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Travel report

Melissa's Niigata travel report

Murakami

On a typically brisk winter morning in Niigata, I started off on my journey to Murakami. Although I’ve driven along Murakami’s seaside in the summer, this was my first time to sightsee there in the winter.

First on my list was the former Wakabayashi family residence, which used to be the house of a middle class samurai. The house is said to have been built before 1800, and is considered to be an important national asset. While walking through the house, I realized how tough people long ago were; even though the house was that of a middle class samurai, it was awfully small for the number of people that used to live there, and the temperature inside the house varied little from that of outside. It was really interesting to see such an old Japanese house and discover how much has changed and how much still remains the same in Japan.

Next to the Wakabayashi family house is the Oshagiri Kaikan (Murakami Folk Museum). “Oshagiri” is a float used in Murakami’s summer festival in the Murakami dialect. Each area of the city has its own float, and from the pictures and stories I’ve heard, this is a huge, must-see event. I’m looking forward to seeing it first-hand myself.

People in Murakami are very proud of their traditions and culture, and are more than happy to tell you all about them. They love to talk about Murakami specialties, such as salmon, Murakami tea, and Tsuishu lacquerware. North of Murakami lies a river from which salmon are taken around October/November. People then clean the salmon and then hang them out to dry. The winter weather and cold, dry wind in Murakami helps dry out the salmon, giving it an absolutely superb taste. Tea grown in Murakami is famous for its low tannin levels thanks to Niigata’s long winters, which give it a bit of a sweet taste compared to green tea from other regions in Japan. It used to be considered a very high-class tea and is still popular within Japan. Tsuishu lacquerware is one of Murakami’s most famous crafts and was actually started by samurai from Murakami. Its red coloring, which is used by only three other places in all of Japan, its intricate carving, and the luster of its red color that comes out the more that it is used is quite renowned. All of these specialties can be bought in and around Murakami.

Murakami is also known for its peculiar city layout. Murakami was a castle town, which accounts for its narrow, winding streets (making it harder for an enemy to attack) and traditional--and nowadays rare--housing layout. Coming from an architecturally rich city, I found walking around and enjoying the old buildings and city layout very enjoyable.

After walking around sightseeing all day I needed a rest, so my next stop was Murakami’s famous Senami Hot Springs (onsen) area. The Senami onsen area is well known for being next to the Japan Sea, allowing visitors to view the sunset from the outdoor baths. I stopped at “Shiomiso”, which is one of the nicer onsen I’ve visited. In the lobby there’s actually a chart telling you when the sunset is that day and the current outside temperature. The water used is 100% onsen water, and for me the water temperature was just right. The best part of all is that if you don’t have a car, they run a shuttle service between Shiomiso and Murakami Station.

Although it was a bit cold, the warm hospitality of the people of Murakami, with their offerings of tea and friendly conversation, and my trip to Senami onsen area warmed me right up. These people have a deep pride in their city and their city’s history, and I felt a connection with them instantly. On my train ride home, I was left feeling very content and felt that I understood a little more about Japan than I did that morning.

Shibata

About forty minutes by train from Niigata Station lies the city of Shibata. Once a castle town, Shibata has developed its own unique and varied culture. The following is just a sample of the wonderful sights and products that Shibata has to offer.
One of the city’s main attractions is Shibata Castle. Although the original castle was destroyed, a turret and the main gate have been reconstructed and two more turrets are currently being rebuilt. While most turrets have two shachi, mythical ocean fish, located on top of their roofs, one of the turrets currently under construction has three and is considered very rare. Surrounding the moat are cherry blossom trees, and it is a perfect spot for cherry blossom viewing in the spring and viewing the changing leaves in autumn. Although I couldn’t go inside the castle this time due to construction, which will be completed in March of 2004, I did make a day-trip to visit the castle this past summer, and I had great time hanging out with my friends there and exploring the area.

Not far from the castle is Shimizuen Garden, which Shibata’s feudal lord built to accommodate his love of tea ceremonies. There are many tea ceremony houses overlooking the pond in the center of the garden, which was created in the shape of the old Chinese character for water. I’ve always thought of gardens as something to be enjoyed in the summer, but the freshly fallen snow on my visit made the garden quite spectacular. There was a quiet beauty to the garden that surpassed my expectations. I now know why performing tea ceremonies in such a garden is so relaxing.
Because of the daimyo’s interest in tea ceremony, the production of wagashi (Japanese sweets) to accompany tea ceremonies flourished in Shibata. It is said that matcha (Japanese green tea that is used during tea ceremonies) was created as a nice drink to go along with wagashi. Shibata takes great pride in its sweets, which are on par with Kyoto’s for excellence. Because wagashi are primarily made from vegetable-based ingredients (such as beans) and use little oil, they are a healthy snack. Also, wagashi vary seasonally in accordance with the seasonal ingredients that they use. Their delicate taste is truly something to be enjoyed; if you have the opportunity, I recommend trying some of these traditional sweets.
Shibata is also famous for many other products, such as its sake. Niigata’s sake is famous throughout Japan, and Shibata’s is famous within Niigata. At the Ichishima Sake Brewery there are tours explaining the brewing process and showing traditional sake-making utensils. There is also an exhibition of goods and household items that were used by the founders of the company.
Koji Fukiya, a renowned painter, was also a native of Shibata. The Koji Fukiya Memorial Museum houses some of Koji Fukiya’s work, which is drawn in a manga/cartoon style and often features women and children. His work includes Japanese and European styles, and features themes ranging from paintings of every day life to children’s storybook pictures. There’s something quite alluring about Fukiya’s drawings, and I hope to go back and see them again some day soon. I found Shibata to be a lovely town and very easy to get around because of the various sights’ proximity to the station. Its rich history and culture, along with its beautiful sights, allow for a varied and relaxing excursion. If you’re traveling to Niigata, Shibata is definitely worth the trip.

Tokamachi, Yuzawa

Next to Gunma Prefecture along the Joetsu Shinkansen Line lie the cities of Tokamachi and Yuzawa. These two cities are among the first to come to mind when the phrase “Snow Country” is heard, and with an average of over three meters of snow annually, it’s no wonder why. Although both are famous for their yearly snowfall, each city is unique in its own way.

Next to Gunma Prefecture along the Joetsu Shinkansen Line lie the cities of Tokamachi and Yuzawa. These two cities are among the first to come to mind when the phrase “Snow Country” is heard, and with an average of over three meters of snow annually, it’s no wonder why. Although both are famous for their yearly snowfall, each city is unique in its own way.
The first thing that hit me as I left the train station was the amount of snow everywhere. Even though this year was warmer than usual, the snow in the area still came up to my waste. It’s easy to see why Tokamachi is home to a yearly snow festival that takes place each February. One feature of the Tokamachi Snow Festival is their kimono fashion show. I went to a facility in Tokamachi called Kinare that has various exhibits and hands-on activities relating to kimono, which is a famous industry in Tokamachi. When I arrived, I looked through a book of different kimonos and picked out one I wanted to try on. Even with someone helping me put on the kimono it took me quite some time until I was completely dressed. It amazes me that people used to go through this every day and by themselves only a few decades ago. The friendly staff then showed me various kimono-making crafts and let me choose which crafts I would like to try. I decided to try Japanese tie-dyeing and weaving. I had a lot of fun making my own design, and was surprised that the finished product turned out much nicer than expected. The weaving was also fun, and I was able to choose among three lengths that I wanted my finished product to be. Afterwards the staff showed me through the kimono museum with exhibits of kimonos of the past and what kimonos may look like in the future. I felt that this was one of the best places I’ve ever been to in Niigata.

For lunch I was able to enjoy another of Tokamachi’s specialties, soba. I really like soba, and after eating Tokamachi soba I felt like I was in heaven. Besides being delicious, soba is also very nutritious and is a good source of vitamins, fiber, and protein. I can’t wait for my next visit and next soba meal!
I also traveled to the Tokamachi City Museum. Most of the exhibits at the museum deal with Tokamachi’s textile industry, the life of people years past, and artifacts and exhibits about the life of people during the Jomon Era (13000 BC to 300 BC). It is a fine museum for learning about the history and culture of Tokamachi’s people.

Next, I took the Hokuhoku Line to Yuzawa. Yuzawa is a famous onsen and ski resort area that was made famous worldwide through Yasunari KAWABATA’s book Snow Country. My first stop in Yuzawa was the Yuzawa History and Folk Museum. The museum had many exhibits about life in “snow country” and Yuzawa, and about Kawabata and his book. It was interesting to see how people used to live in the area back then. Although I haven’t read Snow Country, the exhibits and stories I heard aroused my curiosity, and I vowed to pick up a copy on my way home.
Next I went to Takahan, the ryokan (inn) where Kawabata stayed while writing Snow Country. The room that Kawabata stayed in is still preserved, and visitors can view his room and various items relating to Snow Country. Supposedly Takahan has been open for so long that no one, including the current owner, knows when it first became a ryokan. After taking a look around, I was escorted to my room. The view from my room was quite spectacular; I could see almost all of Yuzawa from my window. I took a quick dip in the onsen, and, clean and refreshed, I went back to my room. When dinner came, I was truly served a feast. Appetizing food kept coming and coming. Though some were very “Japanese”, others had a very “Western” flare to them. I sat there, filled with peace and contentment (and wonderful food!), staring out of the window in my room at the tranquil snowy world before me.

Sado

One of the most well known places in Niigata Prefecture is Sado Island. Its diverse history, rich culture, and abundant natural beauty make it one of the prefecture’s favorite vacation spots and a must-see for any visitor to Niigata.

First off on my Sado trip was Ogi, on the southwest tip of the island. Ogi is home to the Sado Earth Celebration, which features music by the ever-famous Kodo taiko (drumming) group. My first destination on the clear, beautiful day, was Yajima-Kyojima, which is an area made up of tiny island-like rocks located by the Japan Sea. This place is a lovely area to go just to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery. It has a tranquil, “Japanese Garden”-esque feeling, and has a very distinctive, red, arched bridge connecting two of the rocks. Sado is a nature lover’s dream, and to come here and stroll through the area while listening to the waves rolling in is a very peaceful and relaxing experience.
Next, I went to Iwaya-san Cave, which is a sacred cave on top of Iwaya-san Mountain. After climbing some stairs to an opening, one can see many jizo statues (guardian deities) lined up. In actuality there are 88 of these jizo statues, the reason being that those who could not go to Shikoku to complete the 88-temple course could come here instead. It is said that those who pray here have their life extended seven years. Not a bad deal. This place is also known outside of Japan, and the traces of the people who came from abroad to pray here can be seen in the little jizo specific to their country that they left behind. It’s quite amazing that a place such as this could have lasted over 1,000 years and in such good condition.

Afterwards, I went to Shukunegi, which is located a little off from central Ogi. This place is one of the most extraordinary and decidedly unique places you’ll see during your whole time in Japan. The area was the residence of people who worked in the fishing business who designed their houses in styles that reflect the boats they worked on. Made out of wood and spaced close together, these houses have a very Japanese and yet not Japanese feeling about them. Although some of the houses have been “upgraded” over the years, most are now preserved to keep them in their original condition. This place makes for a nice walk and would be perfect in the spring. Shukunegi should definitely not be missed while in Ogi.

Next to Shukunegi is the Sado-koku Ogi Folk Museum. The museum’s main exhibit is a recreation of a trading ship, “Hakusan-maru”, which you can actually climb aboard to get a feeling of what traveling in a freight ship was like. Many of the other exhibits relate to the fishing industry and life in Ogi, with many old relics from the turn of the century. It was a very entertaining and informative museum.

Next I went to Kodo-mura, which is where the members of Kodo live and practice. Although usually not open to the public, I was able to talk to some people there about the history of Kodo, which is internationally famous and every year tours worldwide. I was also able to watch some of the Kodo members practice and talk with some of them. They were all very nice people, and from watching them practice and hearing tales of their performance during the Sado Earth Celebration from people I know, I decided that I will definitely be making a trip out to Sado to see the festival this year.

Last for the day, I went to my ryokan (inn) at Hana-no-ki. This ryokan is located in quiet, natural surroundings, and it has been quite a while since I’ve stayed anywhere so peaceful and quiet. The owner of the place greeted me warmly and showed me to my room. Each room was like a little house. After relaxing for a while, I went into the dinning room for dinner. The food was delicious, and while eating, I was able to speak with the owner. It appeared that many famous people stay at Hana-no-ki while in Sado, and she explained to me that she sometimes cooks food to meet her guests’ various dietary needs (such as vegetarianism). After the meal, she let me etch into a mumyoi-yaki mug that she and her husband made themselves. Mumyoi-yaki is pottery exclusive to Sado, and it is known for its high iron content, which is absorbed by the body when eating or drinking from it. I’m looking forward to receiving the mug I etched on anytime now.

The next morning I woke up, ate another delicious meal, and headed off to Aikawa. Aikawa, the birthplace of mumyoi-yaki, is best known for Kinzan and its gold mine, which was discovered in 1601.
Consequentially, it was heavily mined and used to fund the Tokugawa Shogunate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to actually go into the mine (which I hear is really a sight to see), but I did walk around the area by the mountain while the history of the place was explained to me.

I began to pity the people who worked in the mine. Out of force and out of need, people were sent from all over the country to mine Kinzan. The work was hard and many people died in various accidents. Many didn’t have homes to go back to, and died nameless and without a proper grave. There is one area dedicated to these people, and many would pray to this symbolic grave and ask the people who came before them to protect them from accidents while working. The mining continued until around 1867.

Aikawa used to be vacant until the gold rush, during which time many people came to mine the mountain and populated Aikawa. However, after the mine closed the town grew considerably smaller. Much of the area by Kinzan remains just as it was back then. However, one doesn’t even have to know about the history of this place to enjoy the area. Just stroll from up around Kinzan back down towards the sea, and Aikawa is a wonderful, relaxing experience. Taking in the nature and looking at the various traditional houses and village layout is worth the trip itself.

Although this was my second time to Sado and to Aikawa and Ogi, I was still able to see many things that I wasn’t able to see my first time around. Sado always surprises me with its surpassing beauty and nature. Every time I go, I feel completely relaxed, and I start to remember what being surrounded by nature is like. Those who love nature should definitely come and visit Sado! My only complaint is that 2 days/1 night was not enough time to truly relax and see everything there is to see. To anyone making the trip out to Niigata, Sado should definitely be one of your destinations.