Kurobe Gorge, Toyama

I had recently been feeling the urge to get out of the city and get into nature, because the leaves were changing colour and I was reminded that it won`t be long til the cold, dark and snowy winter will make countryside travelling very difficult. Two weeks ago I went up to the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa. It was a beautiful day for a barbeque and we went to the woods on a hill overlooking the bay. The Noto peninsula is beautiful, rural Japan, but so far I haven`t seen much of it as the trains only go half way and buses are infrequent. Some day though, I`ll make it to the end.

Last weekend I travelled to the neighbouring prefecture of Toyama on Ishikawa`s north-eastern side. Toyama is home to Tateyama, the third Holy Mountain, and to the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine trail where you can cross the Northern Japan Alps from Toyama into Nagano. I might do the trail in Spring because when the trail opens, the snow on the side of the roads can be as high as 20 meters, making the famous snow corridor. But this time I wasn`t going to look at snow, I wanted to see the Autumn leaves. I was going to Toyama anyway that weekend to go to a Halloween party so I did some research to see what sights could be seen while I was there. Kurobe Gorge is close to the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine route but it`s accessed from a different direction and doesn`t link up. The gorge is the deepest in Japan (although it`s not exactly a ravine) and wasn`t a popular spot to visit until after the construction of the Kurobe Dam when the railway, originally used to help with construction, became used for a sightseeing train.

This was exactly what I wanted to do, so on Saturday morning I got the train from Kanazawa to Toyama City where I met my friend Katie, and on to Uozu where we changed to the Toyama Chiho Railway at Shin-Uozu on to Unazuki-Onsen, from where the sightseeing train starts.

I learned three things on that day: wear a coat when going through mountain tunnels, don`t wear tights to places there are foot onsens, and don`t assume that cans of coffee from a vending machine will always be hot now that the seasons have changed.

We were the only foreigners there that day, although there were a lot of Japanese tourists, and I wonder how often foreigners go there. No English was spoken to us, but the train conductors were very concerned about us missing the last train back and making sure that we understood the timetable. Bless them.

The trains were long and orange with open-sided cars. Before we started off I was worried that this was going to be like a chronically unsafe rollercoaster, skirting around the sides of cliffs with nothing between us and the gorge but a loose chain at the side of the carriage. But it wasn`t terrifying at all as the train rumbled along at a leisurely pace and the tracks were wide.



I don`t know why there was a Norman castle at the edge of the reservoir.

We stopped at two places on our journey. At Kanetsuri we saw the mannen yuki or `ten-thousand year` snow, which was looking very sad at this stage in the year and an open riverside hot spring where people could stick their feet in.


They`re not that common but they do exist – beer vending machines.

At Keyakidaira we were quite chilly from our journey through the mountains so we went to an onsen (hot spring) to warm up. It was a pretty basic affair; we gave 700 yen to a lady running a ryokan (traditional Japanese guesthouse) to use her outdoor onsen which was a small pool at the side of a cliff facing onto the Kurobe River, covered with tarpaulin to shield it from passerby`s eyes. The water was absolutely scalding but after a while a woman came in to check and added some cold water to the mix. The view from the onsen was great, with yellow and red forested mountains around and a rushing river below.


The sun had set by the time we boarded the train back to Unazuki-onsen so while our carriage was flooded with light, the outside was dark except for the occasional lights of the few stations. As our train trundled along, it reminded me of Spirited Away.

Chicago

I had three days in Chicago city, and although I didn`t get to see all of the sights that I had wanted to, I think I was able to get a feel for it. It`s got a good vibe and I think it would be a cool city to live in. We got the train in from Naperville, a commuter town in the Chicago area, on a big, old-fashioned double-decker silver bullet train. I love taking the train, but it`s apparently not that popular in the States, even though it`s quite cheap for long distances. I think that because people have to rely on their car for getting around everyday, that they`d rather take a road trip to have their car with them on their holiday, or else save time and fly to their destination and rent a car. The cheapness of the train tends to attract a lot of crazies, so you have to be prepared to humour people for the long journey. The rail network isn`t very extensive either, and when we were in Memphis we met people who were traveling with Amtrak and they couldn`t go to Nashville because the train didn`t go there. The main use for the rail seems to be for cargo, and a few times I saw freight trains that extended for what seemed like miles as they trundled past.



Amish folk: not the only time I saw them on my trip either.

The architecture of Chicago is as impressive as it is renowned because it is such a modern city, with the oldest buildings there dating from the 1870s, when Chicago was able to experiment with new architectural practices and build skyscrapers. You can`t miss the Sears Tower (or Willis Tower, as it`s now officially known as) because it`s the tallest building in the US, although I didn`t have time to go to the top of it. I like the massing of the top section of the tower with its stepped approach to the apex, which makes it more interesting than the regular Miesian rectangular block.


I went on a river boat tour of downtown because it was one of the things that was most highly recommended to me, however, in the rush to catch the last tour of the day, we ended up going on a different tour to the one run by the Architecture Foundation. I copped it a few minutes in because our guide was focusing more on history rather than architecture. It was a pity I didn`t get the in-depth architecture tour, but I didn`t mind too much because the tour we went on was very interesting and we did learn something about the architecture too.



Marina City was built in the early sixties and are known as the Corncobs from their shape which resembles Illinois’ most famous product. They take up an entire block on State Street and were built as a city within a city, combining residences and offices with facilities such as stores, restaurants, a theatre and a marina on the river, from which it gets its name. The bottom 19 floors are a valet-operated spiral car park for the residences above.


Carbide & Carbon Building: built in 1929 in Art Deco style, the black granite and green terracotta facade with 24 carat gold leaf accents made it stand out when it was built from the neighbouring sandstone buildings and today from its neighbouring glass and steel constructions. Popular legend has it that it was designed to look like a champagne bottle.


This is the Crain Communications Building (1983) that is supposed to be ‘the feminine counter to the phallicism of most skyscrapers’, but which unfortunately isn’t true.



The Bean

After roaming around Centennial Park, we indulged our consumerist habits and went shopping on Michigan Avenue until after dark when we went to the Hancock Tower for a cocktail in the Signature Lounge. It wasn’t terribly expensive and we were seated right by the window facing onto Lake Michigan, where a full moon was reflected on the water. We were just about to leave when a fireworks display started over Navy Pier. It was strange to see fireworks from above and they looked so far away, but it was a beautiful way to finish our cocktails.

Two girls came over to the window to take photos and we heard them speaking Japanese so we said hello. They replied in flawless English so that at first I thought we had made a mistake, but they were over on holiday from Hiroshima. It was nice to meet a little bit of Japan on our holiday. Not to mention the countless Irish people I heard in Chicago. We would be walking down the street and I’d be able to tell by the cut of someone that they were probably Irish, we’d walk by and sure enough I’d hear the Irish accent.


After our sophisticated cocktail, we had a night of debauchery in Belmont with Liz’s cousin, and the next day we spent vintage shopping and margarita drinking. All in all, a successful couple of days, and I would love to go back to Chicago again in the future.