There are many famous traditional gardens in Japan, but it can sometimes be difficult to appreciate the Zen aesthetic because of the crowds… Here in Itoigawa, we are lucky to have two gardens that are almost always tranquil. One is Hisui-en, where you can experience your own private tea ceremony. The other, not far away, is Gyokusui-en. Recently, we took a couple of guests there, and they loved the autumn foliage and the peace and quiet!
Right beside the garden is the Tanimura Art Museum. Built by famous architect Togo Murano, the idiosyncratic building is modelled on the sand dunes of the Silk Road, and despite its monolithic appearance, light filters in through various cunningly-hidden openings. Inside are several wooden Buddhist statues carved by sculptor Seiko Sawada.
Why not come and soak up the atmosphere for yourself?
The hike through the woods up to Shiroike pond is always popular with visitors. In early summer, you can enjoy the delicate green of the new foliage and watch newts swimming in the pond, while at the height of summer you can see all sorts of trees and plants along the path, pointed out by our friendly local nature guide. But arguably the most stunning season is autumn. The mountainside above the pond is covered with beech trees, which turn a beautiful golden brown around the end of October. Here are some photos from a hike with Swiss visitors in early November.
If you don’t feel like hiking, the start of the trail is also a perfect spot to sit and read!
This is some of the foliage along the hiking route.
And once you get to the pond itself, the views are even better…
Our guest wanted to explore further, so we climbed up the mountainside beyond to another pond and the pass over the mountains.
It was worth the climb for the spectacular views looking back!
From this winter, we are also offering a hike to the pond using snowshoes. We look forward to welcoming you here and showing you our favourite spots!
Before the construction of the modern road network, Itoigawa was the start of an important trade route known as the Salt Trail. Men and women carried heavy packs and led oxen over steep mountain passes, taking salt to the thriving castle town of Matsumoto far inland. Our guests enjoy walking a section of this route, up to the scenic Shiroike pond, and picnicking there.
The first stop on the way is the Salt Trail museum, an old farmhouse that has been made into a museum by local residents to preserve the porters’ equipment, agricultural tools, and other artefacts which they donated. In spring and autumn, guests can sit round a fire in the irori, or open hearth. Japanese farmhouses had no chimneys, making them very smoky in winter, but this smoke played a role in preserving the timbers and thatching.
After learning a bit about the area’s past, it’s time to set off along the Salt Trail! Luckily, there are no heavy loads to carry, although we do bring along delicious lunchboxes for the guests. Along the way, the local outdoor specialist who accompanies us explains all about the trees, plants, and other nature of the area. There are also breaks to look at the views over the rice paddies and down to the coast.
Our destination, Shiroike pond, is framed by mountains and has beautifully clear water. There is an abundance of nature to observe, including dragonflies, newts, and frogs.
And of course, it’s time for the picnic lunch! Local specialties include sasa-zushi (a kind of Japanese version of an open sandwich, served on a young bamboo leaf) and seasonal seafood. The spring water is delicious and cool, and the views are perfect…
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.
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 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.
At the top of the valley, you will find a hot spring and a group of traditional thatched farmhouses.
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!
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.