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For many foreign visitors, a trip to Japan means a classic itinerary based on its most famous cities – typically, along the same urbanized corridor that connects Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima.

Getting off of that beaten track can reveal an altogether different side to Japan – from forested mountains, picturesque farming villages and fascinating glimpses of rural life – but knowing where to start and how to fit it all into a travel itinerary can be a bit daunting, especially for visitors planning their first trip.

In this video project, we set out to show one way of experiencing all this and more in an easy-to-follow three-day trip to Niigata Prefecture, all within easy reach of Tokyo.

Day 1

We began our journey heading north from Tokyo on the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa Station, before transferring to a local line for Tokamachi, a small city at the heart of the remote Echigo-Tsumari region. From here, we changed to a rental car and set off into the countryside, enjoying the view of mist rising from treetops and the occasional glimpse of distant, snow-topped mountains.

Rice fields and misty forests

Like much of rural Japan, the Echigo-Tsumari region continues to struggle with the effects of an exodus of younger people to urban centers, leaving in its wake a smaller and rapidly aging population. In an effort to attract visitors and revitalise its community, the area established the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale – one of the world’s largest art festivals – with bold new works of contemporary art spread across roughly 200 villages, an area roughly the size of central Tokyo.

One goal at the heart of the project has been to reclaim and find new value in the region’s many abandoned buildings. A perfect example of this is our first stop of the day, the Hachi & Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art.

Exterior of the former elementary school

In the hands of Seizo Tashima, a celebrated illustrator of children’s books, this former elementary school in the remote village of Hachi has been transformed into a three dimensional storybook about the adventures of its final three students, complete with a colorful cast of imaginary characters.

Sculptures on display in the former school gymnasium

In keeping with the triennale’s additional goal of preserving a sense of the community’s shared memories, the museum has kept many of the school’s original rooms and features intact, and there is something thrilling about the way the artist’s creations come at you, sometimes from surprising angles and spaces, in such an atmospheric space.

Toperatoto – the Memory Eater

The school’s three last students in an upstairs classroom

Toperatoto on the stairs

Next on our itinerary was the Matsudai Nohbutai, a regional information center that also serves as a space for exhibitions and cultural events, set in a unique building designed by Dutch architect studio MVRDV.

Aerial view of the Matsudai Nohbutai

Making our way inside, we found a series of three-dimensional installations by Russian-American conceptual artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and in one triangular room, what appeared to be a full-sized reconstruction of a school classroom, every surface painted green and with desks covered in playful chalk drawings. This latter work by artist Kawaguchi Tatsuo is a reference to the once common local practice of establishing temporary winter annexes for schools cut off by heavy snow.

Labyrinth by Ilya Kabakov

The Artist’s Library

Relation – Blackboad Classroom by Kawaguchi Tatsuo

Another highlight of the center is Cafe Lefre, a beautiful piece of design in its own right with an eye-catching blue decor and views of the surrounding countryside through floor-to-ceiling windows. Built around the concept of satoyama – natural living in harmony with the region’s mountainous landscape – the menu showcases local ingredients, many grown by the staff themselves in nearby rented plots of land.

Cafe Lefre

While hot summers and bitterly cold, snow-covered winters can make Niigata a challenging place to live, its climate also makes it ideally suited to cultivating delicious and high quality rice, of which the prefecture is Japan’s leading producer. Here in the Echigo-Tsumari region, one of the most interesting aspects of rice farming is its many rice terraces, in which rows of separate paddies follow the land’s natural contours.

Of these, the most celebrated is the Hoshitoge Rice Terrace, with around 200 paddies of varying size cut into a single gently sloping hillside, located just a twenty-minute drive from the Matsudai Nohbutai.

The Hoshitoge Rice Terrace

As well as being beautiful to look at, terraces like this are a perfect illustration of the satoyama ethos – solving a problem posed by nature while also protecting the land itself. Research has shown that rice terraces promote a gradual flow of water through the soil, supporting the local ecosystem while helping to prevent landslides and flooding.

Just a few hundred meters away in Toge Village is another fascinating work of local renewal by artist Kurakake Junichi, restoring an abandoned 200-year-old farmhouse while adding a striking contemporary twist.

Exterior of the Shedding House

Known as the Shedding House, every surface of its interior had been stained black over the years by soot from a traditional open hearth. Together with a team of students from a university in Tokyo, the artist carved notches into every inch of exposed wood, revealing the layers hidden underneath and creating an eye-catching texture.

Heavy timber beams form the structure of the house

The view from an upstairs room

Hand-carved notches cover the floor, walls and even furniture

Approaching the end of our first day in Niigata, we made our way to nearby Matsunoyama Onsen – a tiny hot spring town whose waters are ranked in the nation’s top 3, alongside Arima and Kusatsu, for its high quality and medicinal effects.

A display of bonsai trees on the main street

After checking-in to a local ryokan, we enjoyed a simple but beautifully prepared traditional meal and a dip in the famous local hot spring waters before heading to bed, excited for another busy day of travel.

Our accommodation for the night

The perfect end to a busy day of sightseeing

Day 2

Making an early start the following morning, we hit the road to round off our time in Echigo-Tsumari with two last pieces of contemporary art.

The first of these is in Kikyobara Village, where artist Utsumi Akiko has placed the freestanding outline of a window, complete with curtains floating in the breeze, framing a view of the Kiyotsu River flowing towards a range of mountains in the distance.

For Lots of Lost Windows by Utsumi Akiko

Mist over the rice fields

Our final stop in Echigo-Tsumari was an art installation with an unusual setting – a 750m tunnel running alongside the scenic Kiyotsu Gorge.

The entrance to the tunnel

Once a popular beauty spot, the gorge was declared off-limits back in 1988, due to the twin dangers posed by falling rocks and heavy snowfall. Almost a decade later, the government opened a pedestrian tunnel, allowing visitors a safe glimpse of the valley’s dramatic rock face.

Sound effects and neon lights create an interesting atmosphere

In 2018 as part of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennale, the tunnel was given a facelift with lighting and installations by Beijing-based design firm MAD Architects, becoming the Tunnel of Light. From the entrance, visitors make their way along atmospheric sections of neon-lit tunnel, opening onto viewing platforms offering a glimpse of the valley with its dramatic columns of volcanic rock.

Lights and mirrors in the second-to-last viewing platform

In the last and most impressive of these, the arched ceiling is covered entirely in mirrored tiles, reflecting natural light from the valley outside onto the surface of an infinity pool.

The view over the infinity pool (photo by Nakamura Osamu)

With that, our time in Echigo-Tsumari was at an end, and we were soon back in the car for a peaceful two-hour drive to Niigata Port. From here, we boarded a jetfoil bound for Sado Island, and the second leg of our journey.

Boarding the jetfoil at Niigata Port

Arriving into the port town of Ryotsu, we once again changed to a rental car and made our way inland for the day’s final sightseeing stop at the secluded temple of Seisuiji. Originally built in the year 808, the temple’s main building is partly based on the more famous Kiyomizudera Temple in Kyoto.

Moss-covered steps lead to the temple precinct

View of the main building

From its long, cedar-lined approach to the main building itself, there is a sense of wonder and mystery to the temple that is only heightened by its now quite dilapidated state.

A pavilion in the woods beside the main building

Inside the main building

With the light beginning to fade, it was soon time for us to make our way to our accommodation for the night, at a traditional ryokan just outside the pretty coastal village of Shukunegi.

Arriving at the entrance to our ryokan

Day 3

The following morning, we made our way along the coast to the village itself, where compact rows of plain timber houses face out onto a small inlet.

Although it existed in at least some form since medieval times, Shukunegi grew and prospered in the 17th century when it became a vital stop on Japan’s most important shipping route, connecting Hokkaido to Osaka via the Sea of Japan and the Seto Inland Sea.

View of the Sakakuya or Triangle House – it’s sharp corner resembles the prow of a ship

With most of the town’s residents making their living as shipbuilders, the houses here were built using materials and techniques more commonly found on boats, lending it a unique design and atmosphere. Even the tightly-packed layout and narrow streets are a response to the surrounding landscape, protecting the houses from powerful ocean winds.

Narrow streets and simple timber walls

A closer look at some houses reveals surprising details

Making our way a little further along the coast, we made a stop at another sheltered inlet where I had the chance to try another Sado tradition – a ride in a small, flat bottomed boat called a taraibune. Shaped rather like a washtub, the boat’s unusual design keeps it steady in the water and allows it to get at little nooks and narrow coves along the island’s rocky coastline, where local delicacies like abalone and other mollusks are often to be found.

Boarding the taraibune with a local rower

Steering the little boat requires a high level of skill

Setting out on a brief circuit of the little bay with a skilled local rower, I was able to see a mid-sized jellyfish and a shoal of baby pufferfish up close and in vivid detail, while enjoying a view of distant mountain peaks over on the mainland.

Making our way around the sheltered cove

Encounter with a jellyfish

For much of its history, Sado was consigned to relative obscurity and even served as a place of banishment for political crimes. That changed in the 17th century, however, when a rich vein of gold was discovered in its mountains. A mine known as Sado Kinzan was established and soon became the most productive in all of Japan, while the nearby town of Aikawa quickly grew to a population of 50,000, putting it on a level with some of the leading cities of its day.

In the original 17th century section of the mine, the working lives of its historical miners are brought to life through a series of detailed tableaus, revealing the equipment used and hazards faced all in a day’s work.

Miners used an Archimedean screw pump to drain water from the tunnels

A reconstructed exit from the original section of tunnels

Equally impressive is the mine’s museum, with a series of detailed exhibits charting its history and complex working culture.

Detailed models describe life in the mine and neary town at the height of production

We ended our visit with a look at the mine’s separate modern section, which remained in use until 1989 and retains much of its original equipment.

The modern section of the mine

Just a short drive from the mine itself are the ruins of another important part of its operations. Built in the 1930s, the Kitazawa Flotation Plant could process up to 50,000 tons of ore in a single month – extracting gold and silver using a technique previously used only for copper.

Aerial view of the Kitazawa Flotation Plant

The brick facade of the old power plant is the site’s best preserved structure

By the 1950s the mine’s output had begun to drop-off, and while mining would continue at a reduced level for a few more decades, the flotation plant was abandoned and soon fell into ruins. Although the buildings themselves remain off-limits, visitors are allowed onto the site to see them up close, and there is something quite atmospheric about the way nature has begun to reclaim them, peeling back the surface to reveal the concrete and metal skeletons underneath.

View of the main building and power plant

The remains of the thickening tank

After exploring the ruins, it was time to make a stop for lunch at Mochidaya, a cosy restaurant run by a local fishmonger. Settling down at a traditional low table, we were soon digging into a generous plate of delicious, fresh seafood.

Sashimi served in a little wooden boat

Shrimp, oyster and sweetfish tempura

For our second to last stop on the island, we made our way to another reminder of its historic importance. Following the discovery of its gold in 1602, Sado quickly joined a handful of Japan’s most strategically vital sites in being brought under the direct control of the Shogun, from his seat of power in what is today Tokyo.

The Bugyosho’s imposing main entrance

Beautifully restored tatami corridors

The shogun appointed a magistrate, who governed the island from his headquarters here in the town of Aikawa. Known as the Bugyosho, this building served as a center of government, as well as every aspect of the mine’s administration.The building was reconstructed in the year 2000 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the mine’s opening.

Sturdy timber beams give the building a very authentic look

A side entrance and reception rooms

It was almost time to leave the island, but there was still time for one last stop. Located just a short walk from the Bugyosho behind a concrete wall covered in ivy is the now abandoned Old Aikawa Detention House – a former prison now open to the public.

Aikawa’s narrow streets are lined with attractive little houses

The entrance to the old prison house

Built in 1954 and abandoned just 18 years later, it’s a sombre but remarkably atmospheric space, now free to enter with some of its original furniture and trimmings still intact.

The remains of an oven in the prison’s kitchen

View of the cell block

None of the rooms have been fenced off, allowing visitors to explore every space at will

A doctor’s chair in the prison’s medical room

With that, our time on Sado was at an end, and we began to thread our way back towards the port. From weatherbeaten landscapes and a community reclaiming lost spaces through art to experiencing a part of Japan truly off of the beaten track, it had been an endlessly absorbing three days packed with interesting experiences.

A final view of one of Aikawa’s oldest streets

Access

From Tokyo, take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa Station (80 minutes, around 6,500 yen) and change to the Hokuetsu Express for Tokamachi Station (around 30 minutes, 670 yen). The shinkansen portion of the journey is covered by the Japan Rail Pass, but the ride on the Hokuetsu Express is not fully covered.

As public transport in the Echigo-Tsumari region is limited, a rental car is recommended as the best way to get around. Bicyles can also be rented locally as an alternative.

Sado Island can be accessed from Niigata City via the main port of Ryotsu by jetfoil (1 hour, 6,700 yen per person) or by car ferry (2.5 hours, 2,600 yen per person or 17,500 yen for an average sized car).

Although Sado boasts a fairly comprehensive bus network, a rental car is still by far the most convenient option.

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