A Japanese garden without the crowds!

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!

DSCN6353
The mountainside behind provides perfect borrowed scenery
DSCN6358
A photographer’s heaven: perfect weather, autumn colours, and no-one to get in the way!

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.

DSCN6365

Why not come and soak up the atmosphere for yourself?

Autumn colours in Shiroike

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.

 

IMG_6964
Outside the Salt Trail Museum

If you don’t feel like hiking, the start of the trail is also a perfect spot to sit and read!

DSCN6293
“Take as long as you like! Come back in three hours…”

This is some of the foliage along the hiking route.

DSCN6301

 

DSCN6345

DSCN6296
The mountains on the far side of the mountain show up clearly in the autumn light

DSCN6347

And once you get to the pond itself, the views are even better…

DSCN6343

DSCN6319

Our guest wanted to explore further, so we climbed up the mountainside beyond to another pond and the pass over the mountains.

DSCN6321

DSCN6333

It was worth the climb for the spectacular views looking back!

DSCN6322

DSCN6324
The Sea of Japan is visible in the distance, beyond the town

DSCN6337

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!

Walking the ancient Salt Trail

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.

Old, thatched wooden farmhouse
The Salt Road museum
Frames made of wood and rope
Wooden frames for carrying loads – no rucksacks back then…

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.

Two walkers look out over rice paddies below
Time for a well-deserved rest!
View of trees, rice paddies, and then sea
The city of Itoigawa and the Sea of Japan in the distance

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.

Deep blue pond with mountain range in the background
The clear waters of Shiroike pond
Observing the trees in the local forest
 Looking at the trees in the surrounding forest

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…

Three people use leaf cups to drink from a spring by a pond
Learning how to drink from cups made of leaves

The Fossa Magna: where East meets West

East and West really do meet in the Nechi valley. This is where the two tectonic plates which make up Japan converge, and was once at the bottom of the sea.

The Fossa Magna fault line
The Fossa Magna fault line

The pleasant walk around the hillside to reach the fault line is enlivened by signboards making up a quiz about some of the cultural differences between east and west Japan.

The fresh spring greenery is called shinryoku, "new green", and is one of the seasonal attractions, along with the autumn leaves
The fresh spring greenery is called shinryoku, “new green”, and is one of the seasonal attractions, along with the autumn leaves

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