Monthly Archives: June 2011

Densha de Dan #4: The Niigata Stamp Rally (Part Two)

Welcome back to part two of the Niigata Umasagisshiri Stamp Rally.

Although the previous day required a lot of traveling around to different ends of the Prefecture, this day in particular really knocked me out physically…

…but more on that later.

Let’s review from yesterday. I’m in pursuit of 10 stamps around the Prefecture. I currently have 6. The remaining areas to cover will be Tsubame-Sanjo, the silverware capital of Japan, and Shibata City, the, um, other city up north.

As usual, everything starts at Nagaoka Station.

random fact: speakers above the platform play a looping track of birds chirping. if you memorize the timing, you can act like a bird and scare passengers

In all honesty, I wasn’t too excited about going to the Tsubame-Sanjo area. As far as sightseeing goes, there isn’t a whole lot. I’m sure its a nice place to live, but it makes me wonder why they put a Shinkansen stop there in the first place. The stamps that I need in Tsubame-Sanjo can also be found at the nearby Mt. Yahiko hot springs town…

…but I’ve already been there. And isn’t the point of this trip to see new things? Maybe there’s something interesting I haven’t discovered in Tsubame-Sanjo yet. We’ll see.

As you can see from the map, the first leg of today’s journey isn’t very far, as it only takes about 40 minutes to get to Tsubame-Sanjo Station. From there’s, its a 10 minute walk to the day’s first destination.

Destination #1: Silverware Center, Kitaro (洋食器センター キタロー)

should i be worried that part of the sign is missing?

I can’t exactly say I was skipping with joy to the silverware center. I mean, how excited could one person get? However, I did read somewhere that they have a spoon-making factory inside. Then I was like, “Well, I like factories. I watch TV shows like that all the time, where they enter a factory and show how stuff is made. Its fun.”

Right?…

…So, inside I went. And no one was there, except a few workers. I went to the back of the building where the ”factory” was, and it was closed. They had exactly what you would expect from a silverware center: silverware. Spoons and forks of all sizes. Pots and pans made out of expensive copper. And a wall of knives. There was a restaurant connected to the place, but that too was empty. However, I felt I should buy something before getting my stamp. In front of the register was an ¥80 bin. I rummaged through it and found a decent bottle opener, something I felt I should always carry around. You’d be surprised how often I’ve found myself in a situation requiring a bottle opener.

¥80 and a few steps later, I found my stamp.

7 down, 3 to go

With a new bottle opener in hand, it was time to head off to my my next destination.

...thanks?

Destination #2: Tsubame Sanjo Regional Industries Promotion Center (燕三条地場産業振興センター)

I chose to get a stamp here for two reasons.

One, it was within walking distance of the silverware center. And two, I had a coupon for a free crab spoon.

Considering the name of the place, I really didn’t know what to expect. What exactly is a regional industries promotion center, anyways? Was it some kind of convention hall? Or a tourist center?

Unfortunately, I didn’t care about getting the answer for either question because as soon as I was walking up to the doors, a huge bus pulled up and unloaded about 30 old people. I wasn’t sure if I should have taken it as a warning sign, but I entered anyways.

Inside, there was a restaurant, meeting halls, and a few displays with local metalwork and silverware goods. The stamp I needed was in front of the sales and exhibition hall, which was where most of the old people were making a bee line towards.

random question: do they still show those Ginza knife informercials back in the States?

Since I wasn’t in the mood to go silverware shopping, I presented my coupon for my free crab spoon, found my stamp, and got the hell out of there.

8 down, 2 to go

crab spoon posing with the alligator tongs i bought at last minute

With Tsubame-Sanjo out of the way, I walked back to the station to finally make my way to the last major area of the weekend.

to Shibata City!

From Tsubame-Sanjo Station to Tsukioka Station, it’s about a two hour ride via the Shinetsu and Uetsu lines.

The last spot of the day will be a hot springs resort area called Tsukioka Onsen, where I’ll be able to get the last 2 stamps needed.

Upon arrival, I assumed that Tsukioka Onsen would be within walking distance of the station since they share the same name.

That wasn’t the case.

Tsukioka Station

Looking around, there was absolutely nothing except for rows and rows of rice patties on one side of the station, and a few houses here and there on the other. Surely, there had to be a bus, I thought.

But in front of the station was a sign for Tsukioka Onsen. “10 minutes by car, 40 minutes on foot” was written at the top. No bus services available on weekends. -sigh-

im lost.

After all the rice patties (and sore feet from walking), you’ll finally come to the town of Tsukioka. Being a hot springs enthusiast, I was pretty excited to start looking around. I heard there’s a foot bath around, and after all that walking it was something to definitely look forward to. But other important matters come first.

Destination #3: Tsukioka Waku Waku Farm (月岡わくわくファーム)

Tsukioka Waku Waku Farm is a complex that promotes locally grown food, and also has a few restaurants, also featuring local ingredients. I thought it was going to have a hippie vibe, but it wasn’t that way at all. In fact, this place really seemed to appeal to couples and families. In the middle of the farm was a small courtyard, and it was there that I noticed that everyone was eating ice cream. After some snooping around, I found something better than an ice cream stand, a gelato stand!

chocolate banana! tiramisu! strawberry! aspa....huh?!

I know gelato shops are a dime a dozen in the States, but in Japan, it’s a rarity. The choices were plentiful and included flavors for everyone.

And then it caught my eye. Is that an asparagus spear sticking out? Indeed, it was. May is asparagus season, hence the asparagus gelato. The light green color kind of turned me off so I instead opted for the Echigo-Hime Strawberry gelato, a local (and sweet!) variety of strawberries grown in Niigata.

As I was heading out the door, there it was:

9 down, 1 to go

A farm wouldn’t be complete without a few animals. In addition to all the food they had there, there was also a goat and few rabbits.

random goat fact: they're good swimmers.

Starting to feel the pain from the 40 minute walk, I thought it was about time to finish this trip up.

Destination #4: Tsukioka-ya (月岡屋)

the finish line?

Tsukioka-ya is a manju shop. Manju is a traditional Japanese sweets that can be found throughout the country. In general, manju is about the size of a golf ball and has a soft, cake-like flour texture on the outside, with sweet bean paste filling on the inside. Each region has it’s own variation, such as green tea flavor, chocolate flavor, maple flavor, etc., so it’s worth while to try them out whenever traveling around Japan.

The manju I got didn’t taste any different than most I’ve already tried, but it was still delicious.

The old woman working at the counter was courteous enough to offer me some iced green tea, which was a welcome surprise. Was it that easy to see how exhausted I looked?

But it all paid off, because right next to the register was the final stamp.

FINISHED!!

Feeling accomplished and satisfied, I thought I deserved a foot bath.

Finally getting the chance to catch a break, I take a glance a brochure I found about the hot springs town and find out that there’s a shuttle that can take me back to the station!! There was no way I could do another 40 minute trek back to the station, so I found the bus stop and waited there.

The pick-up time came and went, and I started to get worried. Maybe I read something wrong? Maybe it’s just running late? As I was reading over the brochure more closely, I was struck with a gust of wind and looked up to see the bus driving away. Panicked, I thought about running after it but it was already too late. Why didn’t it stop for me? But after looking at the bus stop signs, I realized I was waiting on the wrong side of the road.

And it was the last bus of the day.

Next to the bus stop, there was a liquor shop where I bought a couple beers. Using my newly purchased bottle opener, I cracked open a tall bottle of Sapporo and started my 40 minute walk back to the station.

Feet blistered, and a little drunk, I arrived at the station, boarded the train, and  headed back home.

accomplishment is delicious.

Completed stamp card in hand, I filled out all the important stuff, and off it went.

safe travels

I have to remember that this is a contest. A time-consuming, slightly expensive, and exhausting contest. By mailing this in, it’s not guaranteed that I’ll actually win anything.

But for me, that wasn’t the point. On this 2-day trip around Niigata Prefecture, I was able to realize that there’s still stuff worth doing. It just takes a little searching, that’s all. And the reward FAR outweighs the effort. It’s nice that to say that I was able to try TEN new things and places in such a short amount of time. How many people can say that about where they live, especially if they’ve already been there for years and years.

Point being, any town can become boring, no matter how big or small it is, if it’s left unexplored.

…whoa, deep.

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Hobbies are expensive.

early happy birthday to me.

I just couldn’t help myself.

I was already planning to use the JR East Japan Pass next month to travel around Tohoku, and I knew that the chances of riding the new E5 Hayabusa were slim to none since it’s only in service twice a day and seat reservations fill up FAST (tickets go on sale a month before at 10:00am, and are usually gone by 10:01am).

But when I saw that there was ONE seat available in Gran Class, I had to take it, despite the cost. Quoting a friend, it’s the ”pinnicle of the JR fleet.” I don’t know how the option was available. Maybe someone cancelled their seat, or made a mistake? I have no idea.

But all I know is that on July 9th, I have the pleasure of being one of the few people that day to ride the most luxurious seat on the most luxurious train in Japan.

Expect a FULL report complete with tons of pictures and a few videos.

Also, I’ll put up the conclusion of the Niigata Stamp Rally this weekend.


Densha de Dan #4: The Niigata Stamp Rally (Part One)

Time for another travelogue!

As I posted about in a previous entry, I’ve decided to participate in the Niigata Umasagisshiri Stamp Rally in order to find new things to do around Niigata Prefecture. Since the stamp rally ends on June 19th, I figured that time wasn’t on my side and that it would be best to get all the stamps over one weekend.

Last month, I managed to get 3 stamps, leaving 7 left to gather around the Prefecture.

3 down, 7 to go

Today’s plan is to head to Naoetsu City and the hot springs town of Yuzawa, one near the sea and another in the mountains, to get an additional 3 stamps to add to the 3 I already have. The first part of the day will be an easy 80 minute ride on the Joetsu Line from Nagaoka Station, to a brief stop at Echigo-Yuzawa Station.

departing from Nagaoka Station

It’s worth mentioning again that Niigata is big, and covering only half of the Prefecture is going to require an entire day. So in order to get everything accomplished, this required taking the first train of the day, departing at 6:35am.

Running off the energy of canned coffee and delicious baked goods, I managed to stay awake on the way to Yuzawa, which isn’t to say that it’s a boring trip. In fact, the Joetsu Line is one of the few lines in the south to not be burdened by a bunch of tunnels. Instead, you’re treated to sprawling rice fields on one side, and lush, green forests on the other.

ahh, Niigata. breathe her in.

At 7:52am, I arrive at Echigo-Yuzawa Station. I usually head to Yuzawa in the winter as it’s known as a popular skiing and snowboarding destination for both Tokyoites and locals, but this was my first time to come in the off-season. However, I remember passing a foot bath from seasons past, and since I had about 30 minutes to kill until my next transfer, I thought it would be a good chance to look for it.

The foot bath is a natural hot springs bath and is conveniently located in front of the station, so it was easy to find. As I was rolling up my pant legs and taking off my socks, I noticed that water wasn’t flowing from the spout as usual.

Then it hit me.

I looked at my watch to see that it wasn’t even 8 ‘o clock yet. Hoping the water would at least be warm from the previous day, I dipped a finger in and it was as frigid and dead as the disappointment on my face.

Socks and pant legs put back to their original position, I returned to the station. Fortunately, the next train to catch was already at the platform, so I decided to wait there until departure.

Then, it was a short ride to Doai Station…

…which is to be covered in a future post. It’s a trip unrelated to this one, kinda like a side-quest. (I’m a nerd, I know!)

Anyways, let’s fast forward 3 hours. It’s now around 11am and Destination #1 on the stamp rally has just opened for business. Getting off at Osawa Station, just a few stops away from Echigo-Yuzawa, it’s about a 15-minute walk through rice patties and closed up ski hotels and inns. Just enough to work up an appetite because first, we’re heading to a pizza place!

Destination #1: Pizzeria Maki to Ishi (ピッツェリア薪と石)

Pizzeria Maki to Ishi is an Italian food restaurant located down the street from Joetsu Kokusai, one of the larger ski resorts in the area. The weird thing is that I’ve been to Joetsu Kokusai countless times, but never realized this place was here.

Italian food places are a dime a dozen in Japan, yet at times it can still be difficult to find a good place to make a decent pizza…or at least something that can come close to pizza back home (in America). However, I chose this place (out of dozens of others available on the stamp rally) because, remember, the goal is to try new places.

So, how was it?

Maitake Mushroom Pizza

Without hesitation, this was one of the best pizzas I’ve had in Japan. The restaurant proudly shows off their brick wood fired pizza oven as soon as you walk in. Most of their ingredients are also locally grown, which probably adds to the quality in taste and appearance. Their menu also includes less traditional flavors such as shrimp pizza and eggplant pizza, but I don’t think there’s one pie you could go wrong with. Will definitely come back when snowboard season starts up again.

2 pizzas, a coke, and free dessert later (we’re special!), I went to get what I came here for.

4 down, 6 to go

With the Yuzawa/Uonuma area all cleared, it was time to make our way towards the sea.

Re-boarding at Joetsu Kokusai Station, I headed a few stations north to make a connection at Tokamachi Station to ride the Hokuhoku Line. From there, it would take me directly to our next stop, Naoetsu City.

this is where baby rice is born

I wish I had more pictures from the train, but even if I did, I don’t think they would be that exciting due to the fact that you’re speeding through tunnels for about 70% of the 59.5 kilometer route. The occasions when you aren’t in a tunnel are usually whe you’re pulling into a station.

It’s a great opportunity to take a nap, which is exactly what I did.

transferring to the Hokuhoku Line

About an hour later, I arrived in the town where I was going to get the last two stamps of the day. After all the walking that was done so far, the next place was a little bit of heaven situated next to the Sea of Japan.

Destination #2: Unohama Hot Springs and Hotel, Yumotokan Suiyo (鵜の浜温泉 湯元館酔洋)

hmm, looked a little better in the brochure...

With both my legs starting to ache, still full from lunch, and a little groggy from the nap, there was nothing more I wanted to do than soak in a warm bath for a while.

As you can see from the picture above, the outside of the hotel looked…ok. Although the building was originally painted yellow, you could see that it was taken a beating from the salty air. Because of the semi-dilapidated look, I wasn’t expecting much from the inside.

However, it was nice having low expectations because the inside was beautiful. It wasn’t large, but the hot springs bath was clean, well maintained, and there was a lot of attention given to the bath itself. All the way down to the amenities provided, the hot springs had a trendy, boutique hotel feel to it.

don't stand too close to the window. beachgoers can see your junk from there.

It also happened to be one of the best deals of the day.

Just ¥500 (about US$6.25) for a day pass. The hotel opens its bath to non-staying guests during the middle of the day since most guests have either checked out, or haven’t checked in yet. Clever way to keep busy!

A nice soak later, I returned to the lobby and found what I was looking for.

5 down, 5 to go

Feeling a second wind coming on, I was ready to find the last stamp of the day. However, despite all the replenished energy, I only had to walk another 3 minutes to get where I needed.

Destination #3: Unohama Onsen, Ningyokan (鵜の浜温泉 人魚館)

''ningyo'' means mermaid. you can see a naked one in front. see? (perv)

This place too was also a hot springs complex, but instead of a hotel, it had a swimming pool, sauna, and a 60 meter long water slide. However, I didn’t feel like making the effort to get undressed all over again and take a second bath within an hour. But since the stamp was right next to the cashier, I felt like I should buy something. So, I got an ice cream…and then the stamp.

6 down, 4 to go

With the Joetsu/Naoetsu Area completed, that brings an end to the first day. Getting back on Katamachi Station, it’s a non-stop ride along the coast back to Nagaoka Station, thus finally ending my 13-hour day.

showing my last burst of energy for the day

Day 2 takes me to the northern half of Niigata Prefecture. There are only 4 stamps left, but I hit some trouble along the way. What happened?! Did I manage to get all ten?! Untold shenanigans?! And what’s this about a goat?!

TO BE CONTINUED!!


The Niigata Umasagisshiri Stamp Rally

Remember when I said that Japan loves stamps? No?

Well, Japan also loves stamp rallies!

A stamp rally is an event where you have to go around collecting as many stamps as possible. Recently, stamp rallies have been used as a promotional tool to introduce something to others, such as tourist destination campaigns or seasonal events.

For example, in 2009, JR East had a Shinkansen Stamp Rally to promote its 20th anniversary. All together, there were 6 different stamps to gather, and they could only be gotten at certain stations throughout Eastern Japan. The more you stamps you collected, the better the prize you could collect! If you collected all six, you could receive a replica of a train conductors watch.

oooh, fancy

The Shinkansen stamp rally gave people motivation to collect as many stamps as they could, while visiting new places at the same time. A win-win for all.

riding the Shinkansen isn't cheap. definitely a stamp rally for the rich folk.

A few months ago, I was out on a drive to the sea when I stopped at a roadside rest area. There, they were promoting an event called The Niigata Umasagasshiri Stamp Rally (新潟うまさがっしりスタンプラリー).

In 2009, the Niigata Tourism Association, in cooperation with the Prefectural government, started a destination campaign called Umagasshiri Niigata, literally meaning Full of Deliciousness, Niigata (that’s the closest translation I could think of). The goal is to encourage tourism to Niigata by highlighting the food that the Prefecture is famous for. This is the official logo for the campaign:

Within this logo, there are 10 different foods. Can you find them all?

For Spring 2011, the Stamp Rally breaks Niigata Prefecture into 7 different areas. Each area is assigned 2 or 3 different stamp designs, all originating from the original design above. Because there are 10 foods, there are a total of 10 different stamps to collect.

random fact: ive been told the shape of niigata resembles a kangaroo.

gotta catch 'em all?

These stamps can be collected at various places, or checkpoints, throughout each area, which range from hot springs resorts, to restaurants, highway rest stops, museums, gift shops, and so on. The stamp pad is usually predominately displayed in an easy-to-find area.

Depending on how many stamps you collect, you are eligible to receive a prize. The more stamps you get, the better the prize. On your stamp card, there are 3 different courses you could choose from:

  • 3-Stamp Course
    • In total, there are 326 winners. The prizes are small in size and in value, like bottles of soy sauce, or boxed desserts from local bakeries. Bottles of sake seem to be a big giveaway too.
  • 5-Stamp Course
    • There are 110 winners chosen. Prizes increase in value and include such items as fruit. Hey, fruit is expensive here!
  • 10-Stamp Course
    • Only 14 winners are chosen. A tough route to take, but the payoff can be big. Most prizes include a free night’s stay at a hot springs resort for two. Or 60 kilos of rice. I’m hoping for the latter.

After you select your course, and collect the number of stamps required for that course, you mail in your stamp card and wait for the results. Keeping in mind that it’s a contest, it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to receive something. But to be honest, I don’t think a whole lot of people are getting all ten. Odds are pretty good of getting something. Maybe. Full list of prizes can be seen here.

Naturally, I’m gonna shoot for the 10-Stamp Course.

“But why?” you may ask.

I’ve been living in Niigata Prefecture for nearly 5 years now (minus 6 months for a short stint in Hiroshima), and it’s gotten to a point where I’m starting to do the same things every year.

In February, I participate in the Koide International Snowball Fight Competition (one year, we won towels!). In April, we have cherry blossom viewing parties at Takada Park. In August, we have the Nagaoka Fireworks Festival. If we want to head to a hot springs, we usually go to the local one on the other side of town. If we want to go shopping, we go to Niigata City…or Tokyo.

…and so on.

Now, it’s not to say that I don’t enjoy these things. In fact, some of the best memories I have in Japan have resulted from the activities listed above. It’s just that it’s starting to get to a point where I’m worried if I’ve already done everything there is to do in Niigata.

Hence, the Stamp Rally. My motivation to collect stamps is not only to ride trains throughout the Prefecture (although, that’s all the motivation I need, really), but also to prove to myself that there are still TONS of places to discover in my own backyard. If I happen to win something, its just the cherry (or in this case, squid) on top.

And so the Niigata Stamp Rally begins. I’ll be using the Echigo Two-Day Pass to get around the Prefecture. Some of the places are close to the station, some are not. Better to bring good walking shoes just in case.

I’ll be posting updates throughout the week as I track my progress. Will I be able to get all 10?! Will I be convinced I’ve done all there is to do here?! Will I get lost?!

We’ll find out soon enough!!

The Niigata Umasagasshiri Stamp Rally goes from now until June 19th. The week after next. But not to fret as this seems to be a bi-annual event. Lucky you.


The Echigo Two-Day Pass

The Echigo Two-Day Pass (越後ツーデーパス – Echigo Tsū Dē Pasu) is an all-you-can-ride ticket that can be used on all local JR lines throughout Niigata Prefecture. It also covers Hokuetsu Railway’s Hokuhoku Line, a privately owned line running from the Yuzawa Onsen area to Naoetsu City along the Sea of Japan.

For ¥2500 (¥1250/children), it can be used for two consecutive days on local and rapid trains only. Shinkansen and Limited Express trains cannot be used with this pass.

There is a similar ticket called the Echigo One-Day Pass, which as the name suggests, can only used for one day.

A major difference between the two is the coverage area. The One-Day Pass is restricted to only the central and northern parts of the Prefecture, whereas the Two-Day Pass covers the entire prefecture. There are even some lines that allow you to trickle into neighboring Fukushima Prefecture for a few stops.

But is the pass worth it? I believe so.

First of all, many people don’t realize it, but Niigata is HUGE. In fact, it’s the 5th largest prefecture in Japan. If you were to travel by local train from Naoetsu in the south to Murakami in the north, that trip alone would take between 5 and 6 hours and cost ¥3260. If you really wanted to see most of Niigata and take your time, the Two-Day Pass is one of the most economical ways to do so.

In addition (I see it as a bonus, really), the pass also allows free bicycle rentals from many stations. So you can get off somewhere, rent a bike for free, ride around a bit, take a dip at a local hot springs (for example), and then reboard the train to your next destination. I don’t think Niigata Prefecture can be done in just one day, so this pass gives you the flexibility to explore a beautiful part of Japan at your own pace.

Details about the Pass are below:

  • Price: ¥2500, ¥1250 for elementary school students and younger
  • Type: Two-Day Free Pass
  • Purchase Locations
    • Most major JR stations
    • Automated Ticket Machines throughout Niigata Prefecture
  • Usage Period
    • Saturdays, Sundays, and National Holidays
    • Whenever schools are not in session (Spring Break, Summer Vacation, New Years Holidays, etc)
    • Calendar can be seen here: 2011/2012 Usage Calendar (2nd page)
  • Purchase Period
    • Anytime
  • Usable Areas
    • All JR Lines and Stations within Niigata Prefecture
    • Hokuetsu Express – Hokuhoku Line
  • Free Bicycle Rental Locations
    • Echigo Yuzawa Station, Urase Station, Gosen Station, Oguni Station, Shibata Station, Nakajo Station, Murakami Station, Arai Station, Takada Station, Naoetsu Station, Kashiwazaki Station, Higashi Sanjo Station, Kamo Station, Maki Station, Hokuetsu Express’ Tokamachi Station
    • Bicycle Rental Available from April 1st to November 30th

Finally, I’ve included a few links below to help you get started on sightseeing ideas whether it’s your first time to Niigata, or you live here. Enjoy!

———————————————————————————–
Niigata Travel Guide – A well done booklet covering tourism activities around the Prefecture. Also provides example itineraries. One of the most comprehensive travel guides (in English!!) that I’ve seen so far. Also appears to be new.

Enjoy-Niigata – From the same people who brought you the guide above.

越後ツーデーパス – (Japanese) The official page about the pass on the JR Company website


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