Is Kurobe Gorge on Your Must-See List? It Should Be!

"An open carriage train ride, green mountains, blue water, snow bridges, natural hot springs, happy kids, parents and grandparents. Despite the bucketing rain that drenched us on the way back, a perfect day. " is what is written in my notes about our visit to the Kurobe Gorge earlier this year. Actually, we hadn't intended on visiting the area at all, aiming for the Tateyama Alpine Route, but when heavy rain was forecast for the mountains, we needed a change of plans. Attracted by the the representative picture of the gorge (above) and the idea of a train ride for the kids we set out for Unazuki.

The Kurobe Gorge is located in Toyama prefecture, and can be reached using the Hokuriku Shinkansen to Kurobe-Unazuki Onsen station, followed by a 20 minute local train to Unazuki Onsen station. In total it should take about 3 hours to reach from Tokyo, and the same from Kyoto/Osaka, travelling via Kanazawa.

As you can see, the main drawcard for the Kurobe Gorge is the stunning natural beauty. In summer it is a lush, cool, green getaway and a relief from the heat and humidity of the cities and in Autumn, the changing leaves put on a truly spectacular show. Don't plan a visit in winter though. As the area receives huge amounts of snowfall it is inaccessible between December and mid-April. The complete route opens fully in early May.  There is a relatively long season for autumn leaves here with the season stretching from mid-October to mid-November.
To experience this beauty, visitors climb aboard the Kurobe Torokko railway, a train of open air carriages once used to haul dirt and stones away from the construction site of the Kurobe dam. The track winds its way 20 kilometres into the gorge criss-crossing over bridges (look down if you dare), alongside perfectly blue waterways and through tunnels taking about and hour and 20 minutes to reach the end of the line.Tickets are available for purchase at the Unazaki station and, on some departures, there is the option of paying slightly more for enclosed carriages. We took the open carriages on the way into the gorge and the enclosed carriages on the way back out. I was a little nervous about the open carriages, travelling with two little ones, but they happily sat up and enjoyed the trip. Be sure to have a jacket ready for the tunnels though, they can be quite chilly. On the way back we paid extra for the enclosed carriages because we were all soaking wet and while it was nice to be out of the weather, the windows fogged up terribly so I would recommend the open carriages for the best views.

There are stops along the route and the ones that are of interest to tourists are Kuronagi, Kanetsuri and and the final stop, Keiyakidaira.
At Kuronagi, the Kuronagi Onsen opens to day visitors until 4:00pm.

Kanetsuri offers to opportunity to relax in the riverside open air hot springs if you are feeling brave. If not, there is also the option of digging your own bath. As the hot spring water flows under the river banks, you can find it yourself by digging down a short way! Depending on how energetic you are (and whether you have brought your swimmers, which are totally OK in your self-dug onsen) you can dig and arrange rocks to create a full size bath or stop once you have a good foot bath going. Take care with the hot water, it really is hot! The onsen here is open until 4:00, after which is is reserved for overnight guests.
Kanetsuri is also one of the best places for viewing large amounts of mannen yuki, or perpetual snow, that is piled up, glacier-like at points along the valley.
At Keiyakidaira there is still more of nature at its finest to be explored.  Sarutobikyo or Monkey Jumping Gorge is one of the highlights and a 900 metre walk from the station.
By happy accident, we headed off in the opposite direction, crossing the impressive Okukane bridge and found ourselves on the path to the Babadani Jigoku area. This walk is about 6km return and winds its way along the river where you will spot more perpetual snow, including a very impressive snow bridge that spans the river as well as some along the path that is close enough to touch and beautiful foliage growing on the sometimes vertical cliffs.
Exploring the Keiyakidaira area
In one of those 'only in Japan' moments, we found ourselves donning helmets at the start of the trail to walk under the overhang of Hitokui Iwa (People-eating Crag) and then on the way to Babadani Jigoku, where the edge of the trail drops steeply away into the gorge, discover that great sections of safety barrier were missing in places! I should say that at no point did we feel unsafe but do walk carefully and take care in the tunnels which are quite dark until your eyes adjust.
The walk itself is not challenging and our just 5 year old really enjoyed exploring.

At the end of the trail the Babadani Jigoku is an interesting spot to look around the source of the hot water and we had the onsen to ourselves. For those wanting to experience onsen culture in a beautiful natural setting, without too many other people, this is probably a better option that riverside bathing at Kanetsuri! 
There is lots to see on the walk to the Babadani Jigoku and Onsen
Other nearby attractions
The Tateyama Alpine Route is in the same area and as I wrote recently, one of the most spectacular mountain destinations I have visited. Toyama is just a short 20 minute Shinkansen ride from Kanazawa, a beautiful city that mixes modern and traditional Japan superbly. The Takayama and Shirakawago area is also quite easy to access from Toyama.  While we hadn't intended on visitng the Kurobe Gorge, it has become one of my best memories of Japan. My parents who were with us for this trip were simply in awe of the natural beauty of the area as they had not previously associated this with Japan. With so many attractions in this part of Japan, there really is no reason not to visit!
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