Our slow travel series explores how you can take more mindful journeys by train, boat, bus or bike – with tips on how to get where you’re going without extra flights, and what to see and do along the way. Here, Lonely Planet’s resident Japanese train expert John Walton takes us across the Japanese Alps from Nagoya to Toyama by train.
When you think about Japanese train travel, you might think about speeding to or from Tokyo on a high-speed Shinkansen, rocketing at up to 200 mph (320km/h) through tunnels and over elevated concrete viaducts.
That experience is indeed a big part of train travel in Japan – but some of the Japanese rail journeys I love the most are a rather slower affair.
The Hida, one of Japan’s regional Limited Express trains, is one of them. Weaving its way from bustling Nagoya’s enormous main railway station along the old pre-Shinkansen Tokaido Main Line before veering off through smaller cities and into the mountains, it provides some of the most quintessentially Japanese experiences you can have.
Between Tokyo and Kyoto, this ride is perfect both for first-time Japan travelers or for return visitors who want to get off the beaten path. Nonstop, it’s a four-hour trip, but much of the joy is in breaking up your journey, including at one – or both – of the hot-spring resort towns along the route.
You can start at either end, but Nagoya is usually slightly easier to reach for most travelers. I strongly disagree with those who find Japan’s fourth-largest city dull: it’s an incredibly friendly place, with loads of delicious local foods that rank among Japan’s best. It’s also one of Japan’s greatest museum cities, with theme parks, castles and more.
Train lovers will enjoy SCMAGLEV & Railway Park, to my mind Japan’s best railway museum. If you’re into architecture, Meiji-mura showcases buildings from the Meiji period (1867–1912) as well as one by Frank Lloyd Wright, while Inuyama Castle (one of Japan’s 12 original castles) and Nagoya Castle (a replica) offer a taste of history. Take in magnificent art at the Tokugawa Art Museum – or go further afield to see how one of the world’s greatest automakers works at the Toyota Automobile Museum (a 45-ride on the floating maglev Linimo transit system). Bottom line: there’s lots to do.
Nagoya’s main station itself hides secrets: beneath it there is a warren-like underground city that almost feels like a mini theme park. For views, a sky-high two-floor restaurant area on the top of the building contains the Takashimaya department store, including a Starbucks with an incredible view all the way southeast across the dozens of train tracks.
Must-munch options from local restaurants – some of which you can take with you on board as lunch boxes – include the local hitsumabushi eel, Nagoya-style chicken wings, misokatsu pork cutlet, the local kishimen noodles and (in winter) a misonikomi hot pot.
Best views on a Hida train
Named after the former Japanese province and river both called Hida, the train offers brilliant views of some of Japan’s best scenery from wide windows. It runs 10 times a day, sometimes terminating at Takayama and sometimes running through to Toyama.
At present, you’ll find either the old carriages – some delightful 1980s classics and the KiHa 85 – or the brand-new, sustainable hybrid diesel HC85. You can ask the reservations desk which train it will be when you make your reservations (for the Japan Rail Pass) or buy your tickets (if you don’t have a pass).
I find the old trains particularly charming: the front and back cars have a fully panoramic all-window nose, allowing you to watch both the view and the driver as the train weaves its way through the rough-hewn mountain tunnels and single-track railway. These panoramic cars gave the train its previous name, the Wide View Hida; with the new trains, the name has reverted to just the Hida for all services.
You start off on the Tokaido Line, the old pre-Shinkansen main line alongside enormously long commuter trains mixed with JR freight trains whizzing past.
You actually end up reversing direction at Gifu to take you up past Inuyama, now a suburban town but one very worthy of a diversion, for Meiji-mura, Inuyama Castle and the Uraku-en garden (and its national-treasure teahouse).
From there you start to climb up past rivers and into hills and then mountains. The multi-track main line turns into a two-track suburban line and then a single-track mountain railway as it wends its way through tunnels built in the early 1900s. On the north side of the mountains, the train breaks out into valleys of rice fields and the alluvial plains of the Jinzu and Ida Rivers. Look out the train to the east as you approach Toyama to see the Hida Mountains looming in the distance.
This is a quintessential slow-train experience. Gaze down at bright green-blue mountain rivers right next to you, marvel at the tiny single-track tunnels hewn into the sides of the mountains by railway workers in the early 1900s, relax as you enjoy the sights of seasonal forests and rice fields, peer into the lives of small towns, and perhaps stop at one or both of the two main onsen hot spring towns on the list. (Make sure you bring your onsen towel, or buy one locally as a souvenir.)
The first town is Gero-Onsen, traditionally one of Japan’s top three hot-spring towns. It’s also home to the Gassho-Mura folk village, an open-air museum a couple of miles east of the station.
Next is Takayama, sometimes called Hida Takayama to distinguish it from Japan’s other Takayamas (the name literally translates as “high mountain,” so confusion is understandable). It’s larger than sleepy Gero, and offers both hot springs and the Furui-machi-nami district, with its beautiful historical wooden buildings.
With trains (either the Hida or a local train) connecting the two pretty much every hour, both are well worth a stop. Remember that the sun sets early in Japan, and that the last Hida north to Toyama leaves Takayama just after 5pm.
Keep an eye out at tiny Inotani station for a change of drivers: this is the border between the JR Central and JR-West railway-company regions. One company’s driver hops off with a quick salute to the other company’s driver, who hops on. It’s all done in a flash.
If you make it to the front car, it’s absolutely fascinating to watch the driver as they do the famous Japan Railways point-and-call at every single signal. “Shinko!” they say out loud, with confidence, as they point a finger at every green signal on the way.
Anything else to know?
Tourist information for visitors is occasionally broadcast throughout the train, including on the older trains via a rather ingenious low-tech system, which involves a cassette player held up to the microphone.
The region has done a great job in recent years increasing the already decent level of signage in English, and a growing number of tourist-information and railway staff are confident in world languages. Even first-time visitors should feel confident with navigating this wonderful journey.
When you get to Toyama, you might be tempted to speed off on your next train. But you won’t regret a stop here.
Transport buffs will enjoy a ride on the Toyama Portram, Japan’s first Light Rail Transit (LRT) line, while gourmets can sample some of Japan’s freshest and most delicious sushi from the rich waters of Toyama Bay. Don’t miss the local specialty, pressed-trout masu-zushi (which also makes an excellent on-train meal), or let your eyes do the choosing at one of the restaurant floors in one of the malls right next to the station building.
Japanese trains are famously on time, so you’ll be shocked to know that my train was running about 15 minutes late owing to a truck having crashed into one of the bridges in the Nagoya region. Of course, this being Japan, there was a small brigade of railway staff in emergency armbands waiting on the platform to help passengers make new connections.
Where do the tracks lead from here?
Nagoya is a key stop along Tokyo’s first and busiest bullet train line, the famous Tokaido Shinkansen, as well as numerous slower conventional lines operated by JR Central and private railway companies.
Toyama is served by one of the newest high-speed rail lines, the Hokuriku Shinkansen: you can speed west to Kanazawa (and from spring 2024 as far as Fukui) and change for Kyoto, or return to Tokyo via Nagano and Takasaki.
More information on the Wide View Hida and the Hida
The best time to take the Hida line
The mountains are beautiful for most of the year, especially in spring and autumn – but Toyama Prefecture’s enormous snowfall means that a winter trip is a particular delight. Avoid the summer unless you love heat and humidity.
Food and drink during the journey
As ever in Japan, try the local ekiben bento boxes featuring scrumptious regional specialties, usually over rice, and consider stopping off at one of the omiyage souvenir stalls at your departure station for delicious snacks (Japanese people buy them to bring home for friends and colleagues). These shops are also great for local sake and the growing range of Japanese regional craft beers.
As with almost all trains in Japan, ticket priced are fixed rather than dynamic. You’ll pay the same whether you book months in advance or walk up the day you’re traveling.
Fares are based on distance ($37) plus a reserved seat fare ($21, or $51 for the Green Car first class seats, definitely worth it if you can get the panoramic front car). You can buy tickets from any JR ticket office in Japan, or from Japan-specialist travel agents.
Rail passes covering the area, including the nationwide Japan Rail Pass, can be used yet require advance reservation.
Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair international airport has flights to dozens of Asian destinations, as well as Detroit (Delta Air Lines), Guam (United Airlines) and Honolulu (Japan Airlines). Prior to the Russian overflight bans, Finnair also offered connections from Helsinki.
As with most Japanese cities, you’ll find everything from capsule hotels through inexpensive yet reliable “business hotels” up to international brands near both Nagoya and Toyama stations.