4 Days Off the Beaten Track in Gunma and Niigata: History, Art, and Sake in Japan’s Snow Country
- Published: Mar 05 2021
- Last updated:
You’ve seen the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, tasted the okonomiyaki in Osaka, and squeezed through the crowds at Asakusa in Tokyo. You’re looking for new perspectives, something off the beaten track, yet still easily accessible from Tokyo. Well, luckily for you, we’ve scoured the hidden gems of Japan’s less-traveled regions for delightful experiences. We’ll first take you to the geographical heart of Japan, Gunma, the birthplace of Japan’s modern industry. Then to “deep Japan” - Niigata, where understanding this region’s nature, history and culture is to know Japan itself.
*This article was written in collaboration with the Hokuriku-Shin'est District Transport Bureau, Gunma Prefecture, and Niigata Prefecture.
Day 1: Gunma - Silk and the Beginning of the Modernization of Japan
Just 50 minutes on the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station is Takasaki Station. Takasaki is the largest city in Gunma Prefecture and our first stop. While Gunma Prefecture is mostly known for hot springs and adventure sports, we’re going to take a side-step from the well-traveled hotspots and see what first made it flourish in its golden ages: the silk textile industry.
Tomioka Silk Mill: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
Silk used to be one of the most important Japanese exports. This was only made possible by the industrialization of silk production, which has its origins right here at the Tomioka Silk Mill.
Stepping into the grounds, we felt like we had been transported to a different country and era. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises many enormous, beautifully preserved structures that have remained since its construction, including a gigantic reeling factory where the machinery is still kept, two large cocoon storehouses, dormitories for the factory workers, and the residence of Paul Brunat, the French engineer who founded the mill. A unique architectural feature of this silk mill is its incorporation of both Western and Japanese styles, as the structures of massive timber frames and red bricks were capped with traditional Japanese roof tiles.
The history of the Tomioka Silk Mill dates back to 1872, when it was built as Japan’s first government-operated model silk-reeling factory as a part of the new government’s mission to promote modern industry in the country. Machinery and technology were imported from France to enable mass production of high-quality raw silk, of which there was a huge global demand at the time. Modern silk-reeling techniques subsequently spread throughout the country, leading to the rapid modernization of Japanese industry.
We strolled through the interiors of one of the cocoon storehouses, which was newly and tactfully renovated into a modern exhibition space, learning about the history of the factory and the stories of the people who had lived and worked there from the carefully chosen displays of artefacts and photographs. One of the aims of the mill was to gather silk workers from all over Japan to foster them with cutting-edge skills. It was inspiring to learn that the culture of the mill was ahead of its time: all the factory workers (who were all female) had great benefits such as access to on-site housing, a clinic, and a night school where they learned literacy, math, and other useful skills. The level of education that they received far exceeded what most women in Japan had at the time.
Wandering through the remarkable buildings made us want to hop back in time to see what the hustle and bustle of the mill was like back in the day. Thankfully, handy audio guides are available in a number of languages, including English, French, and Chinese. You can also use your own smartphone to listen to explanations by scanning the QR code at the featured spots.
Finally, to put all that silk-reeling knowledge to practice, we dropped in on a workshop to experience traditional reeling by hand, which required a lot more concentration than I had expected! We also made fridge magnets and charms with cocoons. It was a delightful way to round off the visit, and we got to take something cute home to commemorate the experience!
Lunch: Ichinoya - Noodle Soup for the Soul with a Dash of Royalty
A short walk from the silk mill is Ichinoya, a little Japanese restaurant tucked in the narrow alleyways of Tomioka. Chef and food culture researcher Ozawa Shunsai used to cook for the Showa Emperor of Japan! His signature dish is the Gunma specialty dish “okkirikomi” (1,200 yen) - a bowl of piping hot udon noodles in soup. The term “okkirikomi” in Japanese implies the motion of cutting and throwing the noodles directly into the pot at the same time.
The first sip of that soup was an emotional experience on its own; it instantly heals the soul, and tastes like a warm embrace. It had a subtle yet rich flavor, which complemented the hand-cut (and hence unusually flat) udon noodles to a tee. Mr. Ozawa later told us that the most valuable element of the meal is, in fact, the soup, which is made from various kinds of fish and other fresh, seasonal ingredients.
See How Silk is Made Today at Usui Silk Factory
For those thrilled by the Tomioka Silk Mill and want to see a running 21st-century silk mill in operation, you could arrange a visit to Usui Silk Factory down the road. Currently the biggest silk mill in Japan, this 62-year-old factory is one of the few operating silk mills that remain in this declining industry.
It was surprisingly captivating to watch the long rows of sophisticated silk-reeling machines spinning away, cocoons dropping in and out of the little trays like clockwork, and the workers whirling around the factory floor tending to the machines. It really completed the whole visit to this silk region, seeing how the whole industry began, and how it has evolved today.
Once you finish exploring the above places, it should already be dark. The next location in this itinerary is all the way in Niigata, which is around 30 minutes away by shinkansen. If you’re not a fan of waking up very early in the morning, we recommend booking your accommodation for the day in either the Tokamachi or Yuzawa regions. Both of these locations are within reasonable distance of the spots we’ll be introducing next.
Day 2: Off to Niigata! History and Art in the Snow Country in Tokamachi
North of Gunma Prefecture is Niigata Prefecture, in the Chubu Region. Famous for growing the country’s best rice and having lots of snow, the prefecture was once a wealthy region, boasting prosperous ports for trade and the largest population in Japan until about 150 years ago. While the economic center of Japan has shifted to the Pacific Coast side, the rich culture, long-standing traditions, and breathtaking scenery remain well preserved in this beautiful corner of Japan.
Tokamachi City Museum: Modern Architecture Meets 5,000-Year-Old Relics
Our first stop is Tokamachi City in the inland region of southwest Niigata. The region is known for receiving the most snow of any area on Honshu (the main island of Japan), which is caused by the surrounding mountains building up a great deal of precipitation.
Tokamachi City Museum is a brand-new museum that opened in June 2020. Even before we entered the museum, the architecture of the building itself was already eye-catching: ultra-modern and thoughtful, it incorporates design features to reflect all the distinct characteristics of its thematic exhibitions. The outer wall shows the signature pattern of the displayed pottery, and curved eaves similar to snowflake-patterned fabric wraps the front of the building.
The museum showcases the region’s rich nature, history, and culture through its three permanent exhibitions: Flame-Style Pottery from the Jomon Period (around 2,500 - 12,000 years ago) excavated in Tokamachi that was believed to have been used for rituals; Textile History, starting with ruins found in the area in the Yayoi Period (around 1,700 - 2,300 years ago); and Snow and the Shinano River, which documents how people have been dealing with the colossal amount of snow in the region every winter, as well as life by the longest river in Japan. All the curious contraptions displayed offered riveting insights into the unique culture and lifestyles of the locals.
Marvel at the Art of Light at James Turrell’s House of Light
For art and design junkies, the House of Light by James Turrell absolutely needs to be on your to-go list. Perched on top of a hill that overlooks the city of Tokamachi, this is the only artwork in the world by the renowned artist which invites overnight guests.
The House of Light was built for the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, an international art festival held every three years since 2000. With artwork scattered across 200 spots throughout the Echigo-Tsumari region, this is the world’s largest art festival. We covered some of the spots in two separate articles, so please have a look if it sounds like something right up your alley.
The exterior of the house was designed as a Japanese family house, but it is what’s inside that gives it its acclaimed reputation. Visitors are invited to an illuminating experience of the beauty of light, color, shadows, and nature in the setting of a traditional Japanese house. Different rooms have different design elements which bear the signature of James Turrell’s artistry in light.
The most defining feature of the House is the “Outside In” room. The room has a retractable roof which, when it slides open, reveals the sky above, of which guests are invited to gaze upon while lying on the tatami floor during sunrise and sunset. Surrounding the opening is a rectangular light trough that lights up in different colors - pink, purple, green, blue, and yellow. Depending on the color of the light trough, the color of the sky perceived by your mind also changes dramatically. This optical illusion cannot be captured on camera, so it can only be experienced by one’s own eyes. Needless to say, we were endlessly amused by the sight!
Lunch: Silky Smooth Hegi Soba at Kojimaya
While Niigata may be renowned for its rice, your Niigata food experience must include hegi soba, a traditional soba dish unique to this prefecture. Hegi soba uses “funori,” a type of seaweed, as a binder which gives the noodles a distinct smoothness that can be felt as they glide down your throat.
The story behind using funori in soba actually traces its origins from the textile industry. Regular soba noodles often use wheat as a binder because pure buckwheat noodles tend to fall apart when cooked. In Uonuma, buckwheat has traditionally been cultivated but not wheat, so locals would use other ingredients as binders. Uonuma was also a production center for textiles, and ground funori was used to stiffen the weft of the textiles. The two industries crossed paths, and thus hegi soba was born.
At Kojimaya, the soba is served elegantly arranged to resemble bundles of silk threads. Curiously, they also serve their hegi soba with mustard, instead of the traditional wasabi. This is because in the old days, wasabi wasn’t available in the region, and mustard was believed to complement the funori better. The mustard did indeed add an interesting kick to the mild taste of the soba, and I could really sense the silky smoothness of the soba noodles!
Snow Much Fun at the GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort!
If you’re traveling in the region in winter or early spring, why not squeeze in a visit to the ski slopes to get your muscles moving, or even just to get some enjoyment out of Niigata’s famous powder snow? Whether you’re coming by car or by train, GALA Yuzawa is undoubtedly the most convenient ski resort.
GALA Yuzawa is famous for being the only ski resort in Japan with its own shinkansen station and is just 90 minutes away from Tokyo. The resort also has absolutely everything you need, so you can technically rock up with just your wallet or your handbag and be kitted up for some powder turns. Ski and snowboard equipment, as well as ski wear and accessories are all available for rent or purchase. For beginners or those who want to brush up their skills, there’s a ski school with lessons available in English, Chinese, and Thai.
Activities at GALA Yuzawa extend beyond just skiing and snowboarding. For those who want to enjoy the snowy experience without skiing, there are a number of activities such as the “kanjiki” snow tour which involves walking on traditional Japanese snow shoes while enjoying the view from the top of the mountain. There’s also a snowmobile sleigh ride, sledding, and snow-tubing. There’s something for everyone of all ages to enjoy!
Modern Comforts at NASPA New Otani Resort
If you’re staying overnight in the Yuzawa area, the NASPA New Otani Resort is ideal as a contemporary hotel choice. The rooms are comfortable, spacious, and have all the necessary amenities. They also have an enormous banquet hall where you can indulge in a wide selection of both Japanese and Western food.
Tired from our long trip, we found the public hot spring bath (which was very spacious and has an outdoor tub) to really be the highlight of our stay. It wiped away all the muscle pains from our day of fun, play, and exploration. Though we didn’t use them, the hotel does also have two private baths that can be reserved for you or your group to enjoy exclusively. There’s even a swimming pool and a fitness gym to shed off those calories from the delicious buffet!
Day 3: Enjoy Bounties of the Sea and Visit Niigata’s Most Sacred Shrine
Savor Fresh Seafood at Teradomari Fish Market
With 635 km of coastline on the Sea of Japan, seafood is an undeniable part of Niigata’s culture. Teradomari Fish Market by the seafront of Nagaoka sells fresh, affordable seafood from its local seaports as well as from ports around the nation.
Walking down the main strip lined with seafood stalls selling fresh bounties from the ocean, it was hard to resist the inviting aromas of grilled seafood skewers in the air coming from the stores, where all sorts of delectable goodies such as grilled squid, fish, and scallops can be bought and eaten on the go. Alternatively, you could sit down in one of the stores to enjoy a hearty bowl of seafood soup. It’s also the perfect place to pick up a snack and a few souvenirs or to have lunch at one of the many restaurants while taking in scenic views of the ocean. (As you can tell from the picture, we certainly had our fill!)
Yahiko Shrine: The Legend of the Establishment of Echigo
Located at the foothills of the sacred Mount Yahiko, Yahiko Shrine was and still is the most important shrine in Niigata Prefecture. It was built back in the 8th century to honor Ame-no-Kaguyama-no-Mikoto, who is said to have descended from heaven to the Echigo region in the 6th century BC and taught local people skills for salt production, fishing, rice cultivation, and other agricultural activities.
An architectural spectacle in itself, it houses a precious sword that is a nationally designated Important Cultural Property, the Shida-no-Otachi. It also topped the TripAdvisor ranking of being the most photogenic tourist spot in Japan in the summer of 2017. Crowds flock to the shrine for many of its festivals, including the Yahiko Lantern Festival (Yahiko Toro Matsuri) in July, which dates back 1,000 years, showcasing folk dances, a big lantern parade, and fireworks at night.
We came by car, and the famously gigantic 30-meter shrine gate was hard to miss. It was built to celebrate the opening of the Joetsu Shinkansen line in 1982 and became a popular symbol of Yahiko.
Arriving by train offers up a unique experience, too. JR Yahiko Station, the last stop on the Yahiko Line, was built with inspiration from Yahiko Shrine, and to an impressive level of detail. Its vermilion pillars and beams, as well as its temizuya (a basin for worshipers to cleanse their hands), gives visitors a fun little start to their visit to Yahiko.
Indulge in Seasonal Delicacies and a Traditional Ryokan Experience at Nadaiya
Imagine sitting down at a dining table with a lavish spread of scrumptious food in front of you. You don’t know where to start. Then someone comes in with another dish, and another, until there are more than 10 dishes beautifully laid out in front of you, and that’s all for one person: yourself.
That’s the type of meal you can expect at Nadaiya. Renowned for serving up delicacies with seasonal ingredients, their menu changes depending on what’s best and freshest at the time. When we visited in winter, we were treated to a 10-course crab extravaganza. From steamed crab meat to crab miso tofu and crab tempura, there were elements of crab in almost every dish (except dessert, thankfully). It was an absolutely delicious feast!
*The contents of the menu changes depending on the season and your accommodation plan.
This 300-year-old establishment is not just a restaurant, but the quintessential traditional Japanese inn. Our futons were made in our rooms while we enjoyed dinner, and the hot communal hot spring was just what we needed to wind down from a busy day of sightseeing. We just wish we could have stayed long enough to hire the private open air hot tub on the roof, which overlooks the village and the surrounding hills!
Day 4: Niigata City: History and Tradition Hiding in Every Corner
Lifestyle of the Rich and Prosperous: The Northern Culture Museum
Have you ever watched Downton Abbey, a show centered around the lives of British nobles, and wondered what the Japanese version of that would have looked like? Well, even if you haven’t, here’s a chance to discover how one of the wealthiest families lived in feudal Japan.
The Northern Culture Museum is the awe-inspiring residence of what used to be the wealthiest and largest landowner in the region. In its heyday, the Ito family’s land ownership covered 1,385 hectares (equivalent to the area of 300 Tokyo Domes!). After WWII, land reforms meant that families like the Ito’s were no longer able to hold all this land. The family thus established the Northern Culture Museum Foundation to which it donated its fortune in order to preserve the structures, gardens, and the artwork for future generations.
Today, this 65-room complex houses 6,000 antiques and artwork from Japan, China and Korea. The two-story, stately wooden house is also an architectural marvel in itself, with important architectural and interior features at every corner that showcase the techniques and designs of the architects and artisans of the time. We were undoubtedly most impressed with the enormous banquet hall. Designed with very few pillars in a traditional Japanese architectural style, it draws your eyes straight towards the open view of the meticulously landscaped inner garden. Much of the garden was covered in snow when we visited, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the sense of divine tranquility the garden brings to its guests.
Taste the Sake of Niigata: Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery
It would be a crime not to visit a sake brewery on a journey through Niigata. Sake is perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the best of Niigata: the soil, air, rice, water, and the livelihood of the people who live here.
Everybody in Japan knows that some of the tastiest rice in the country comes from Niigata. For 28 consecutive years (1989 - 2017), its Uonuma Koshihikari rice has received an “A” in its annual taste ranking. Niigata’s climate, the snowmelt running off the mountains, and long hours of sunlight create the perfect conditions for growing this premium short-grain rice. Therefore, it is no surprise that Niigata has the greatest number of sake breweries in Japan, around 90 of them.
We had the pleasure of visiting one of Niigata’s most esteemed breweries, Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery. Founded in 1767, this 250-year-old establishment only makes “junmai” sake, which means the sake is brewed using only rice, water, and koji, and without brewer’s alcohol. Here they also exclusively brew with Niigata’s mountain water of Suganatake, which is famously known for being delicious and of high quality.
The current facilities, which are still operational today, have been around since 120 years ago. We visited in winter, which is when sake is made, and joined the English tour (they’re held on weekdays at 2:00 pm). As we were guided through the brewing facilities, we heard the low hum of the machines in the background and got mesmerizing wafts of a lovely fruity fragrance of the sake brewing in the giant tanks. Imayo Tsukasa is one of the few breweries in Japan that still uses “kioke” tanks, made with cedar wood, so it was fascinating to see them up close.
A sake tour would be incomplete without, of course, a sake tasting. For just 1,000 yen, you get to taste over 10 different kinds of sake. All of the sake sold in their shop is made right there. One of their signature products is the KOI Junmai Daiginjo. Its distinctive bottle design is inspired by the koi fish, and has won numerous design awards in Europe, Asia, and the USA.
Last-Minute Shopping and More Sake Tasting at Niigata Station
Want to take a part of this amazing prefecture home with you? There are some fantastic food and souvenir shops at Niigata Station to conveniently satisfy all of your shopping needs just before you hop on the Joetsu Shinkansen that takes you straight back to Tokyo in two hours.
Ponshukan, right next to the west ticket gate inside Niigata Station, is an excellent store that sells a huge variety of food and sake sourced entirely from Niigata’s own producers, brewers, and manufacturers. You’ll find some of the prefecture’s best products here: rice, sweets, beer, and more!
We couldn’t resist the lure of the famously unique sake-tasting room at the back of the store, where there are 150 different sakes to choose from, dispensed from little vending machines. We got to try five different types of sake for just 500 yen. A rather perfect way for a last bit of indulgence before the two-hour nap on the ride back to Tokyo, I reckon!
Where Tradition, Culture, and History Are Wonderfully Preserved
Slightly off the beaten track compared to Japan’s big cities, Gunma and Niigata offer unique insights on how ancient crafts and industries have been preserved, how traditions have evolved, and a deeper look into Japanese regional culture. Step into a region full of spectacular natural scenery, an alternative art scene, and mouthwateringly delicious cuisine! Can you believe that such a region is so conveniently accessible from Tokyo? There’s every reason to visit this amazing part of Japan!
Want to find out more? Visit these websites to learn more about these wonderful prefectures:
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.