Train

The Shinkansen comes to Toyama!

In the last year year or so I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the construction around Toyama station every week, the building dark on the inside and surrounded by fences and construction machines. I walked through the station for the first time on Sunday (the day after it opened) and was surprised at how moved I felt. It’s huge and beautiful and it feels like a really important moment for Toyama.

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The south entrance

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South of the station

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This is an image of most of the station. On the left you can see a sign that says “Toyama city” and the gate after that is for local trains and lead to the same tracks that we used before the new station was built. The big gate on the right is for the new Shinkansen.  (*^▽^*)

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Facing north: entrance to the local trains

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Facing east: entrance to the Shinkansen tracks

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The Shinkansen means an increase in tourism and and there is an entire new building attached to the east side of the station full of fancy omiyage. Here’s the new store that is in the station itself, which seems to have more budget friendly omiyage and souvenirs like key chains.

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Just one of the new shops

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Shinkansen swag!

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I know what you’re thinking, why is there a random patch of weird coloured tiles in the middle of the station? It’s actually some sort of holographic(?) tile that has different coloured lights shining on it from above. There’s also faint bird and nature noises playing that I could only hear when I walked through this area.

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On the west side of the station there is a little elevated area with tables where people can eat and study. There’s also this elevator from the future.

Toyamastation0128 Toyamastation0130On the east side of the station is the new terminal for the Toyama tram lines.
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And a new bathroom. ( ´ ▽ ` )ノ

Toyamastation0138And after all that excitement I was back to my usual platform waiting for my train back. On the left is one of the older JR trains and on the right is one of the newer trains that have been here for almost a year. They used to only go towards Kanazawa but now they also make the trip east. The company running the main train lines in Toyama has changed. It used to be JR but it is now privately owned.

Toyamastation141While Toyama is not exactly a tourist destination, the Shinkansen means more and more people will be dropping in. There’s been major renovations to the buildings near the station, and even smaller cities have made changes like an increase in English menus and signs. It’s exciting to see Toyama growing and I can’t wait to take the Shinkansen somewhere, even if only the short trip to Kanazawa!

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Monkey Mountain: the kings of Arashiyama

Sadly no, Arashiyama (嵐山) does not mean “Monkey Mountain”. Rather, it is the joint “Arashi”, meaning “storm” (incidentally also the name of Japan’s biggest Boy Band) and “Yama”, meaning “Mountain”. I had very little knowledge about Arashiyama, but having never been it seemed like the perfect excursion for a Thursday morning.

The town is a mecca of tourist attractions, including the very famous Sagano bamboo forest, Kameyama koen, and last but (definitely) not least, the Iwatayama “Monkey Park”.

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The journey is no small feat, as visitors need to climb some extensive steps upwards on the side of a mountain. Throughout the ascent, informative signs are posted to humour and prepare visitors for their encounter with the park’s furry inhabitants.The three rules of the Monkey Park are as follows:

1. Don’t feed the monkeys

2. Don’t touch the monkeys

3. Don’t stare at the monkeys (it makes them feel embarrassed)

Rules number one and two are dismissed when located in the special monkey-feeding building which has large-gapped screens in place of windows. Monkeys calmly hang off the building and reach through the screens, holding their palms in patient (and a somewhat bored) request for food. Clutching my 100 Yen bag of fruit chunks I cautiously placed a piece of apple in an outstretched hand, expecting the monkey to snatch it up. Years of being fed this way have taught the monkeys that they have nothing to fear from camera-wheeling tourists and the monkey practically rolled his eyes at me.

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The third rule (don’t stare at the monkeys) was the hardest to keep. I’m not sure how embarrassed they really did feel as they strolled around the mountaintop, occasionally blocking the walking paths as visitors (OK, me) edged around them.

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_DSC0155Monkeys aren’t the only reason to come to Monkey Park (although you might expect as such). The height of the park is higher than that of Kyoto tower (131 Metres), offering a sprawling view of the city below. The climb (although potentially challenging) passes through some pretty beautiful scenery.

_DSC0131 After the Monkey Park, we spent some time wandering the bodies of water, taking in the bright sky and mountains. Although Kyoto is not chaotic by any means, Arashiyama is most definitely a welcome relief of fresh air and picturesque surroundings.

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Autumn in December: Nagoya Castle

Three months after my first trip, I returned to Nagoya. This time, with a special travel buddy: my younger sister Ebany. The day of Ebany’s arrival in Japan was the first snowy day in Toyama, and man does Toyama know how to snow. We were both entranced by the blankets of white and crisp, chilly wind, made even more festive by the abundance of lights and Christmas decorations that fill the city. Our train ride in the morning was a perfect way to see the snow topped mountains and trees, seated comfortably  and with plenty of leg room in our heated JR train.

_DSC0007Upon arrival we spent a few hours wandering the overwhelming luxe JR towers, a 15 story behemoth of fancy restaurants and fancier stores.

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Sunday morning we payed a visit to Nagoya’s famous castle, originally built in the early 17th century during the Edo period and has since been demolished and reconstructed in the mid 20th century. Like most attractions in Japan, it’s surrounding area is an essential element to the experience. Winding paths, stretches of stone walls and lush foliage are a serene introduction to the extensive castle. Unlike Toyama, Nagoya hasn’t realized that it’s December, and so we were delighted to find fall leaves and warm sun.

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Every floor of the reconstructed castle features a different exhibition of history and the building’s construction. The top floor  offers a panoramic view of the extensive city and visual evidence of its ranking as the 4th most populous city in Japan. Of course there are plenty of cheesy photo opportunities, my favourite being the large golden Dolphins which pay homage to the castle’s architectural history.

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Kurobe Gorge

My daily rides to work provide a view of the sea of open air and rice fields. A welcome change of scenery but lacking the familiar vibrant shades of leaves in the fall that I’m accustomed to at home. A holiday weekend and a craving for autumn foliage encouraged us to take a trip to the nearby mountain attraction- an 80 minute train line through the Kurobe Gorge. Originally serving practically for industrial transportation into the mountains, the train line is now a unique feature of Toyama, operating from mid-spring to the end of November.

Trains depart from Unazuki, with 4 different stops throughout the mountain range and the choice of several classes of train seats (the highest being enclosed and heated). Prompted by adventure (and frugality) we opted for an open train. Although the resulting ride was decidedly wet and chilly it was agreed we had made the right decision- the open sides gave us a breathtaking view of the mountains in full autumn colour.

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The line’s practical beginnings are evident as the train winds through the mountains, passing by dams, bridges, and underground tunnels used in the winter. The ascension of the mountain becomes increasingly rugged as buildings and structures disappear from view. The expanse of mountains envelopes the train, providing somewhat of an unexpected sanctuary.

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At our final stop at the top of the mountain, Keyakidaira, the rain miraculously stopped and we warmed up with some much needed Udon and coffee. There are several paths that branch from the main lodge. Our first led us along the mountain side through the dense forest and across vibrant red bridges.

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_DSC0086_DSC0071There are several key features of Keyakidaira are its three onsen, “Owl tree” (a mysterious stump with the appearance of an owl), and its many winding paths along the mountain sides. The mountains are also home to monkeys which I had given up all hope of seeing until I saw a furry creature jump from the path ahead of me, across the railing and down into the trees. My first response was of second concern for this seemingly confused dog until I quickly realized in fact it was a monkey. We saw two more on our train ride back down the mountain, sitting leisurely on the side of the tracks and apparently unperturbed by the train barreling past them.

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Nagoya

My first long-ish venture into Japan travel proved to be surprisingly stress and hassle free. About two weeks before departure I booked a hostel online and bought a bus ticket at the train station in Toyama. I’m no stranger to bus rides, having been a student traveling home or to Toronto and back countless times. The three and a half bus ride to Nagoya was amazing. Yes, amazing. The highway from Toyama to Nagoya cuts directly through the Japan alps, and so I was treated to a spectacular and seemingly endless view of mountains and small villages tucked between them.

Impressions of Nagoya… A large, lively city. I was only there for a brief time and in the major areas, but from my experience it would be a good place to go with friends or family. There are countless stores and shopping malls, and restaurants. One of the highlights was the Ossu Kanon Temple, where we received our fortunes and tied them to the ropes for good luck.

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We also spent an hour and a half waiting for Hitsumabushi, a Nagoya specialty of eel cooked over a bed of rice. The long wait was completely worth it for this amazing meal.

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Apparently Nagoya is also the coffee hub of Japan (who knew?). The absence of cafes is something I noticed quickly in Japan. There’s a breakfast chain in Nagoya called “Komodo”, which we ate breakfast at on our last morning.

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