Encompassed by the imposing Japanese Alps, Echigo Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture is renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, delicious sake, historic hot springs and deep snowy winters which set the backdrop for the acclaimed novel “Snow Country” by Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata. Summer sees the iconic Fuji Rock Festival grace Naeba Ski Resort, as Japanese and international music acts and their fans descend upon the grounds for a three-day festival of dancing, tunes and revelry across multiple stages.
A region famed for its abundance of rice and sake, Echigo Yuzawa is approximately 80 minutes from Tokyo on the Joetsu Shinkansen. Take a moment to hop off for a little overnight detour after gliding down the winter slopes and soft powder, or travel up for a weekend escape from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo during the other seasons to delve deeper into the delights Echigo Yuzawa has to offer.
SAVOUR EXQUISITE REGIONAL KAISEKI AT KEYAKI-EN
Drive past endless fields of rice, wide open spaces and quaint countryside scenes till you turn down a small road where after alighting from the car, walking down a moss-covered path framed with wild flowers and sweeping tall trees, you will catch your first glimpse of Keyaki-En. Named after the giant 1,500 year old Zelkova (Keyaki in Japanese) tree in the garden, this 150 year old kominka was once the ancestral home of the wealthy Nagumo merchant family who decided to turn it into a restaurant showcasing Shojin Ryori (traditional Buddhist vegetarian cooking). Rich in flavour and full of umami, one can heartily enjoy all of the region’s seasonal vegetables and mountain plants wonderfully prepared by the family, especially the famed Noppe (のっぺい). A hearty vegetable stew known as Niigata’s “soul comfort food”; every family has their own individual recipe which is often eaten at special occasions such as oshogatsu (Japanese New Year) and always includes at least carrots and yams. Keyaki-En also offers accommodations in a separate villa property within its garden.
SOICHIRO TOMIOKA’S WORLD OF WHITE
Tomioka White Museum of Art, ⓒMinamiuonuma City Tomioka White Art Museum
A five minute drive away from Keyaki-En, lies the Tomioka White Museum of Art which celebrates the intricately detailed work of painter Soichiro Tomioka. Born in Niigata, Tomioka was entranced by the prefecture’s abundance of snow (Niigata sees some of the highest snowfalls in the country) and was determined to capture this “white world” in all its beauty and mystery. His dedication to accurately depict the fresh starkness, and pure white hue of snow in his works led him to develop his own type of paint known as “Tomioka White” which would never age or turn yellow. This resoluteness also led him to collaborate with several sword-smiths to create his own custom-made knives which he applied to canvas’ painted in his “Tomioka White” to carve out the blank spaces, building his images of the natural scenery. His most iconic works are shown in the museum on rotation, from his Winter Trees collection, to the winding bird’s eye view of the Shinano River and the Fireworks of Nagaoka and Katanai.
Tomioka White Museum of Art, ⓒMinamiuonuma City Tomioka White Art Museum
CLAP YOUR HANDS TO GREET THE DRAGON GOD AT HAKKAISANSON JINJA
Within Niigata’s Snow Country are three revered mountains, Mt. Echigo-Komagatake, Mt. Nakanodake and Mt. Hakkai. Hakkaisan has been treasured as a sacred mountain for over one thousand years, and is the central site for Shugendo, an ascetics belief system where practitioners are known as Shugenja or Yamabushi. Several shrines are dedicated to Hakkaisan; the most impressive being Hakkaisanson, a beautiful shrine with a large torii gate made of white granite stone gracing its entrance. Since ancient times, it is believed that Hakkaisan is home to a dragon deity and the legend tells that the founder Taiken Gyoja was able to subdue a raging dragon and calm a violent thunderstorm by using his divine power as he ascended up the steps of the shrine. In homage to this legend, a stone dragon guards the entrance, and it is why before climbing the steps, one should clap their hands in greeting and the stone steps will ring out to you, emitting the spirit of the trees and a sign of the Dragon God's joy. The sound that resonates is known as Ryumei to the locals.
A stone dragon guardian
DEVOUR A HEARTY MOUNTAIN FEAST AT MIYANOYA SOBA
Just beyond Hakkaisanson Jinja, surrounded by the forest, is a charming soba restaurant popular with the locals. Housed within a pretty mountain home, step inside and be instantly greeted by the smiling staff and the warmth of the traditional wooden interiors. Spacious and welcoming, Miyanoya Soba is a perfect respite after visiting Hakkaisanson to feast on some delicious local soba. One can choose the simple sets of cold soba, hot soba with the usual popular side dishes, however if you want to truly indulge and experience the mountain cuisine, order the soba kaiseki set where your tastebuds will be delighted by the abundance of flavourful accompanying dishes such as marinated mountain vegetables, grilled local river fish, lightly battered tempura finished with both types of their famed soba where one grinds fresh walnuts to add a richer, deeper taste to the soba experience.
Soba with various side dishes
TASTE THE FLAVOURS OF TAMAGAWA SHUZO’S FAMED ECHIGO YUKIKURA
Renowned globally for their sake production, one should definitely include a visit to a Niigata sake brewery and perhaps none is held in such high esteem by the locals than Tamagawa Shuzo, a small family run brewery that’s been in existence for 350 years. Founded in 1673 (in the Edo era), the brewery is currently helmed by the 19th generation family head (jūkyudaime) Kazama Hayato who has continued on the practice of ageing and storing their sake in snow i.e. Yukikura. Thirty five years ago, Tamagawa Shuzo was the first brewery to implement using Niigata’s high snowfall to allow their sake ‘to sleep’, and keep its flavour purity rather than relying on the coldness of refrigerator light to maintain temperature which resulted in the taste changing detrimentally. Besides their delicious Daiginjo Echigo Yukikura, the brewery also produces a special collection called Echigo Samurai which is aged in casks like traditional wines and whiskies, culminating in a rich, heady taste and aroma where the alcohol content can go up to 43% instead of sake’s maximum of 16%.
A selection of sake
UNWIND & RELAX AT SATOYAMA JUJO
Nestled in the Ōsawayama Onsen area, surrounded by towering pines and mountainscapes, dwells Satoyama Jujo, a 150 year old kominka beautifully restored into a boutique onsen accommodation with only 13 rooms. Classic wooden beams, coated with Japanese lacquer, contemporary artworks and rooms paired with vintage modern designer furniture make it a design aficionado’s dream. A stay here is an experience into itself, as they weave stories of the land, the people, the culture, the food and the seasons into an all-encompassing discovery from when you set barefoot onto their warm wooden floors, take in the breathtaking views from one’s spacious room whilst soaking in your own private open air onsen or their glorious public open air onsen to sitting down to savour the exquisite tastes of Chef Keiko Kuwakino. An advocate of organic, natural ingredients from her beginnings as a therapist and Ayurvedic cuisine background, the restaurant Sanaburi celebrates Kuwakino’s passion for locally sourced traditional mountain vegetables, the famed Koshihikari rice, her handmade sauces using no artificial additives or preservatives and a minimal amount of meat and fish. Fully vegetarian and vegan dining options are available, if advance notice is given at reservation.
An open air onsen
Check out some of Lia's recommendations for boutique accommodations along the Mitsuboshi Kaido here! Follow Lia as she explores more areas of Japan intimately, over on her IG @ryokanwanderings or have a read of her blog: Ryokan Wanderings for even more stories and adventures.
Lia is an Aussie based in Tokyo, Japan with a passion for exploring the lesser known, and learning people’s life stories. She loves to seek out ryokan traditional accomodation with private onsen hot spring baths (which she shares on Ryokan Wanderings), discovering hidden sushi omakase gems or curled up in her Totoro bed with a good book. If not travelling in Japan or abroad, her days are spent in her studio, Tokyo Kaleidoscope, reconstructing vintage Japanese silk kimonos into bespoke pieces for herself and others.