It always helps to have an event at the centre of a holiday: especially if it's a holiday like ours tend to be, where you're never in the same place for more than a couple of days. A big music festival, or a total eclipse, that sort of thing.
When The Belated Birthday Girl and I originally planned our Japan 2010 trip, we had a specific event in mind, and at some point in the future we can talk about why that isn't happening. But our replacement big event turns out to be a fine substitute: a trip across the Japanese Alps by train, bus, trolleybus, cablecar, ropeway and on foot. It certainly beats sitting around worrying about the UK elections taking place today (which, interestingly, are all over the NHK news at the moment, and a prime topic of conversation whenever Japanese people discover we're English).
The Alpine Route is one of Japan's great tourist trails, for Japanese people as much as foreigners. It was probably crammed throughout the whole of Golden Week - less so on the first day back at work after the long holiday, and even less because by chance we were doing it in the opposite direction to most people. The official English site is a good place to start if you're interested in taking it yourself, but we found a few little deviations from the expected procedures that I think are worth noting here.
The first involves the tricky business of dealing with your luggage when the journey from Matsumoto to Toyama involves nine separate changes. They've actually made this one pretty easy - you take your first train from Matsumoto to Shinano-Omachi, and from there you can get a baggage forwarding service to carry your bags the rest of the way to Toyama, even directly to the front lobby of certain hotels.
It's surprisingly the only bit of the journey where co-ordinating the change from one form of transport to another becomes an issue. The baggage forwarding service - or more precisely, the nice lady who runs the souvenir shop next to Shinano-Omachi station - apparently won't take bags before 9am. It may be worth investigating if she'll accept them any earlier, because the bus for the next part of the journey leaves at 9am exactly, and there isn't another one till 10.30. If you end up having to spend 90 minutes in town, the Maron coffee shop on the other side of the main shopping street is a good place to kill some time.
While we were hanging around Shinano-Omachi, we made another interesting discovery. According to the official site, you have to travel by bus to Ogizawa, and then buy your ticket for the rest of the Alpine Route from there. In fact, if you want to save a little time, you can buy a voucher from the ticket office at Shinano-Omachi, and swap it for a proper ticket at Ogizawa. It probably doesn't make that much difference in the long run, but if you hang around Shinano-Omachi station long enough looking lost and Western, a JR guard may take pity on you and make you the offer.
So: train from Matsumoto to Shinano-Omachi, bus from Shinano-Omachi to Ogizawa, trolley bus tunnelling through Mount Akazawa from Ogisawa to Kurobe Dam. Here's a tip from The BBG: before you get on that trolley bus, pick up one of the tourist leaflets for Kurobe Dam, specifically the Japanese one with ten blank spaces for stamps. You can pick up these stamps at various locations in Ogisawa and the Dam, and if you get the whole set you can claim a small but rather lovely prize. (In case you're wondering, stamp 7 is only available when the Dam's pleasure boats are running in the summer, which is why that slot's blank in the picture.)
Whether you're collecting the stamps or not, the Kurobe Dam is a sight to behold. The best way to experience it is to head for the observatory first, which involves climbing a couple of hundred steps (with the frequent encouragement of cartoon mascot Dam Dam Kun, a squirrel with a name that sounds like someone swearing three times). Once you get to the top, you'll be rewarded with a staggering view of the gigantic dam itself, with the snow-capped Japan Alps in the background. Once you've got over that, go back through the station and out the other side to see the dam at closer quarters, along with a range of retail opportunities: a curry restaurant, souvenir photos of you on the dam taken from a couple of hundred yards away, and the chance to buy the DVD of a TV miniseries about the construction of the tunnel through the mountains. (It has the magnificent English title of The Penetrators.)
The views of the mountains from Kurobe Dam are terrific, but the temperature doesn't feel particularly Alpine at that point. (Especially when you're blessed with the sort of summer sunshine we're getting today.) Once you've walked the few hundred yards across the dam to Kurobeko on the other side (the one bit of the Route where you're forced to travel on foot), that starts to change. A short cablecar ride through another tunnel takes you to Kurobedaira, which is where things start to get seriously snowy, and you need to break out the fleece or cardigan that you really should have brought with you. Then it's a spectacular ropeway ride up the mountains to Daikanbo. Thanks to that whole travelling-in-the-opposite-direction-to-everyone-else thing I mentioned earlier, The BBG and I are delighted that we're the sole occupants of our ropeway carriage, apart from an attendant who inevitably offers to take our photo.
Daikanbo is the first place where you can get up close and personal with the snow, as there's a small area round the back of the souvenir shop reserved for smokers and open-air group photography. But you may prefer to wait until after the trolleybus tunnel ride to Murodo, where there's a huge open area for walking, posing, and even skiing if you feel up to it. I've been a little nervous about winter conditions ever since my elbow fractures of 2009, but this time I've come prepared with Magic Spikers to slip over my shoes. The snow in Murodo is deeper and more squishy than the compacted ice that these things were made for, but they help improve my confidence no end, especially in a spookily quiet passage with ten foot high walls of ice to either side of you. I feel I can tentatively announce that snow is now my bitch again.
That ice-walled area at Murodo is actually a miniature version of the last major highlight of the Alpine Route: a 50 minute bus ride through a gigantic ice cavern carved between Murodo and Bijodaira. After that, it's one more cablecar ride down to ground level at Tateyama, and then an hour or so on a slow commuter train to civilisation at Toyama. The whole journey costs ten and a half thousand yen one way - about seventy-five quid at today's extortionate exchange rates - but on a good weather day, it's an experience well worth the outlay.
The expense of the Alpine Route partly led to our choice of budget hotel for the night: the other factor was the list of hotels that the baggage forwarding service would deliver to. So it's a relief to arrive at the Toyoko Inn Jr. Toyama Ekimae and immediately see our luggage in reception waiting for us.
I've mentioned before that Premier Inn is my hotel chain of choice for cheapo business and leisure travel in the UK, and I've assumed up till now that Toyoko Inn is like the Japanese equivalent. And based on our first ever experience of staying in one, I'd say that's a fair comparison. The rooms are basic, but everything's right where it needs to be, and there are a couple of complimentary surprises - free internet access via an in-room LAN cable, and a light Japanese breakfast of riceballs and soup included in the quite reasonable price. My only quibble is that after four nights of sleeping on futons, I'm in a bed for the first time, and when I get up for a wee in the middle of the night I forget there's a two-foot drop between the mattress and the floor.
We've assumed that the Toyoko Inn Jr. gets its name from its location across the road from the Japan Rail station: in fact, Jr. is short for Junior, as it's the smaller of two Toyoko Inns in the same central area of Toyama. It's still a reasonable size, taking up several floors of a large complex that also includes a dozen or so restaurants. We end up having dinner at one of the, a perfectly reasonable izakaya called Yoronotaki, because we're too tired to look any further afield. The only other thing we do that evening is slump in front of the telly, watching a terrifying gameshow called Imagination in which dumb celebrity contestants are asked questions and literally tortured if they get them wrong - hit with volleyballs fired from a cannon, dropped from several feet up into water, or having clear plastic sheeting stretched over their faces. It's during this show that we receive the surprising news that Toyama has just suffered a very very small earthquake.
We wake up the next morning to discover we missed another small earthquake during the night, grab our free breakfast and make it out of the Toyoko Inn just in time for 10am checkout. As our next train journey won't be until the afternoon, this gives us a few hours to kill in Toyama. Unfortunately, yesterday's excellent weather has finally broken, and it's pissing down with rain. It'd seems like the ideal time to visit a museum, so that's what we do.
In retrospect, during a huge rainstorm is probably the worst time to visit Toyama Municipal Folkcraft Village, a collection of ten or so small museums scattered widely across a hillside. Apart from that, it's a fine place to visit, especially if you get a bulk ticket for all the museums for five hundred yen. (And for reasons we still don't quite understand, if you travel there on the free hourly bus that leaves from outside the Excel Hotel in central Toyama, they knock another hundred off the price.) With so many different museum options - folk art, ceramics, archaeology, a tea ceremony, 500 statues of Buddha's disciples and much more - you could easily run out of time before you've seen all the good stuff. So take our advice and leave plenty of time for the Thatched Roof Folk Art Museum, like we didn't.
To wrap up our time in Toyama, we grab lunch at Shiroebi Tei on the third floor of Toyama station, so I'll let The BBG finish off this section. "I always like it when I get the chance to sample the local specialities, and so when I discovered that white shrimp was a speciality of Toyama, and that a place selling it in the train station was highly recommended, I knew where I wanted to have lunch. Shiroebi Tei is one of those little basic places with a ticket machine where you choose and pay for your meal, illustrated with pictures of the food, which also assists those who can't read the Japanese descriptions. As a bit of a fan of any kind of raw shrimp, I opted to have the white shrimp tempura donburi with added shrimp sashimi on the side, while Spank went for the hotaru squid tempura donburi, another local speciality. Both were very good, and excellent value, too."
The BBG's Alpine Route Photos
The BBG's Toyama Photos