Toyama’s Kurobe Gorge: Natural Beauty and Man-Made Dams

Kurobe City (黒部市) has found a little fame from the high walls of snow popular with visitors looking for some good instagram shots, but travelers who admire the snow and then get out of town don’t even know what they’re missing.

Toyama is in the Chubu Region of Japan, in the central part of Japan’s main island of Honshu, with the western border taken up by the coast of the Sea of Japan. We can thank the sea, and especially Toyama Bay, for the abundant fresh seafood found around the prefecture! But the Unazuki Onsen area also provides Kurobe with gloriously steamy hot springs, bursting forth from the mountain crags. All this geological variation makes for deep ravines, and the rivers running through those are a great place to try canyoning. Take the Kurobe Gorge Railway’s Torokko Train around the area to explore, and we’re pretty sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much fun this unassuming region can be.

Unazuki Onsen Togen Ryokan

During our visit, we lived it up by staying the night at Togen Ryokan, a ryokan set up for convenient access when touring Unazuki Onsen. Not wanting to waste any chances to enjoy Kurobe to the fullest, we took advantage of the private open-air baths available for rent, and the premium kaiseki ryori multi-course meals on offer. It was lots of fun getting to try all the local specialties in Toyama; we whole-heartedly recommend it.

Ryokans often offer what are called “kashikiri onsen” (貸切温泉), literally hot springs for rent, where you can lounge in the luxurious hot water away from the rest of the guests. If bathing with strangers still makes you nervous (although you really shouldn’t worry about it in Japan), or you just want to spend some nice one-on-one time with a special someone, make sure you reserve your time slot for the kashikiri onsen as soon as possible. They’re also a good option for those of us with very obvious and hard-to-conceal tattoos, since tattoos are often frowned upon (or even banned) at Japanese onsen. Togen Ryokan has three small private baths available to rent, all for no additional charge, plus this bigger one for a small fee. The water here is mildly alkaline, which they say makes for beautiful skin post-bath.

Ryokan are also known for offering really delicious multi-course traditional Japanese meals, called kaiseki (懐石), so this ryokan staple is a great way to try some of Toyama Prefecture’s impressive agricultural specialties. We tried firefly squid (ホタルイカ), Toyama’s local variety of high-quality wagyu called “himi-gyu” (氷見牛), and very fresh abalone.

See the Sights of Kurobe!

Rich in clear water, fresh mountain air, and all the scenic geography to go with them, what’s the best way to explore all that Kurobe has to offer? Let us fill you in on how to check it all out.

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ① Canyoning!

Blessed with deep canyons and hearty rivers, Kurobe has the perfect conditions for pushing yourself to the limits. Our recommendation? Canyoning. It’s an exhilarating way to explore the natural landscape.

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ② Unazuki Dam

With so much water rushing along the Kurobe River, the dam was built as a hydroelectric power plant, to take advantage of the river’s energy. Unazuki Dam took years to build, and after a while the construction workers started to settle down nearby, breathing life into the Unazuki Onsen area. You could say that the town is now there thanks to the dam!

The impressive dam is a 2.7 km (1.7 mile) walk from Unazukionsen Station (Google Maps), but you can also skip the trek and get a great view right from your seat on the Torokko Train that passes by.

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ③ Kurobe Gorge Railway’s Torokko Train

When admiring the scenic views of Kurobe, you can’t miss the local Torokko Train. It gives you access to all the spots in Kurobe that you can’t even drive to, letting you see the hidden gems of the area.

This railway was built in 1923, and was originally used to carry cargo around the area, but opened for general passenger use after 30 years in 1953. The history of the shift from freight train to leisure railway is actually kind of an interesting story. While working on dam construction along the river, workers would ride the railway with the cargo to get to the construction sites. Looking around at the scenery while they rode, these construction workers happened to lay eyes on some particularly picturesque views, noting how beautiful the lay of the land was. These comments made their way to the wealthier residents of Kurobe, eventually becoming a topic of local gossip. The original cargo train was absolutely not set up for passengers, making it fairly dangerous, but the rumors of the scenery’s beauty rose to such a fever pitch that some of the upper class started to say “I don’t care if I die, I just have to see the scenery once in my life!” From that point, the area became a sightseeing destination. With such strong desire to gain access to the Torokko Train, starting so many years ago, it seems like the railway has always been the best way to view the local scenery, like…

1. Unazuki Station (宇奈月駅)

Just five minutes walk from the very first station is the Yamabiko Observation Deck, where you can see the orange train and red bridge gleam in the sunlight, as the train passes through some lovely natural scenery.

There’s also a Torokko Train commemorative photo spot, and just steps from the train station, you’ll find a totally free-to-use foot bath. At the end of the day you can come back here to rest your tired feet.

2. Kuronagi Station (黒薙駅)

The Unazuki Onsen area is of course known for its onsen, or hot springs. Water reaching temperatures above 90°C (194°F) gush forth from crevices in the ground. Near Kuronagi Station, you’ll find “Kuronagi Onsen” where you can soak in the steaming water while watching the river cut its way through the natural scenery. (Near Kuronagi Station you’ll also find Atobiki Bridge, which crosses Kurobe Gorge at its deepest and steepest point.) One thing to know about Kuronagi Onsen: it’s a mixed-gender hot spring! You’re totally welcome to wear a swimsuit in the water, if you feel more comfortable that way, but there will also be people in the nude there. If you’d prefer separate-gender hot springs, there are some indoors at the small ryokan next-door.

3. Kanetsuri Station (鐘釣駅)

Near Kanetsuri Station you’ll find a river beach where you can dip into the running water and hang out on the sand, so it’s especially worth a stop in the summer. Along the river’s edge there are even spots where onsen water bubbles up, meaning you can surround one with some rocks and make yourself your own little private hot spring! (This area is just for local lodgers after 16:00.)

This station is also where you’ll find the Kurobe Mannen Yuki (万年雪), or “perpetual snow” bank… also known as the “tiramisu”! The dust and debris that falls onto the snowbank really does look a bit like cocoa powder, doesn’t it? Stare long enough, and it starts to look good enough to eat…

4. Keyakidaira Station (欅平駅)

Keyakidaira Station is the biggest of the stations inside the gorge, and inside the station building you can grab a bite to eat while you admire the view, and buy some souvenirs. All around the area are a number of spots with interesting views, and interesting names, making it a good place to take some fun pictures to remember the day by!

#keyakidaira — Our recommendation for a group photo spot is definitely right here! With the invigorating scenery of the gorge and Okukane Bridge in the background, we challenge you to take a truly insta-worthy shot.

#sarutobikyo — This spot’s name, Sarutobikyo (猿飛峡) literally means “monkey jumping gorge.” The distance between the two sides of the canyon are so close here, people have long believed that it’s where monkeys would jump across. There’s an observation platform right nearby.

#hitokuiiwa — This craggy overhang looks a little like an open mouth, making it feel like you might just get eaten up when you walk through. That’s where the name comes from, since “hitokuiiwa” (人喰岩) literally means “people-eating crag.”

#okukanebridge — The Unazuki Onsen area has three kinds of bridges: bridges for transportation, bridges for hydroelectric power, and then bridges for pedestrians. Okukane Bridge (奥鐘橋) is the third variety, and it’s there just for you to leisurely walk its length and admire the beautiful scenery of Kurobe Gorge.

#dinnerwithaview — While you’re more likely to eat lunch than dinner at Keyakidaira Station’s food court, you’ll still be able to see the scenery while you try out the local specialty of “black ramen.” After eating, head to the roof and take a moment to really appreciate your surroundings.

~The Story Behind Kurobe Tunnel~

While riding the Torokko Train, you’ll probably notice a little tunnel following along the tracks. The train has long been used to get places that normal vehicles can’t, but that means that when winter rolls around and the train stops running, there’s no form of transportation in the area at all. Unfortunately for the maintenance workers doing their jobs at the gorge’s dams, that also cuts off standard deliveries of food supplies and newspapers.

During that part of the year, the delivery of necessary goods becomes the job of workers called “forwarders” (逓送さん). Even during the most relentless parts of winter, these forwarders hike through the tunnels all the way to their colleagues doing maintenance at the dams, carrying backpacks full of food and other supplies all the way there. Just one way, the trek takes about two hours! To this day, when winter comes, forwarders bring necessities on their own backs, hiking four hours round-trip. We have to say, thank you forwarders!

Sightseeing in Kurobe: ④ Local Specialties for Foodies

When you visit Kurobe, don’t miss out on the seafood! The Kurobe region is right near Toyama Bay, where plankton is so abundant, you’ll find about 500 different kinds of fish in the area! There are also some varieties of seafood you’ll only find here, so you should definitely give them a taste.

Japanese Glass Shrimp (白エビ) These shrimp can only be caught in Toyama Bay, which is why they’re sometimes called “The Treasure of Toyama.” When deep-fried, they make a satisfyingly crunchy snack that goes great with beer, but you can also find the small shrimp carefully peeled one by one, as delicately sweet and decadent sashimi. Eating lunch at the Keyakidaira Station food court, we tried the glass shrimp curry. The shrimp lent the curry a lighter and more refreshing feeling than any hearty meat would have.

Firefly Squid (ホタルイカ) This variety of small squid can only be sampled in Hyogo or Toyama Prefectures, when in Japan. It can be prepared in lots of ways, including steamed, soy-pickled, stir-fried, and as sashimi. One of these dishes, firefly squid okizuke, is prepared by pickling the squid inside and out in a mix of sake and soy sauce. They say that if you try firefly squid okizuke on white rice, it’s so delicious you won’t need anything else to go with it! In addition, we recommend you try the much rarer dish of firefly squid shabu-shabu hotpot. You can find that particular entree at the ryokan we mentioned before, Unazuki Onsen Togen Ryokan.

Kurobe’s Unazuki Onsen, A Place to Enjoy the Great Outdoors

Also known as “Japan’s Northern Alps”, only in Toyama Prefecture will you find the Torokko Train, where you can tour the beautiful natural scenery of the gorge. It’s a place fun to travel with friends or family, a place where you’ll find views so beautiful that you never get tired of looking, delicious food made from local agricultural specialties, and dynamic activities.

Learn more about Japan at our website, JAPANKURU! And when you visit Kurobe, or anywhere else in Japan, be sure to let us know what you thought and share your pictures with us on instagram, twitter and facebook.

Originally published at www.japankuru.com on July 24, 2019.

Meaning "come to Japan", we‘re an international group working to introduce Japan to the world from as many interesting angles as we can find.

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