Winter in the Snow Country

Here in Itoigawa, we are lucky to have four very distinct seasons. Winter is marked by pristine snowy scenery, delicious fish, the sake brewing season, and colourful festivals.

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Welcome to our winter wonderland!
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Discover old-time winter traditions in the Japanese countryside.

Niigata Prefecture is in the heart of the Snow Country, and you can find snow on Itoigawa’s mountains from around December until May – indeed, you can ski here until that time. However, because the centre of the city is on the coast, it rarely gets deep snow, meaning that transport links continue uninterrupted throughout the year.

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It may be snowy, but the roads – and the railways – are clear.
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In the mountains, you may see people shovelling the snow off their roofs.

This year, we are looking forward to welcoming our first guests for a snowshoe walk to the beautiful Shiroike pond. The deep snow in the mountains allows you to walk on paths that are covered by bushes at other seasons. And after a day in the snow, what better way to relax than in an open-air hot spring?

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Plenty of snow to walk on!

Winter is also a great season for gourmets to visit. Itoigawa boasts delicious seafood throughout the year, but those in the know consider that fish are at their best in winter because they put on more fat to combat the cold, giving them a richer flavour. One of the best examples of winter seafood is monkfish, a deep-sea fish that is available at just a few fishing ports in Japan, including Itoigawa, thanks to the deep waters near to our coast. If you are here in late January, you may be able to watch a monkfish being expertly prepared at the town’s monkfish festival; but don’t worry if you miss this, as you can find monkfish in the local restaurants until around March. New rice and freshly-brewed sake are also available at this season.

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Meet the monkfish, Itoigawa’s most famous deep-sea resident.

This coldest season of the year is also enlivened by a variety of New Year’s festivals. Each area has its own distinctive celebrations, so you can have a unique experience at any one of them.

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Omi’s Take no Karakai festival is a tug of war with bamboo!

Even if you are a Japan expert, come to visit us next winter and discover another side to the country!

 

Sai no Kami, a spectacular New Year’s festival

You probably know that New Year is one of the most important festivals in Japan, but have you heard of Sai no Kami? The details of the ceremonies vary, but the main feature is usually a bonfire, on which the previous year’s household shrine ornaments, Daruma dolls, and other votive items are burnt.

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Daruma on the Sai no Kami bonfire in Omi.
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Residents of Hayakawa assemble in the snow to watch their Sai no Kami bonfire.
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In inland areas such as Nechi, the bonfires are made by tying bundles of rice straw to the branches of a tree. Rice straw burns very brightly and rapidly.

Each neighbourhood of Itoigawa has its own distinctive traditions, but the festivities are all held on or around January 15 (representing the New Year in the former lunar calendar). Watching the bright flames leap up towards the clear, starry winter sky, surrounded by snow-covered rice fields, is a particularly spectacular sight. In some neighbourhoods, people throw coins into the bonfire, and children (and some adults!) return the next day when the ashes are cold to hunt for them!

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In many of the festivals, such as this Sai no Kami in Momokawa, the outcome (in this case, the direction in which the poles fall) is said to predict the next year’s harvest and catch.
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Throwing money into the fire.
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Treasure hunters!

The most famous festival of this kind in Itoigawa takes place in Omi, on the Japan Sea coast, on January 15 each year. The first part of the event is called Take no Karakai (Bamboo Teasing), and is a kind of tug of war between teams of men and of children, alternately, from two different areas of town. Instead of using a rope, they pull on two long bamboo poles! In the breaks between bouts, they circle the poles chanting traditional songs. The participants’ kabuki-style makeup makes them very photogenic, and even the local police get into the festival spirit!

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Pull!!!
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Parading round the bamboo poles

After the tug of war is over, the participants (and spectators) are rewarded by scrambling for rice cakes tossed by the town officials from a window overhead. Finally, the bamboo poles are carried to the beach for the Sai no Kami bonfire, which takes place during the daytime in Omi.

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Catch!
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The seaside is another atmospheric setting for a bonfire.

Another festival taking place at this season which you should definitely not miss is the Hadaka no Doage in Tozaki, also on the coast. The men of the town, dressed only in loincloths, take turns to toss one of their number high into the air inside a small temple. The official aim is to drive away bad luck from the person thus thrown; the unofficial goal is to have them hit the ceiling!

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Some of the ceiling boards have deliberately been loosened!
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The festival gets progressively rowdier as the participants drink more sake…

So if you are planning to visit Japan in mid-January, why not get in touch with us and arrange a visit to a unique festival or two?

 

 

 

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!

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The mountainside behind provides perfect borrowed scenery
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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.

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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.

 

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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!

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

This is some of the foliage along the hiking route.

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

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

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

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

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

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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!

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.