Niigata, Toyama, and Nagano: Travel Through Beautiful Paintings of Nature and Art
People from all over the world visit Japan to soak in the beauty of its nature that shows a different face with each season. In this article, we escape the chaos of the big city to explore the area around the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japanese Alps. More specifically, we visited Niigata's coastal cities of Joetsu and Itoigawa, as well as Asahi Town in Toyama Prefecture and Omachi City in Nagano Prefecture. When laid out on a map, they form a T-shape, with the cities and towns in Niigata and Toyama forming a horizontal line and Omachi making a vertical line. Within this area lies not just scenic views of mountains and the sea, but art and culture spots and facilities that will let you experience the true essence of the local culture.
Feb 15 2023
*This article was written in collaboration with the North Alps and Sea of Japan Tourism Cooperation Committee.
Joetsu City and Itoigawa City in Niigata: Cultural Facilities Reflecting the History and the Beauty of the Four Seasons
The art and culture event "Echigo Tsumari Art Triennale" has been held in Niigata once every three years since the year 2000. While it is known as one of Japan's leading art festivals, if you want to focus more on exploring the local culture, consider visiting the cities of Joetsu and Itoigawa situated on the coast of the Sea of Japan. You are bound to see a totally different side of Niigata Prefecture there.
Takada Castle Site Park
The first spot we would like to present is Takada Castle Site Park, a famous cherry blossom viewing spot that is a must-see for those visiting Joetsu City. Takada Castle was built in 1614 under the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu as the residence of his sixth son, Matsudaira Tadateru, as well as the center of the then Echigo Province. The site of that castle has been transformed to the present-day park, symbolized by the restored three-storied watchtower of Takada Castle. If you are into Japanese castle architecture, you should definitely check out this huge lowland castle and the outer moat that was built using a natural river.
The scenery at Takada Castle Site Park changes with the season. In spring, about 4,000 cherry blossom trees bloom in the park and its surroundings. At night, the trees are lit up and their pink reflection on the moat creates a truly magical sight. In summer, the outer moat is covered with green lotus leaves and countless pink lotus flowers. They say that this is the most beautiful and grandest view of lotus leaves and flowers in the East.
Kobayashi Kokei Memorial Museum of Art
As you walk through Takada Castle Site Park, you will come across a long corridor that leads to a building enveloped in an elegant and calm atmosphere - the Kobayashi Kokei Memorial Museum of Art, which opened in October 2020. Even if you don't know much about Japanese paintings, we recommend stepping into the Kokei Memorial Room inside the museum to see the works of the Kobayashi Kokei, a Japanese painter who was born in Joetsu City. His paintings were drawn with delicate lines and gradations of color to create the haze-like vibe unique to Japanese paintings, and will capture your eyes in a glance.
Next, go to the Special Exhibition Room to view works by artists associated with Joetsu City. Then, head to Ninomaru Hall at the end of the corridor to join one of the various lectures and workshops that are held there. This tastefully laid out room has floor-to-ceiling windows that not only let in the light, but also give visitors a view of Takada Castle Site Park.
Outside the glass doors of Ninomaru Hall, you will find a beautiful garden that was once the subject of Kokei’s paintings. If you still have time, we also suggest dropping by the Kokei Kobayashi Residence which was relocated from Tokyo, as well as the restored Kokei Kobayashi Studio.
In 1934, Kokei decided to build a residence next to his studio. He asked architect Isoya Yoshida, who was on friendly terms with several Japanese painters at the time, to design it. He did not make any specific demands about his residence, only that Yoshida built him a house that he would like. So, Yoshida researched Kokei’s works and came up with this house.
If you actually take a look inside, you will see that the beams and other visible parts of the house are slender and cleanly arranged. The design emphasizes functionality, as seen in the impressive sliding paper doors with glass bottom halves for viewing the snow outside and absence of floor elevations in all the rooms. There is also plenty of storage space.
The adjacent studio was also designed by the same architect. It features windows that will let you adjust the lighting freely, which, to painters, is very important. The studio is now used for cultural events such as tea ceremonies and flower arrangement workshops.
If you get a chance to visit the Kobayashi Kokei Memorial Museum of Art, you can learn more about Kokei's world by admiring his paintings and observing his residence and studio.
Gyokusuien Garden and the Tanimura Art Museum
When you’re done exploring Joetsu City, head to the neighboring Itoigawa City and you’ll encounter another attraction that will surely leave an impression: Gyokusuien Garden and the Tanimura Art Museum. Here, you'll find a collection of works from three great masters: architect Togo Murano, wood sculptor Seiko Sawada, and landscape architect Kinsaku Nakane.
Once you step inside, you will see a massive building that will make you think of ruins on the Silk Road or the cave temples in Dunhuang, China. The Japanese-style corridor going straight to the museum, with a dry landscape garden surrounding it, is a unique manifestation of the meticulousness of the architect that designed this place. One example of the architect’s attention to detail is the curved corridor wall that will make you naturally walk in the center of the corridor. The design of the structure also has a sense of playfulness, shown through the chestnut wood column bases which, if you look closely, stand on natural stone pedestals.
When you enter the museum, you'll see a long and winding viewing route. There's a reason for that: the designers want visitors to feel like they are in another world the moment they step inside the cave-like exhibition rooms. If you turn around or look back, you will not be able to see the works you just saw. It's almost as if they're trying to say that "life is about moving forward."
If you look up at the skylight and the corner windows, you'll sense the natural changes in light at each and every moment. The staff adjusts the lighting according to the weather outside, so you will get to experience a different type of calm with every visit, as well as see the changes in the expressions and shadows of the Buddha statues created by Seiko Sawada.
Next to the Tanimura Art Museum, you will see Gyokusuien Garden. Designed by Kinsaku Nakane, a well-known Japanese landscape architect, the garden makes use of the surrounding scenery - two rivers running through the mountains and the distant mountain range - for its background. Add in the landscaped hills of the garden and you've got a truly powerful vista that also lets you feel the delicacy lying within Japanese Zen. Why not sit close to a jade table and gaze out at this garden, have some tea, or try your hand at making jade bracelets?
Asahi Town in Toyama: Get in Touch With the Locals Through Tea and Jade
Toyama Prefecture's Asahi Town, adjacent to Itoigawa City, commands a view of the Sea of Japan to the north and the 3,000-meter-high Japanese Northern Alps to the southeast. Blessed with abundant nature, it has long been a crucial post town on the Hokuriku Kaido and served as a strategic transport hub. They value human contact and relationships, so even today, travelers who visit can fully experience the charms of country living and the warmth of the locals.
Asahi Town Historical Park - Former Kawakami Residence
Asahi Town Historical Park can be reached in about 15 minutes by car from the nearest shinkansen station, Kurobe-Unazukionsen. Being close to the railroad tracks, you can see the Hokuriku Shinkansen zip by from inside this park. If you come in early summer, you will be welcomed by the sight of a gorgeous countryside landscape filled with lotus flowers in bloom that are set against a splendid mountain range. The view will surely relax you.
The highlight of this park is the restored Former Kawakami Residence, the oldest townhouse in the prefecture, which was built in the Edo Period (1603-1868). Inside, you will find on display materials on machiya (traditional wooden townhouses) and Japanese agricultural tools. Visitors will also get to try the local bata-bata tea while seated around a sunken hearth.
Unlike the Japanese matcha and hojicha that many of us are very familiar with, bata-bata tea is a kind of fermented black tea that originated from China. A special whisk consisting of two whisks that have been bound together is used to prepare this tea, and the sound (which sounds like “bata-bata” in Japanese) that is created when the whisk hits the sides of the cup as the tea is vigorously stirred is how this tea got its unique name. It was originally served during Buddhist sutra chanting sessions, but today, it is served when the locals gather around the hearth, with the aroma of tea and the sounds of the whisk and laughter filling the air.
During our visit, a kind lady made us tea, giving us detailed instructions on how to stir the tea until bubbles formed. We learned a lot from her, such as how to make dried persimmons in the hearth and when to know that they are ready to eat, and had a great time chatting.
A local master who grew chrysanthemums also came by to display his works at the residence. He sat down, drank tea, and chatted together with us. If you visit the Former Kawakami Residence, you're sure to experience the same - enjoying a cup of tea in a space overwhelming with the warmth of the locals.
Asahi Funakawa Spring Quartet
There are about 280 cherry trees planted by local residents on both sides of the 600-meter-long Funakawa River in Asahi Town. Every spring, they form a tunnel of cherry blossoms that brings in tons of visitors from both other parts of Japan and overseas.
While the tunnel of cherry blossoms already showcases the splendid beauty of spring, you can't miss out on the rest of Asahi Town's Spring Quartet. Aside from the cherry blossoms on the banks of the Funakawa River, there's the fields beside the banks which are carpeted with 600,000 red tulips and dazzling, vivid yellow nanohana flowers, as well as the white snow-capped Northern Japanese Alps in the backdrop.
The Spring Quartet is just as mesmerizing at other times of the day as it is when set against a backdrop of blue skies and white clouds. Catch Mt. Asahi and Mt. Shirouma reflected in the paddy fields, the bonfires and cherry blossoms on both sides of the river at night, and the gorgeous flowers under a glittering starry sky. Whatever time you visit, you will surely be moved by the picturesque flowers and mountains together with the Spring Quartet.
Located close to the train station, Hisui Terrace is the perfect place for sightseeing activities in Asahi Town and the coast of the Sea of Japan. After mountain climbing, fishing, or swimming in the sea, you can use the shower rooms and kitchen of this facility opened in 2018.
The 4-kilometer coastline that stretches from the Miyazaki Fishing Port in Asahi Town to the Sakai River is called Hisui Coast because you can pick up unpolished jade (“hisui” in Japanese) stones that get washed up by the waves. Rent a bicycle at Hisui Terrace and ride along the coast to feel the true beauty of the Sea of Japan up close, or go to the rooftop of Hisui Terrace to experience a gorgeous panoramic view of the sparkling Hisui Coast.
When we visited the Hisui Coast, we joined a jade searching tour held at the facility together with an experienced local guide.
Before we hit the shore, our experienced guide taught us how to identify jade. Jade is light green in appearance, has noticeable corners, and feels heavy when placed in the palm of your hand. You can apparently identify jade by testing its translucency with a flashlight. However, as soon as we put on our boots and ventured into the gravelly coast, we realized that finding jade was not that easy.
After searching, we ended up without any jade, but we had no regrets. Every time we picked up a stone and checked them with the guide, we learned more about the deep world of stones and gemstones. Plus, it was a great opportunity to feel the sea breeze and spray of the waves of the beautiful Hisui Coast on our skin. At the end of the search, one of us picked up a strangely shaped stone that the guide said they could bring home as a souvenir if they wanted to. It might not have been a jade, but it became the best souvenir of their trip to Asahi!
Omachi City in Nagano: The Traditions of This Town of Water and a Contemporary Art Festival
Omachi City in Nagano is located south of Hakuba, a well-known ski spot in the region, and serves as a base for those going to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. This area has always been famous for its pure spring water, abundant natural hot springs, and magnificent mountain range. In recent years, however, this mountainous tourist spot has been transformed into a whole different city thanks to the Northern Alps Art Festival that is held here once every three years.
Salt Road Chojiya
A salt road is a route for transporting salt and marine products from coastal areas to inland regions, and there were many of them in Japan. One of them was the Chikuni Kaido, which connected Echigo (now Niigata) and Shinshu (now Nagano). Nagano does not face the sea, so the salt and seafood that the area needed were hauled from Itoigawa City in Niigata to Matsumoto City. Omachi is situated in the middle of that salt road, so it was a key transit point and one of the post towns on this road.
Salt Road Chojiya is a museum housed in a building that once belonged to the Hirabayashi family, who were local salt merchants. Many historical materials and tools are displayed inside this museum, as well as the traveling outfit of "bokka," who were the people that transported the salt at the time. You will also learn a lot at the Bunko-gura (tool storage shed), Tsukemono-gura (pickling warehouse), and Shio-gura (salt storage shed) which were built between the Edo and Meiji periods (1868-1912), especially about how they stored salt back in the day at the Shio-gura.
After passing through the row of storehouses, you will see the Yabusame Hall where you can learn about the Yabusame, an annual festival in Omachi City held at the end of July featuring 10 boys on horseback. You can also choose from a wide range of souvenirs based on the themes of salt or the Chikuni Kaido. Don't miss it!
The water that runs through the Takase River comes from the 3,180-meter-high Mt. Yarigatake. If you follow it downstream, you'll come across three dams: Omachi, Nanakura, and Takase. The name "Takase Gorge" refers to the area surrounding these three dams as well as Kuzu Onsen.
A lot of people come here for the beautiful scenery. It is especially breathtaking in the autumn from mid-October to early November, making this gorge one of the leading autumn leaf viewing spots in all of Nagano Prefecture.
We drove to Nanakura Dam which was built in 1979. When we parked and looked up at the 125-meter-high stone wall, the sight was so impressive that we felt as if we were in a sci-fi movie! We then climbed the endless stairs, eventually getting over our fear of turning around and looking down. We were out of breath by the time we finally saw the emerald green lake below, but it was truly a sight to behold! We were so thrilled with the scenery that it made our struggle climbing the stairs totally worth it.
In 2021, the 2nd Northern Alps Art Festival was held in five areas of Omachi City under the theme "Water, Earth, Wood, and Sky," and one of the featured spots was the dam area that we just visited. The white circles we saw when we climbed Nanakura Dam were actually part of one of the works showcased at the festival. The works of art on display in the area are integrated with the existing natural landscape and local history of water utilization and flood control. They made us eagerly anticipate the next art festival!
A Journey Full of Japanese Aesthetic
If you were to look at a map, the T-shaped area of the Sea of Japan and the Northern Japanese Alps that we visited may seem far. However, if you get on the Hokuriku Shinkansen, you can easily reach these beautiful places surrounded by the mountains and the sea! And while the natural beauty and cultural spots of Joetsu and Itoigawa Cities in Niigata, Asahi Town in Toyama, and Omachi City in Nagano are definitely worth experiencing in person, you shouldn't miss out on the local cuisine. Check out the following articles to plan a trip that will let you dive deep into all the beauty that encompasses Japan.
Niigata and Nagano: Secluded Hot Springs, Thrilling Outdoor Activities, and the Symphony of Oceans and Mountains
A Gastronomic Journey Through Joetsu and Itoigawa in Niigata, Asahi in Toyama, and Omachi in Nagano
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.