Touring Toyama: Sights and Snacks in an Overlooked Corner of Japan

August 31, 2018

Photo courtesy of Matsukawa River Cruises

The city of Toyama, on the Sea of Japan coast, is likely passed up by many tourists heading west to Kanazawa, with its more famous sights — but that is a shame, because tourists who only know Toyama as a stop along the Shinkansen line are missing out on a remarkably pleasant, down-to-earth city.

A great way to start your visit is by heading to Toyama Castle Park, a few blocks south of Toyama Station and easily reached on foot. The park features a beautiful Japanese garden with waterfalls and the reconstructed castle keep, stone walls and moat. (Toyama became a target of Allied bombing during World War II, and in terms of architecture, it is a relatively new city.)

The castle stands as a reminder of Toyama’s feudal past. The observation deck at the top of the keep commands an excellent view of the city and the imposing mountains to the east, and the inside of the keep houses the Toyama Municipal Folk Museum. Although the majority of the displays are only presented in Japanese, there are English pamphlets, and it’s worth asking if any of the staff on duty can help — if you’re lucky you might meet a young guide who can mix English in with his energetic (and comedic) descriptions of Toyama history.

Photo courtesy of Matsukawa River Cruises

Once you’ve enjoyed the gardens and castle, head past the statue of daimyo Maeda Masatoshi and cross over the iconic red bridge to reach the Matsu River, or Matsukawa, which flows past Toyama Castle Park’s northern edge.

A Cruise on the Matsukawa River

The Matsukawa River Cruise is one of the area’s flagship (get it?) attractions — especially when the hundreds of cherry trees lining the banks flower in late-March to early-April, creating a tunnel of delicate pink and white blossoms to travel through. But even if you don’t manage to time your visit to coincide with the peak sakura season, a boat ride up and down the Matsukawa will quickly make you forget the din of the outside world, and the green foliage of summer and turning leaves of autumn make for pleasant scenery as well. (The river cruise is closed in winter, December 1 through the middle of March.)

Photo courtesy of Matsukawa River Cruises

Be sure to look up at the Funahashi bridge as you pass under. As the story goes, back in the day before any permanent bridges had been built over the (once-wide) river, wooden planks were set down across boats lined up side to side across the river, allowing people to cross. This first, rudimentary bridge is memorialized by Funahashi (literally, “boat-bridge”).

The guide steers the boat through the narrow waterway while cracking jokes in Japanese (good luck) and at one point executes a flawless three-point turn. Watch closely and you may get to see a proud grey heron or two (called aosagi) waiting patiently for a fish to swim by.

Visitors planning to take a Matsukawa River Cruise should consider purchasing a discount “set ticket” (1500 yen) that includes unlimited rides on the tram for one day in addition to the river cruise. The river cruise is normally 1600 yen (1800 during sakura season), so this is a smart deal. These combination tickets are only available from Toyama Station May 12 – November 30.

Matsukawa River Cruises website

Matsukawa Riverside Cafe

Before or after your river cruise you can enjoy refreshments and snacks at the cafe above the boat landing. In addition to dango dumplings, ice cream, and kakigori shaved ice, their “Toyama Castle Matcha Parfait” looks delicious and Instagram-ready. The cafe’s alfresco seating, overlooking the river, allows you to take advantage of fine weather.

Also located inside the cafe building is the Taki Rentaro Memorial Museum, dedicated to the famous Japanese pianist and composer who lived part of his short life in Toyama. Although the displays are not in English, it’s a nice little room that is sure to bring nostalgia to anyone familiar with his wistful music.

Photo courtesy of Matsukawa River Cruises

Traditional Toyama Medicine at Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten

One of Toyama’s most famous shops is called Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten, a traditional Chinese medicine shop which has been in business since 1936. Ikedaya is one of roughly a hundred pharmacies in Toyama, giving you an idea of how central the medicinal business is to Toyama’s identity and history.

Although actual production was moved out of this location about 50 years ago, visitors can try their hand at shaping the traditional pills, called hangontan. First, a member of their sales staff will use the hand-operated machine to cut the slab into dozens of pieces. The challenging part is using a board to smooth the pieces into round pills of uniform shape — the pros make it look easy! In any case, it’s fascinating to get a glimpse at how this traditional medicine has been made in Toyama for decades.

Eating Naturally at Yakuto

On Ikedaya’s second floor you’ll find what they call a “medicinal herbs restaurant,” where you can sit down to enjoy a healthy Japanese meal made from recipes based on the principles of Chinese medicine. Yakuto offers two “kenkozen” set meals: the standard course (2000 yen) and the tempura course (3000 yen). Each contains dishes such as Korean ginseng soup, black rice, chicken dumplings, and seasonal ingredients. Ikedaya also makes their own ice cream, which is superb.

Yakuto is open at lunchtime only, 11:30am–2pm.

Ikedaya Yasubei Shoten website

Shimakawa Ame Ten: a Spoonful of Mizuame

Mizuame (mizu: water, and ame: candy) is a Japanese sweetener made from malt, with a pleasantly mild taste. Shimakawa Ame Ten has been making it since 1663. Yes, back when Japan was ruled by a shogun and Toyama was controlled by the Maeda Clan.

Photo courtesy of Shimakawa Ame Ten

Originally mizuame was added to medicines, both for sweetness and because the thick mizuame held things together, preserving the shape of pills. These days, however, mizuame is mainly just a sweet treat.

By the beginning of Japan’s Showa era only about seven shops making traditional mizuame were left in Toyama, and today, sadly, only Shimakawa remains. Production is left entirely to Mr. Shimakawa, while his wife serves customers in the shop. Their mizuame sweets make perfect gifts for friends or family back home, particularly for anyone curious about local products not available in supermarkets — in Japan or abroad. But even travelers not interested in buying souvenirs should consider a visit; for one, their “stick mizuame” are great for a quick energy boost while hiking or traveling. And besides, the experience you’ll have visiting Shimakawa, a local family-run shop in business since Japan’s feudal era, will be a truly authentic one.

Photo courtesy of Shimakawa Ame Ten

Shimakawa Ame Ten website (in Japanese)

Traditional Kamaboko at Umekama U-mei Kan

To state the obvious, fish is ubiquitous in Japan. There’s sushi and sashimi, of course — and fish is also grilled, sauteed, fried, steamed, baked, boiled, simmered, pickled — basically any possible way to cook it or not cook it, Japan’s got it covered. So it should come as no surprise that this land of fish has also perfected the technique of grinding it up and making fish cakes.

Called kamaboko in Japanese (but also going by other names depending on the preparation), fish cakes are processed surimi seafood made from a variety of fish species, including pollock, silver croaker, sardine, and more.

Both a shop and information center, U-mei Kan is the place to go for anything kamaboko. The kamaboko of Toyama is famous for the unique method of wrapping the surimi paste in konbu (kelp) to create a spiral pattern, and at U-mei Kan visitors can watch exactly how it’s done. In addition to the konbu variety (called kobumaki), they make a red version using dyed surimi (called akamaki), which is popular for its auspicious red and white colors.

U-mei Kan is perhaps most famous for its saiku-kamaboko, which are intricately decorated fish cakes of all shapes and colors, from fish designs (an obvious choice) to slices of watermelon (less obvious) and everything in between. They even have kamaboko shaped like the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the bullet train that stops in Toyama. But the fanciest saiku-kamaboko are reserved for special celebrations. Kamaboko for weddings are composed of nine different elements, each having a special meaning and dictated by Toyama tradition!

After watching the workers, it’s time to sample some of the wide variety of kamaboko products sold here. From kamaboko with firefly squid to kamaboko flavored with cheese and black pepper, keep an open mind and there’s sure to be something you like!

U-mei Kan is open for tours every day except Wednesdays and Sundays.

U-mei Kan website (Japanese)

Over the Moon at Tsuki Sekai

Meaning “Moon World,” Tsuki Sekai is the name of a Toyama confectionery that has been making delightful sweets since the late nineteenth century. In Japan and other parts of the world, legend has it that a rabbit lives on the moon, and moon and rabbit motifs are used on Tsuki Sekai’s attractive packaging and in their shopfront.

The company makes two kinds of sweets: its eponymous “tsuki sekai,” which has a very subtle flavor and is meant to pair with green tea or coffee, and one called “maido haya,” which comes in both yuzu (citrus) and goma (sesame) flavors. “Maido haya” is a traditional greeting of Etchu province (present-day Toyama), so now you know exactly what to say when meeting your friend to give her a box — choose from one of six cute designs — of this traditional confectionery.

Photo courtesy of Tsuki Sekai

The radiant ladies of Tsuki Sekai

Tsuki Sekai website (Japanese)

Art and Architecture at the Toyama Glass Art Museum

Located in downtown Toyama, the building home to the Toyama Glass Art Museum was designed by famous Japanese architect Kuma Kengo, and is definitely worth a visit. Upon entering you’ll find yourself gazing up through the light-filled interior, mesmerized by the patterns formed by countless cedar planks decorating each level of the building.

In addition to displays of the glass art that Toyama is famous for, the building, called Toyama Kirari, is home to a city library, gift shop, and café.

Anime fans may be interested to note that a Studio Ghibli exhibition will be held at the museum from December 8, 2018 through February 24, 2019. Details are available in Japanese on the official website.

Toyama Glass Art Museum website

Hotel Grand Terrace Toyama

Just a short walk from Toyama Station, Hotel Grand Terrace Toyama is conveniently located and is a sensible choice for travelers looking for clean, comfortable Western-style rooms at very reasonable cost. (Apparently they also have Japanese-style tatami rooms.) Rooms have free wi-fi, and Japanese and Chinese restaurants serve both lunch and dinner. A breakfast buffet (1000 yen, or 800 yen if ordered in advance) is available with a range of Japanese and Western cuisine — a particularly helpful option when an early getaway is called for (as long as you don’t spend too much time taking advantage of the buffet). If you plan to spend the day visiting sights in town, be sure to ask about their free bicycle rental for guests.

Photo courtesy of Hotel Grand Terrace Toyama

Hotel Grand Terrace Toyama Website (Japanese)

Freshly Roasted Beans at Mameya

Anyone looking to relax with a cup of joe in Toyama’s downtown should definitely check out Mameya Coffee in the Sogawa Shopping Arcade. The owner roasts the beans by hand using a rare kind of small drum roaster — and the only thing separating perfect beans from not-so-perfect beans is his experience and (probably supernatural) intuition. Not only is the resulting cup fantastic, it’s also served with a cookie. What more could you ask?

Find Mameya on Google Maps

The city of Toyama may not have many pages in the guidebooks, but it’s a truly pleasant town for residents and visitors alike. Anyone looking for a respite from the crowds or simply a new corner of Japan to explore ought to check it out.

WRITTEN BY KEVIN PLIMLEY