Pottery making

One of the great things about visiting Itoigawa is that there are so many hands-on activities to try, and that’s never more important than when you’re travelling with children. Pottery making is great fun for parents and children alike. You can make a rice bowl, a sake cup, a dish, or whatever takes your fancy.

Help is always at hand!
Help is always at hand!

It doesn’t matter if you have never made pottery before, as the teacher, a professional potter, will show you how to do it. He and his assistants are very patient, and will rescue any pots that are teetering on the brink of collapse!

Demonstrating how to start off the dish
Demonstrating how to start off the dish

You could have heard a pin drop, as everyone concentrated hard on their creations…

Each person can choose the size and shape of dish they want to make
Each person can choose the size and shape of dish they want to make

Once the pots are shaped, they will be glazed, fired, and sent to you. This may take a couple of months, as the kiln has to fill up before the pots are fired. You choose the glaze you want from the numbered samples.

The finished dishes, with numbers to indicate the glazes
The finished dishes, with numbers to indicate the glazes

Technically speaking, this is the end of the session. However, the staff are very accommodating, and will help you to make more creations…

Next, I want to make a snake...
“Next, I want to make a snake…”

… And even try out the electric wheel…

"How much does a wheel like this one cost?"
“How much does a wheel like this one cost?”

And of course, you can buy some of the professional’s work, too.

Some of the master's work, ready for firing
Some of the master’s work, ready for firing

Fish, fish, and more fish…

Itoigawa is renowned for its fresh seafood, and if you visit the fish market, you will see why! Each day, the local fishing fleet unloads its catch here, ready for auction at 3 p.m. precisely. Crates and crates of fish of every shape, size, and colour imaginable line a vast warehouse, ready to be inspected by the buyers. You are sure to come across some kinds of fish that you have never seen before, such as deep-sea monkfish, a memorably ugly, slimy fish which is nevertheless one of the local specialties for its delicious taste…

Don't judge a fish by its skin... Anglerfish is delicious
Don’t judge a fish by its skin… Anglerfish is delicious
How many of these fish can you identify?!
How many of these fish can you identify?!

Only people wearing caps with numbers on, which denote the number of their permits, are allowed to bid in the auction, and permits cost around ¥10 million, making these some of the most expensive caps ever! However, taking photos is free!

Inspecting the catch. Once the auction starts, it moves very fast, so buyers need to check the fish beforehand.
Inspecting the catch. Once the auction starts, it moves very fast, so buyers need to check the fish beforehand.

If you do want to sample some of the catch, you can head along the road to where local women will ply you with crab’s legs in an attempt to sell you another of the local specialties, red snow crab, as well as dried fish and other delicacies.

How about some dried fish?
How about some dried fish?

Up close and personal with sumo wrestlers!

Watching sumo is on the must-do list of many visitors to Japan – there is something about watching two large, nearly-naked men poised in a delicate equilibrium in the centre of a sandy ring that seems to fascinate us all. However, even if you manage to catch a professional sumo bout in Tokyo or one of the other major cities, you will probably be relegated to a seat far from the action. When you visit us in Itoigawa, on the other hand, you’ll have the chance to watch the next generation of sumo wrestlers in training at the local high school’s sumo club. Even though the wrestlers are still teenagers, they are not to be taken lightly: several of them have gone on to win the national junior and senior high school sumo championships, and the school’s sumo club is so famous that more than half of its members come from other prefectures in order to join it. Recently, they have been covered by various TV stations, and some of the students have even travelled to Europe to introduce sumo there!

A practice bout
A practice bout

Such success is achieved as a result of an intensive training schedule, a couple of hours each day after school. This means that whenever you visit us, you will be able to attend a session. The sumo techniques are, of course, fascinating to observe, but so are the training methods. Like other traditional Japanese sports, sumo is very hierarchical, and you will often see the junior members sweeping the ring or bringing water for their seniors.

The sand gets scuffed up very quickly by the tussling wrestlers, so sweeping it is a never-ending task
The sand gets scuffed up very quickly by the tussling wrestlers, so sweeping it is a never-ending task

The energy and tension are palpable during the training session, but as soon as it ends, the students are all smiles. They always welcome overseas visitors, and are happy to pose for photographs. If you like, you can even try on the sumo wrestlers’ loincloth, but this is not obligatory!

New friends!
New friends!

Staying at a hot spring ryokan in the mountains

This ryokan is a favourite among our guests because it offers an authentic Japanese hot spring experience in the heart of the mountains, with attentive service and delicious food, yet with more privacy than can be found at smaller ryokan.

From central Itoigawa, you will drive along the Himekawa river valley, between the mountains of the Japan Alps, until you reach the hot spring resort in the mountains. The ryokan is on the edge of the village, in a secluded spot overlooking the river. You will be welcomed with Japanese tea and sweets in the lounge, the tables of which are made of slabs of Itoigawa jade!

Tea at Hotel Kunitomi
Enjoy a cup of Japanese tea and a traditional sweet!

And if you like, you can also try grilled delicacies cooked over the open hearth, or irori.

The irori is the heart of every Japanese farmhouse
The irori is the heart of every Japanese farmhouse

And now for the highlight of the stay: the hot spring! First, you will be asked to choose a cotton yukata of the right size. People visiting hot spring resorts commonly wear yukata around their accommodation, to meals, and even when strolling down the street! However, the one thing you must NOT do is put the right-hand edge of the yukata over the top of the left-hand edge: the left-hand edge of the yukata always goes on top, for both men and women.

Cotton yukata are usually worn within the hotel
Cotton yukata are usually worn within the hotel

Once you have your yukata, it’s time to head to the bath!

Don't worry if you can't read the signs - red curtains for the women's bath and blue curtains for the men's bath are pretty standard across Japan
Don’t worry if you can’t read the signs – red curtains for the women’s bath and blue curtains for the men’s bath are pretty standard across Japan

There are both indoor and outdoor baths here. Soap, shampoo, and other toiletries are provided in the washing area of the indoor bath, which you use before entering the bath itself. You can use either the showers along the walls or the natural spring water which flows into a wooden trough in the bathroom, but make sure to wash off all the soap before getting into the bath.

The outdoor bath is surrounded by rocks, and has a view of the mountains
The outdoor bath is surrounded by rocks, and has a view of the mountains

The ryokan also has three private baths (wood, stone, and ceramic) which you can book for a truly memorable experience.

The corridor to the private baths, which are detached from the main building for even greater privacy
The corridor to the private baths, which are detached from the main building for even greater privacy

After a relaxing bath, you can enjoy delicious local seafood for dinner, perhaps accompanied by some of Itoigawa’s famous sake…

There are hollow spaces below the tables, so you can sit comfortably!
There are hollow spaces below the tables, so you can sit comfortably!
Some of Itoigawa's local sake brands
Some of Itoigawa’s local sake brands

After all this, you’re sure to sleep well!

There are seasonal flower arrangements throughout the ryokan
There are seasonal flower arrangements throughout the ryokan

Nou: the best of the sea and the mountains!

Itoigawa’s topography of coastline and valleys gives each of its regions a distinctive character and charm. Nou, the easternmost part of Itoigawa, includes both a lively fishing port and a dramatic mountain valley with hot springs and a challenging ski slope. In one day, or even one afternoon, visitors can experience the best of both the sea and the mountains.

Nou valley
Nou valley

Every afternoon, the Nou fishing fleet sells the day’s catch in a large and raucous auction. Only those with permits (priced at several million yen…) have the right to buy fish there, but you can enjoy the atmosphere, and gaze at varieties of fish that you have never seen before. Just along the coast, meanwhile, fresh crab and many other fish are sold directly to the public.

Nou fish market
Nou fish market

Nou is also home to a small senbei workshop, which makes rice crackers from rice grown in the nearby fields. You can draw your own pictures on rice crackers and have them baked while you enjoy lunch at the soba noodle restaurant right next door. It is run by a group of local women, and also offers delicious home-made tempura and sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves, an Itoigawa specialty, as well as a selection of local crafts. You can also try your hand at rolling and cutting your own noodles.

Hidamari soba restaurant
Inside the soba restaurant
Handmade soba lunch set
Handmade soba lunch set

At the top of the valley, you will find a hot spring and a group of traditional thatched farmhouses.

Thatched farmhouse, Nou
Thatched farmhouse, Nou

On the way home, it’s time for perhaps the most memorable visit of the day: to see the local sumo club practicing! Members of this club have won the national junior and senior high school championships several times. Watching these aspiring wrestlers square off in the ring, you can feel the energy crackling in the air. Discipline is strict, but once the training session is over, there are smiles all round, and the opportunity for a group photograph. If you like, you can even try on the sumo wrestlers’ loincloth!

Group photo with sumo wrestlers!
Group photo with sumo wrestlers!

And as the sun sets over the Japan Sea, take your photograph at Benten-iwa, one of the most picturesque spots on the coast. Nou is one place in Japan that you will never forget.

Sunset, Benten-iwa
Sunset, Benten-iwa

Kenka Matsuri festival

Kenka Matsuri, one of Itoigawa’s biggest annual festivals, is underway today and tomorrow at one of the oldest shrines in town, just minutes from the station! The highlight of the festival is the clash between the omikoshi, or portable shrines, belonging to two rival neighbourhoods, Teramachi and Oshiage. The portable shrines are dragged and carried round and round a circuit, facing off at intervals like bulls locking horns in a battle of strength and wills. The climax is a race round the full circuit, with the crowds cheering on their neighbours and relatives from the stands set up specially for the occasion. It is said that if Teramachi, a farming neighbourhood, wins then the harvest will be good the next year, while if Oshiage, a fishing district, wins then there will be a good catch.

Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri
Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri

There is more to the festival than the battle of the shrines, however. Children and adults perform a variety of sacred dances, representing everything from old men to butterflies and demons. Several red lion-dogs chase children and adults round the grounds, trying to bite their heads; but no-one runs away too fast, because having your head “bitten” is thought to make you clever! The elementary school children have the day off school for the festival, and stalls selling fish-shaped pancakes, fried noodles, or chocolate-covered bananas do a brisk trade.

The lion-dog's bark is worse than his bite!
The lion-dog’s bark is worse than his bite!

Kenka Matsuri is always held on 10 and 11 April, regardless of the day of the week. If you are planning to visit Itoigawa at that season, why not come along and find out what all the fuss is about?

Butterfly dancers
Butterfly dancers

Dressing in kimono

Many of our visitors opt to dress in kimono and take a walk in a beautiful formal Japanese garden nearby. After choosing a kimono and a sash, the friendly staff will help dress you in them, and give you advice on hairstyles. Pink and red are apparently the most popular colours among foreign visitors, while Japanese people tend to prefer more formal shades such as black; but there are a wide range of colours and patterns to choose from.

How do we look?!
How do we look?!

Opportunities to try wearing a kimono are of course available in various cities, such as Kyoto. However, what makes this experience different is that it is not just a tourist attraction. The kimono shop serves the local community, with most of its customers coming there on formal occasions such as weddings, graduation, or Coming of Age Day. They also make kimono to order, so the staff are experts and can answer any questions you may have.

Kimono bijin (beautiful ladies)!
Kimono bijin (beautiful ladies)!

Once the staff have finished tying the elaborate sash, it’s time to go for a walk!

Walking round Tanimura-En
Walking round the Japanese garden

Welcome to the new Kotobuki blog!

Daffodils, Kuriyama
Daffodils, Kuriyama
Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri
Clash of the portable shrines, Kenka Matsuri

Here in Itoigawa, spring has arrived, bringing the cherry blossom, the lively annual Kenka Matsuri festival, and our first visitors! We’d like to give you a taste of their experiences here in this new blog, so that you can see the many faces of Itoigawa for yourself.