NIIGATA / SADO / ECHIGO YUZAWA
Niigata is famous for its rice, its sake and its seafood. Blessed with various sources of Mother Nature’s gifts and bordered by either mountains or ocean, Niigata isn’t that far from Tokyo but represents much of that which is old and bold about Japan so why not make the trip?
Capital of the prefecture, Niigata the city, is the main economic center on the Sea of Japan coast. Usually referred to as the granary of Japan, it is a region rich in rice paddies and is located roughly in the center of the coast of the Sea of Japan – a natural canvas on which beautiful sunsets are painted throughout the year. Famous peaks such as Mount Myoko, Mount Hiuchi and Mount Naeba (forming the border with Nagano Prefecture) as well as others are among the nation’s top 100 mountains as were selected by famed author Fukada Kyuya. As Japanese mountains usually have hot springs bubbling away in their depths, Nobel Prize winning author Kawabata Yasunari, did well to choose Echigo Yuzawa Onsen as the location at which to base his novel “Yukiguni” (Snow Country). With heavy snowfall annually, the area attracts numerous enthusiasts to its winter sports facilities.
A Port Town – Niigata
When the Tokugawa Shogunate Government was forced to open a number of ports to foreign trade due to the Japan-U.S. bilateral treaty concluded in 1858, they named 5 ports as those to be opened; Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hakodate, Kobe and Niigata. The port of Niigata was readied and finally opened in 1868 and the traditional port atmosphere built up over the centuries remains to this day.
From Niigata Station, travel straight down the opposite avenue until reaching the Bandai Bridge over the Shinanogawa River. The bridge is one of the symbols of Niigata – a town sometimes called a water city. The 6 arches supporting its expanse are a splendid site to behold and seem to calm with their majestic scenery. The city’s newer neighborhoods are contained in the distance from the station down to the bridge whilst the district starting on the opposite riverbank is the older part of town. A quick trip up the 100 meter high Bandai City Rainbow Tower to look at the surrounding scenery demonstrates just why Niigata is called a water city. Crossing the bridge will lead into Furumachi town. An old commercial district dating back to the Edo Period and hosting many Japanese-style restaurants (ryotei) and small shops, it is famous largely for offering establishments at which customers can be served by geigi, (a person synonymous with a geisha). Some of the geigi and Japanese restaurants in Furumachi, have long been famous and many had their heyday in the years before WWII when Furumachi was thought one of the three main entertainment districts (hanamachi) in Japan (the others being Gion in Kyoto and Shimbashi in Tokyo). There are scores of alleys and the town preserves the old entertainment area feel. Still now, in the 21st century, traditional restaurants of lore can be seen entertaining on a lavish scale but while this is of interest to the majority, ordinary folk can feel awkward or out of place at a ryotei due to the image / cost issues usually involved. For this reason, a recommended alternative is the “Niigata Syoku-no-jin (Food Festival in Niigata) held from December, 2005 to March, 2006.
Rice Production and farmaers’ wealth – in the old days
Wealthy farmers are called “gono” in Japanese and are known for renting out their fields to other (tenant) farmers. Over the centuries, there have been many gono in Niigata and remaining structures owned by these landlords remind modern Japanese of the prosperity they enjoyed in the old days.
The Northern Culture Museum is based in the house once used by the Ito Family, a family said to be among the wealthiest of Niigata farmers in their day as they commanded some 2800 peasant farmers and 58 rice holding storehouses. A look around the majestic buildings that remain in similar form to a castle is overwhelming.
Senbei, a Japanese rice cracker, has, of course, rice as its main ingredient. Niigata, famous for senbei due to its ample supply of tasty rice, allows those who would like to try the opportunity to bake their own senbei at Senbei Okoku (Senbei Kingdom) in Nizaki – near Niigata Airport. Uncooked senbei bought in the shop should be watched on the toasting rack for 5 minutes and seasoned with soy sauce when done. An area with free tea is set aside so you can eat the senbei and relax for a while. Various goods from around Niigata are also sold Sado – a gem in the Sea of Japan
Sado – a gem in the Sea of Japan
A unique island in the Sea of Japan, Sado is, except when including Okinawa, the largest island in Japan. Full of nature and historical interest, a number of places of bygone importance are preserved.
The toki,(Nipponia Nippon in Latin or the Japanese Crested Ibis in English), is a beautiful bird once seen all over Japan but sadly taken to the point of domestic extinction during the modern age, from 1868. That said, in 1998 the first artificial reproduction of a toki in captivity in Japan proved successful and a chick named “Yu-yu” was born at the Sado Japanese Crested Ibis Conservation Center. Today 80 (as of July 1st 2005) toki live in the center, located at Niho-mura Toki-no-Nori Park. However, getting too near the cage is prohibited in order to prevent any possible spread of bird flu. Looking at the birds through binoculars is an option though.
Sado over the years has been a part of Japan well-known for its Noh plays. Zeami, one of the founding fathers of Noh, was sent into exile on Sado in 1434 and lived for some years before dying. Today, 34 Noh stages can be found in the 854 square kilometers of the island with the main stage that of the Honma Family. Jars buried beneath the floor add to the sound effects and several performances are given each year and include Takigi Noh (Noh by firelight) in June and an annual performance by the head of the family in July.
Goldmines were first established on Sado in 1601 and mining of the metal continued until the Showa era (1926-1989). The goldmines in Sado were once famous as the largest goldmines in Japan and mined gold, silver and copper to essentially underwrite the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate of the Edo Era. The goldmines stretch 3000 meters from east to west, 600 meters from north to south, and are up to 800 meters in depth. The total length of tunnels is approximately 400 kilometers and is equivalent to the distance separating Sado and Tokyo. 78 tons of gold was mined during the 388 years of activity and it is believed that most veins have been completely exhausted. A former tunnel used in the mine has been opened at Sado Kinzan for sightseeing purposes and besides feeling the cool air associated with mines, robots can be seen ‘mining’ at several places along the tunnel to show what it used to be like. When taking in the miniature models displayed in the museum, the severity of this life becomes clear. Miners tackled the rocks and mined by hand, using only a few tools. Drainage was accomplished manually using buckets but not all was hard work and suffering as a most, accurate knowledge of geology and underground mathematics among other more scientific approaches to mining was completed at this time.
Sado Bugyosho governmental office, once overlords of the Sado goldmines, was reconstructed to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the goldmine opening, and subsequently opened to the public in 2000. A refinery, a storage facility and the governors’ residence are all reconstructed as is an office on the premises. Displays at the refinery explain the process of retrieving gold – from initial mining to the production of oval shaped gold coins, although the staff explanations are only in Japanese. To experience panning for gold at Nishimikawa Gold Park, simply scoop up a layer of sand from the bottom of the river using a plate, before washing away the excess grit as you rinse the contents in the flowing water. As gold is the heaviest local material, that will hopefully be all that is left when you finish.
An unusual opportunity awaits at Ogi – the chance to ride in and paddle a “tarai-bune” (a tub-shaped boat). The tarai-bune is useful to gather wakame seaweed, abalones and turban shells along the indented coastline as it can maneuver easily in tight spaces. Professional female paddlers paddle the boat for sightseers in Ogi Harbor but you can experience paddling yourself – something many amateurs find very difficult.
Lake Kamo, beautiful and the largest lake in Niigata Prefecture is famous for its oyster farming. Oyster stalls open on the lakeside during the autumn to winter period and there are no fresher oysters than these.
Ondeko, a classical performance art unique to Sado is performed with dynamic drum displays, ogres dancing fiercely, and is a ritual art to drive out evil spirits and wish for a good harvest.
In the middle ages, hundreds of Japanese aristocrats, guilty of either thought or political crimes were once routinely sent into exile with the destination being Sado. The effect this had on the local population was to pass on the culture of the then capital of Kyoto and also that of the later cultural center of Edo, thereby mixing them in with the industries surrounding the gold mines. The result forms the background to the island culture of today – an atmosphere built on simple human nature, rustic customs, folk art and folk stories.
Echigo Yuzawa Onsen is famous as the area in which the plot of “Snow Country,” by Kawabata Yasunari is based. As the town has many public baths and private facilities as well as hotels and onsen ryokan, and isn’t that far from Tokyo, it does tend to become somewhat crowded with skiers and the like during wintertime. Gala Yuzawa is a ski area connected directly to Gala Yuzawa Station on the JR Joetsu Bullet Train Line and is just an hour and a half from Tokyo. The ski season ends in May.
“Snow Country” was published in 1937 and has been translated into many languages as a typical piece of modern Japanese literature. “Kasumi-no-ma,” the room in which the author wrote the novel is still preserved in Takahan Hotel, and viewing is permitted. A first edition issue of the book can be seen in an exhibition room nearby.
Ponshu-kan, a sake museum in Echigo, displays many kinds of local sake and sweets made from sake as well as cups for holding the usually clear liquor. From October to February, freshly made sake is sold and visiting at this time is particularly advised.
Alpine Flower Park is an alpine garden open between May and November each year. Accessed via a huge aerial cableway, one of the largest in the world, and the Panorama Station on the top of the mountain, a 7 minute walk brings you to the most dramatic rock garden in Japan – home to one thousand alpine flowers growing wild. Several trekking courses are on offer and can be selected depending on the season and physical condition.
The brand-name rice Koshihikari originated in Niigata in named form in 1956 where the growing of such delicious rice each year is largely a result of perfect conditions for rice growing due to abundant clean water from the melting snow combining with the soil of the fertile Echigo Plain – the result of eons of geographical influence by the Shinanogawa Aganogawa Rivers.
Niigata is also renowned for its seafood such as snow crab, salmon, yellowtail and prawns – all the resulting yield of the ocean currents of the Sea of Japan.
Speaking of food in Niigata, don’t forget sake – any local food’s ideal accompaniment. 80% of the sake bottle is actually water and because water is also an essential ingredient during the making process, Niigata’s ‘soft’ water supply – largely the local snowfall – helps enormously. So, while the snow also seems to clean the indoor air by keeping it at a certain temperature and humidity level, nature’s alcoholic gift on the side comes in the shape of 100 local sake breweries – all specialists in making sake with the area’s traditional light taste.
Of a more solid rice based makeup, rice confectionery including senbei (rice crackers) and arare (small rice biscuits) are also locally produced.
Winter Events in Niigata
The “Niigata Shoku-no-jin” Event is held from December of 2005, to March of 2006 and is an event centered on the food available in Niigata during wintertime with the main theme of the event being seafood (caught in the Sea of Japan), locally produced sake and various other local delicacies. Dancing by geigi (a prior reservation is necessary) is also permissible to view and time spent eating lunch at a ryotei or trying out ‘nabe’ cooked dishes at any of a hundred places around town are all great ways to pass the hours. A “Sake-no-jin” Event is held at Toki-Messe on March 18th and 19th and visitors can sample any number of hundreds of brands of sake representing almost all the breweries of the prefecture. As it is a good opportunity to compare a huge range of sake tastes so a visit at this time is highly recommended for beginners in the art of sake tasting as well as for the more experienced sake fans.
Niigata Prefecture, with its location at the approximate center point of the Japanese archipelago – albeit on the Sea of Japan side, is easily accessed by air, land, or sea.
From JR Tokyo Station to JR Niigata Station: 2h on the Joetsu Bullet Train
From JR Ikebukuro Station to JR Niigata Station: 5h by express bus
From Osaka (Itami Airport) to Niigata Airport: 70 mins by plane
From Niigata Port to Ryotsu Port: 2h 20 mins using the Sado-kisen car ferry. Alternately, 1h on the jetfoil
To Echigo Yuzawa
From Tokyo Station to Echigo Yuzawa Station: 1h 30mins on the Joetsu Bullet Train