed for a night at Hotel Mori No Kaze in Tateyama. This is the nicest onsen hotel I’ve encountered in all my visits to Japan. There’s a private onsen in the room and the landscaping around this property is beautiful. I also like how modern it is amidst the traditional set up.
Up until recently, I didn’t know that Toyama and Nagano are separated by the Kurobe Gorge. We dropped off our rented car at the Tateyama Station and took a cable car that cruises through the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. This route passes through the dynamic landscape of Mt. Tateyama – you’ll need to go around using a combination of cable car, bus, trolley bus and ropeway as the elevation changes 2400 meters from Toyama to Nagano Prefecture.
Remember to bring warm clothing as the temperature dropped from 10 degrees to -2 degrees during the elevation. We crossed over from Nagano to Toyama for the Lake Kurobe Cruise which offers a beautiful view of Kurobe Gorge. As I went during autumn, the leaves were starting to change colour so it’s quite a sight. The cruise is 1,100 yen per person and 550 yen per child below 12.
The cruise stops at the foot of Kurobe Dam, said to be the tallest dam in Japan at 185 metres high. Electricity generated from the Kurobe Dam is sold to the Kansai region. This dam spans across the Kurobe Lake in an arc and you’re encouraged to walk to the observatory deck for an aerial view of the dam.
Apple farms are aplenty in Nagano so if you’re looking for some hands-on fun, try apple picking! I had plenty of fun walking around the farm and learning how to properly pick apples. My loot was Fuji apples and two types of honey apples. You can also purchase these apples from the markets but picking them yourself is a different experience altogether.
Mention Nagano and Matsumoto Castle comes into mind for most. The Matsumoto Castle in Nagoya is said to be one of the remaining Japan castles that retained its most original form. From afar, it’s a magnificent sight and I was lucky to have spotted a couple taking their pre-wedding photos with the castle as their background.
Gifu Prefecture is one of the prefectures Jien and I want to visit so I was excited to finally see it for myself. We stopped at Takayama Yatai Kaikan for their display of elaborately decorated floats – the Takayama Festival is one of Japan’s three most beautiful festivals.
Adjacent to the museum is the Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine, the oldest shrine in Takayama. This shrine is surrounded by large trees so come every season change, the shrine will spot a different look.
Markets in Hida Takayama are really popular as there will be stalls selling fruits, vegetables and other produce, all freshly harvested. Rice is good here so if you’re visiting in autumn, buy some to try. I visited both Jinya-Mae and Miyagawa market – the latter is located along the Miyagawa river and local crafts, snacks and farm products are available for purchase.
I even assembled my own Sarobobo, a doll that’s traditional made by grandmothers for their grandchildren for good luck. Each colour carries its own meaning and luck; red for luck in marriage, blue for studies, pink for love, green for health and yellow for money.
In Hida, one should try Hida beef, Kurobe wagyu beef said to have exquisite marbling, texture and flavour. It’s as sweet and smooth as butter when eaten. This beef is best cooked over a grill to achieve that crisp exterior and melt-in-the-mouth texture.
I wished I ate more of this, because it was delicious. The restaurant is called Aji No Yohei and it is located within Funasaka Brewery in Takayama. We continued on to Hida Furukawa, a quaint town in Gifu that’s quiet, beautiful and still relatively undiscovered. Along the canal are more than 1,000 carps meant to keep the water clean.
Our Gifu adventure ended at Shirakawa-Go, a traditional Japanese village that is also a UNESCO Heritage Site. It is a 50-minute drive from Gifu, and the view of Ogimachi Village from above is really quite something. This is definitely on my list to visit when I head back to Japan – I’m thinking winter because the photos look so beautiful online.
I really like the places we visited and sights along the drive from Toyama to Gifu. Time was too short for me to really say “I’ve been there, done that” so this calls for another visit. Definitely with Jien and little May Anne in tow.