Echigo Uonuma 越後魚沼

by Daniel Simmons

Snow is a serious business in Niigata. The western area of Honshu boasts some of the biggest snowfalls on the planet, as Siberian winds gather moisture over the warm Sea of Japan and then butt up against the spine of the Japanese Alps. In February of last year, desperate prefectural officers in Niigata asked Self-Defense Force troops to help them manage removal of the 4.09 meters of snowfall that had fallen over the town of Uonuma, threatening roofs, roads, and bridges. No wonder Nobel Prize-winning author Yasunari Kawabata named the novel he penned and set in this area Snow Country (雪国).

All that white stuff is manna from heaven for skiiers and snowboarders, of course. Niigata has taken pains to make the Echigo-Yuzawa area easily accessible to all visitors who are eager to hit the slopes. The Gala Yuzawa ski resort has its own shinkansen stop; in fact you exit directly from the station into the resort building. Tokyoites can hop on a train at 6:20am and be gliding down the mountainside by 8:00am.

For those who want to linger longer in snow country, there are plenty of other attractions one can enjoy. The Echigo Uonuma area is famous for its samurai warlords during the Warring States period, and a scattering of castle ruins, temples, and folk houses commemorate their influence on the people and traditions of this area. Kawabata devotees can walk the “Snow Country LIterary Path” from Echigo Yuzawa station through the neighborhoods described in his acclaimed novel. Hot spring inn enthusiasts will be charmed by the many nearby offerings, including the baths at Osawa-kan (featuring impressive views of the Echigo mountains), and the facilities at the pricy but beautiful Ryugon, an inn that incorporates samurai mansion buildings over two centuries old.

Visitors itching for hands-on cultural experiences can visit local craft studios to make washi (Japanese paper), pottery, or Shiozawa silk fabric. No trip to Niigata would be complete without tasting its legendary sake, made from what is widely considered the highest-quality rice in the country. If your schedule doesn’t allow a visit to the breweries themselves, you can sample the local wares at the Ponshu-Kan in Echigo Yuzawa station, where there is even a sake bath in which you can immerse yourself and feel your aches fade away.

The town of Minamiuonuma holds its annual snow festival on the second weekend in February, an especially good time to experience local cuisine, impressive snow sculptures, kamakura (snow huts), traditional dancing, and wintertime fireworks. All of this takes place against the backdrop of Mt. Hakkai… best enjoyed with a cup of premium Hakkai-san sake in hand, of course!






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