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!!

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