Mount Tateyama: Japan’s Hidden Gem
By Joe Pike
Before visiting Japan, the only images I had of the country were those I've collected through years of cheesy television shows and big-budget action movies. So, needless to say, I expected nothing but eating cross-legged on the floor at sushi bars, drinking sake, belting out some Madonna karaoke and pushing my way through crowded streets brightly lit from the many high rises.
Now, don't get me wrong, you can find all of these features in Japan, but beautiful, snow –covered mountains? Well, those are images best suited for Colorado or Alaska, right?
The first time I laid eyes on Mount Tateyama, one of the most gorgeous, snow-capped mountains I've ever seen and home to the freshest air these lungs have ever ingested, I realized how sheltered some Americans like myself really are from what Japan really has to offer.
I was on a bus the first time my eyes met Mount Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture in the Chubu region of Japan. There was a heavy fog that day and it pretty much covered all the beauty the national park it lies in had to offer. That is, until the robust mountain, covered from top to bottom in snow, welcoming snowboarders, skiers and hikers alike, decided to show its face.
This was part of an adventure I took last year to the remote regions of the Land of the Rising Sun. Much like Mount Tateyama, this lesser-known portion of Japan, the northern and central areas of Honshu, has remained hidden.
The highlight, of course, was when I visited the Tateyama National Park, home to Mount Tateyama, or commonly referred to as Mount Tate, and a snow-covered mountain landscape that offers the country's famed Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
If you're adventurous and enjoy some cold weather, I urge you to try this excursion. The peak climbing season for Mount Tate, which helps makes up Japan's "Three Holy Mountains," is from April to November.
A bus takes you on a nearly one-hour journey through the alpine route where you first see incredibly robust trees that have been around for centuries. The final lap of the trip takes you through the famous snow corridor, which is basically a road dug out through snow—and I'm not talking about a few inches to the left and right. Try about five stories of snow piled to the left and right of the road. If this thing ever collapsed, say goodbye. But no worries, the snow was as hard as cement.
Now this is something you can't find in Alaska or Colorado.
I walked along the corridor, leaned against the immense blocks of snow, scribbled the names of family and friends on the snow walls with my fingers and then watched as hikers made their way up the mountain and came swooshing down on snowboards.
This wasn't the Japan I learned about as a child, but it is the Japan I will remember for the rest of my life.
And if this isn't enough to convince you to take that long flight Japan, try checking out some of Japan's other hidden splendors. I saw the Hokuriku region, lying along the Sea of Japan. It is in the northeastern part of Honshu. The main cities of the Hokuriku area are Toyama, Takaoka, Fukui, Kanazawa, Komatsu and Niigata. Of these, Kanazawa is the largest, with a population touching 500,000. The Chubu region, in the center of Honshu, had an estimated population of nearly 22 million as of 2008. It includes the major city of Nagoya as well as long coastlines on the Pacific and Sea of Japan, extensive mountain resorts and Mount Fuji.
The first day of my journey to the unknown wonders of Japan took me to the Kenrokuen Garden, one of the most famous floral nurseries in Japan. We hopped on a quick two-hour flight from Haneda Airport to arrive at the Komatsu Airport.
After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the garden in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. Even Vincent van Gogh couldn't paint a prettier landscape then the one I saw here. Now, I'm not a floral and fauna expert, but I know beauty when I see it. There were purples and pinks all over the place, and streams pretty much every inch of the way.
I wrapped up the first day with a visit to the old Samurai district and checked out a few historic houses where these warriors once lived. It was a surreal experience to be in the same building where they once slept.
On the third day (the aforementioned Mount Tateyama excursion was my second day's adventure), we headed to the World Heritage Site of Ainokura, where we learned to make paper and saw some more historic homes. Durable and elegant Japanese paper from Gokayama, together with paper from Yatsuo and Birudani, has been designated under the name Etchu as traditional craft industry products by the Japanese government.
I can't explain the technical aspects of it but basically it was a magical arts and crafts class where you place your own designs in a tray dipped in a wax-like formula until it hardens. It is then placed on a hot, iron-based slab where it dries, becomes thin paper and is peeled off and given to participants as a souvenir.
In fact, I have two large pieces of framed Japanese paintings in both the living room and bedroom of my New Jersey apartment and never go a day without admiring their beauty and the hard work and dedication put into both of them.
On the final day, we made our way to Gujo Hachiman in Gifu Prefecture where we had another arts and crafts exercise. At the Sample Village Iwasaki, our group learned how to make wax replicas of food. We were shown how to make lettuce and tempura shrimp. As usual, I needed the directions read to me about three extra times, or, if you're including the English translation, six times. But with the assistance of the employees at Sample Village Iwasaki, I successfully made a wax sculpture.
Can you fly within the U.S. to see some of the beautiful landscapes I saw? Sure. Can you travel within the U.S. to see beautiful snow-covered mountains located near centuries of Japanese culture from the origins of geisha girls to the home of Samurais? Only in your dreams.
Or, you can visit these areas of Japan and see your dreams come to life.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (Toyama Pref)
3h 20 min via Echigo-Yuzawa Station (JR Jo'etsu Shinkansen Line) to Toyama Station. 1h from Dentetsu Toyama to Tateyama Station by Toyama Chitetsu Tateyama Line.
3h 10 min to Toyama Station by JR Hokuriku Line.
Kanazawa (Ishikawa Pref)
[Air] 1h from Haneda to Komatsu Airport.
[Rail] 1h 35 min from Tokyo to Echigo-Yuzawa by JR Joetsu Shinkansen Line, and 2h 25 min from the station to Kanazawa Station by JR Hokuetsu Kyuko Line (limited express).
2h 30 min to Kanazawa Station by JR Hokuriku Line (limited express).
Takayama and Shirakawago(Gifu Pref)
2h to Nagoya Station by JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line, and 2h 10 min from Nagoya to Takayama Station by JR Takayama Line. 50min from Takayama-Nohi Bus Center by bus.
1h from Shin-Osaka to Nagoya Station by Shinkansen.