Published: Garuda Inflight Magazine, July 2011
I went into the restaurant and ordered up a Japanese cold remedy: a bowl of hot ramen and a stearming cup of green tea.
Surrounded by 3.000 metre high mountains, which are collectively known as the Roof of Japan, and situated directly adjacent to Toyama Bay, the prefecture of Toyama has an ambience that is similar to that of New Zealand.
The views here are simply captivating and my bus journey from Nagoya offered me a taste of what was to come. The bus took us through mountainous landscapes filled with trees and multi-coloured leaves. After crossing over into Toyama, we continued on to the Kurobe Dam, which is famous for being Japan’s largest ever dam project. The temperature outside was around five degrees Celsius and the chill could be felt through the bus windows. It was starting to get colder.
Snow-capped peaks were visible in the distance and we were nearing our destination. All of sudden, however, snow started to fall. Kyoko, our tour guide, receive word that thick snow had buried the main road, which is known locally as the Alpine Route. This was a great shame as the Alpine Route is one’s Toyama’s main tourist attractions. Hemmed in by 11-metre-high ice walls, this twisting road would have taken us through an amazing frozen fissure. Alas though, our bus was forced to take an alternative route, which turned a one-hour journey into a three-hour one.
The snowy season comes earlier to the mountains than it does to the lowlands and trees, roads and land all turn white. As we neared the dam, the temperature dropped again to two degrees Celcius. The bus edged along aver more slowly because the road was so slippery. The driver also wrapped the tyres to prevent skidding.
The snowfall had increased in intensity by the time we arrived at Ogisawa Station, the gateway to the Kurobe Dam. The snow in the parking lot was ankle high and it didn’t take long for the ice to freeze up the parked vehicles. I went into the restaurant and ordered up a Japanese cold remedy: a bowl of hot ramen and a stearming cup of green tea.
To get to the dam, we boarded an electrically powered trolley bus. The trolley bus headed into a chilly, 5,6 kilometre-long tunnel, however the effect of my warming ramen only lasted for a few minutes and I soon felt freezing cold again. After arriving at Kurobe Dam Station, we continued our journey on foot along a tunnel for another 15 minutes. The tunnel was designed like am museum, and on the walls to the left and right hung photograph detailing the dam’s construction process.
Built by Kansai Electric, the Kurobe Dam was the most difficult project in Japan at the time. Construction on the dam started in 1956 and it took seven years to build, at a cost of ¥51 billion and the lives of hundreds of construction workers. The construction of the dam proved to be such a challenge that it was immortalized in a film entitled, “Kurobe no Taiyo” (“The Sung of Kurobe”).
The cold wind ambushed us at the end of the tunnel. It was blowing through the gaps between the buildings and sent the snow flakes scattering in all directions. We then walked to Kurobeko Station, which lies 1,455 metres above sea level. In front of us lay the steeply-concreted valley and slopes of the flagship dam project. The temperature now dropped to below zero, and the trip was rapidly becoming a real test of endurance.
On the right hand side, all we could see was a dry water course, which had already been buried under the snow. Meanwhile, to our left, was Lake Kurobe. At first glance, the lake looked like a river flowing past the foot of the hills that stood behind it. I asked our guide and learned that indeed it had once been a river which had been turned into an artificial lake after its water had been blocked to create the Kurobe Dam. Unfortunately, visibility was very limited due to the heavy snowfall.
A cable car is available for those who want to take in the sheer immensity of the dam from the top to the hill. I was keen to take the trip to the top, however, this first involved a ten-minute walk to Kurobeko Station through a long tunnel. Just I was about to get into cable car, the tour guide told me abruptly that a storm raging at the top of Mount Daikanbo (2.316 metres) and that the trip to the summit could not proceed. She even pointed to the creen showing a live broadcast of the storm.
Not to be defeated, we headed on to Kurobedaira, a station equipped with a viewing platform and rest area, where visitors can play in the snow to their hearts content. We reached the platform by cable car, climbing the last 400 metres on foot. Kurobeko Station Station features photographic displays of the various tourists sites around the Kurobe Dam, including the unique Alpine Route, with its ice wall, and also the Tateyama Ropeway, which stretches over a pine forest. They all look beautiful in summer.
Kurobedaira Station, the last stop on the line, seemed deserted and I saw no other visitor upon my arrivel. The restaurant area had been cleaned up and some of its chairs were already stacked on top of the tables, a the snow was now knee deep. Our group hurriedly headed back to catch the last bus, which left at 2 pm. Our guide informed us that the management was just about to close the station for a few months because of the bad weather. We were the season’s last visitor in fact.