Tag Archives: niigata

Densha de Dan #7: Kirakira Uetsu

The Kirakira Uetsu is a Rapid Express train running along the Uetsu Line from Niigata Station, and then terminates in either Sakata Station in Yamagata Prefecture, or Kisakata Station in Akita Prefecture, depending on season as the schedule can change.

“Kirakira” is the Japanese onomatopoeia for “sparkling” or “glitter,” which is a very suitable name for this train since it cruises along the Sea of Japan coastline for a majority of the trip. Around the end of summer, the timetable aligns with the setting of the sun, leaving passengers with a beautiful sunset and a sparkling horizon beneath it.

now THAT'S KIRAKIRA!!

On this particular day, however, the weather was pretty bad. Not a whole lot of ‘’kirakira’’ to begin with, and as soon as I arrived in Akita Pref., it started pouring, which meant I had to abandon a bicycle ride to a local waterfall in the area. I could have waited for the weather to clear, but I only had about 2 hours until my return train back to Niigata, so the besides riding the train itself, everything was kind of a bust.

As for the ‘’Kirakira Uetsu’’ itself, it’s probably the most colorful train in the entire JR East rolling stock.

oh, the colors

interior of the train, which happens to be just as colorful as the exterior

It’s a 4-car passenger train, which seats a total of about 116 passengers. It also includes a lounge car, which passengers can use at their leisure.

Kirakira Uetsu Lounge Car

The lounge car includes a small gift shop and snack bar, which offers bento boxes, sandwiches, sweets, and beverages. You can also order a green tea set, which includes enough tea for about 2 to 3 cups (and if you ask the staff, they’ll give you additional hot water, free of charge), a sweet mochi ball dessert, and is served to you in the lounge by an attendant. Watching the sea fly by at 120 km/h while sipping on a cup of green tea wasn’t a bad way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Elsewhere throughout the train, there’s a rubber stamp pad, which includes the train’s logo, a small souvenir machine that sells stickers and other small items, and a small area for kids to color.

If you walk towards either end of the train, there are huge windows that allow you to peer directly into the driver’s room. You literally get to see what the train driver sees, which proved to be popular with children (like myself).

that will be me someday

Although I took the train throughout the entire route from beginning to end, there are plenty of other destinations in between that I strongly recommend, especially if you enjoy hot springs or hiking.

some hot buns i picked up in kisakata. now, i understand the pig looking ones are filled with pork. but the panda ones are filled with...?

luckily, i got to see a glimpse of a sunset on the way back home. kind of.

despite the poor weather, we have to at least agree that the view is still pretty damn nice

...and at last an Ekiben (train lunch box) and a beer to end the day

Finally, I want to finish with a new feature that may be implemented in future editions of Densha de Dan. On this train, I look video from the window looking outward, so that way it would give you a chance to see what I see when riding the train. It’ll include different sections of the line, from beginning to end, but I’ll edit it to a short 2-3 minute video. If you think it works well, or I should use more pictures instead, please leave a comment. Positive or negative feedback only makes the blog better!

With that, I introduce to you the first edition of Noseprint.

Why “Noseprint?” you ask? Well, these videos will give a perspective of planting your face right on the train window. When you lift you’re face away from the window, what’s usually left?

A print of your nose. (It’s actually more of a grease smear, but it doesn’t make for a good title).

Finally, here’s some basic information to get you started if you wish to trek around on the Kirakira Uetsu (which I strongly suggest going…IF IT’S SUNNY!)

  • Price: ¥4,080 (includes regular fare and ¥510 reserved seating fee)
  • Seating
    • ALL Reserved Seating
    • Tickets can be purchased from any JR Station that has a ticket service counter
  • Time and Distance
    • From Niigata Station to Kisakata Station
      • 3 hours 16 minutes
      • 204.7 kilometers
  • Schedule (As of 11/2011)
    • Runs every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and National Holidays
    • On some days, it only runs in one direction, so caution is advised.
    • Detailed timetable can be found here.

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Useful Links:

Kirakira Uetsu – Official JR East Site with basic information about the train (English)

きらきらうえつ – Official JR East (Niigata Branch) Site with detailed information about the train (Japanese)

Official JR Pamphlet – Additional English information, with departure/arrival times at the stations. Also has information about using this train in conjunction with the JR East Pass, JR East Pass Special, and Japan Rail Pass. Pamphlet is dated from 2009, but after checking over the information, it remains accurate (as of 11/2011).


Densha de Dan #5: SL Banetsu Monogatari

Today’s edition of Densha de Dan takes us along the Banetsu West Line running from Niitsu, Niigata Prefecture to Aizu-Wakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture.

Outside of the winter months, you can ride one of the few Steam Locomotives (SL) that run throughout the country. The SL that runs on this particular line is the Banetsu Monogatari.

the SL Banetsu Monogatari

From Japan-i.com, they have the following description about this train:

[The] SL Banetsu Monogatari is a special express train that runs on a 126-kilometer track from Niigata to Aizuwakamatsu in Fukushima. On an approximately 3.5-hour ride, it stops at 10 stations on the way to Aizuwakamatsu and at nine stations on the way back.[…] This steam locomotive is a C57-108 type train that was in service from 1946 to 1969. By restoring and repairing the train that had been stored at an elementary school in Niitsu City, its routine run on the Banetsu line began in April 1999. The interior of the train and the uniform of the crew are designed in a style unique to the Taisho era which is also the period when the Banetsu line was opened.

running along the agano river.

The SL has a total of 7 carriages, with one being an observation carriage and another with a small shop on board, selling bento boxes, snacks, drinks, and special souvenirs that can only be bought on the train.

observation car

gift shop and food car

passenger car

Despite tens of millions of people using the Japan Railway System everyday, riding an SL is a completely different experience all in it’s own. It brings you back to a time before tolled highways and bullet trains, when riding a steam train was once a luxury for most people. Although riding a steam train today isn’t as expensive as it was in the first half of the 1900’s, it still feels like you’re riding something special.

peek-a-boo!

The service on the Banetsu Monogatari is particularly unique as the train conductor and other staff hold events and activities throughout the ride. During the journey, the conductor will come through the carriage and engage with the passengers in a game of rock, paper, scissors.

the odds of winning were definitely on our side as there were only about 7 people riding in that carriage

Through elimination with the conductor, the last 2 passengers to win wins a commemorative pin with the train’s seasonal logo. In the observation carriage, there are several different arts and crafts projects that children (and adults still children at heart) can participate in. For example, on this day, we made chopstick holders.

the arts and crafts table

our finished product!

These small touches make the normality of riding a train non-existant.

This is one of my favorite routes for a number of reasons. The Banetsu West Line runs along the Agano River, which allows the train to travel over steel bridges, through narrow forests, and numerous tunnels. Monotony is what you will not find on this route.

since im from california, it still surprises me how green a place can be

Before arriving into Aizu-Wakamatsu Station, the line separates from the river, allowing passengers a great view of rice patties that scatter the countryside with Mt. Bandai and the surrounding mountain range dominating the horizon.

delicious fukushima baby rice

Whether it’s a one-day trip into Aizu-Wakamatsu, or an overnight venture, there is plenty to do before heading back home. There are castles, hot springs, museums, and the area is famous for it’s ramen.

take home the taste of ramen in convenient...candy form?

If staying overnight, it’s worth staying in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in the Higashiyama Hot Springs area, in the north part of town. Combining a stay at a ryokan with the experience of the SL is certainly one of those moments where you step back and say, “Wow, THIS is Japan!”

people waving from the platform as the train goes by

The Banetsu Monogatari runs each weekend (and during national holidays) from April to October, and also a few times during the Christmas season.

So, how much do tickets cost to ride the SL Banetsu Monogatari? Surprisingly, not that much. It’s only ¥510 in addition to the normal fare from start to finish.

For example, the fare from Niitsu to Aizu-Wakamatsu is ¥1890. If riding the SL, it all comes to ¥2400.

and you get free stuff?!

ALL seats are reserved, so tickets MUST be bought in advance and are only available at stations that sell tickets (Midori no Madoguchi). They CANNOT be bought from automated ticket machines.

Recently, I’ve gotten questions like, is it safe to travel to Fukushima? What about the radiation? Damage?

And I usually reply with, what about it?

I’m not going to start a debate whether or not there is a radiation risk, but to not visit Fukushima Prefecture because of these worries will leave you missing out a beautiful (and delicious) part of Japan. We were only in Fukushima for a short bit, but even in that time, the warmth and hospitality that was provided by the people of Fukushima was the cherry on top. Don’t think about it. Just go!!

Finally, I have to admit that this wasn’t my first encounter with the SL. In fact, this was my third. -lowers head in shame-

I’ll leave you with a video that I made during my first trip on the SL almost three years ago. Enjoy!

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Related link:

SL Banetsu Monogatari – Official webpage from the JR East website. All information in English!


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.


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 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


Densha de Dan #2: Takada Park

Cherry blossom season always seems to finish as soon as it starts.

In most cases, there’s usually a 4-day window where they’ll come to full bloom, and then just as quickly, the pedals will fall off and green leaves will take its place. Although the time to go and watch the sakura (cherry blossoms) is short, it’s just enough for most people to escape the office or school and spend the day relaxing under the sakura trees, in an event called hanami.

Sakura season is serious business in Japan. For most people, seeing a sakura tree means the beginning of the school year, or the end of a freezing winter. For this year in particular, it can also mean despite whatever happens, there’s always something beautiful to be found. A sign of hope, if you may. Sakura is SO important, that it’s even on the back of a 100 yen coin!

Part two of the Densha de Dan travelogue series brings us to Takada Park in Joetsu City, Niigata Prefecture. To get there, we’ll be using the Shinetsu-Main Line to get to our destination.

The Shinetsu-Main Line runs from Niigata City to Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture…but it’s probably the least direct route between the two. Also, it doesn’t even connect all the way. For some reason, part of the line has been abandoned and services have been taken over by a private railway company. Maybe it wasn’t profitable?

Anyways, the journey from Nagaoka to Joetsu is definitely a scenic one. From Nagaoka, the line changes direction towards the coast and as soon as you pass Kashiwazaki City, you’re treated to some really nice views of the sea.

Omigawa Station

Just after you start riding along the coast, you’ll come to Omigawa Station, which is the closest station to the sea than any other station in Japan. The train continues to hug the coast for another 30 minutes or so while passing through a few tunnels. Finally, came our first transfer at Naoetsu Station.

we werent the only ones who thought it would be a good day for some cherry blossom viewin

From Naoetsu Station, we continued onward to our final destination, Takada Station.

Takada Station

From the station, it’s about a 15-minute walk to Takada Park.

On the way, you’ll pass streams and rivers lined with cherry trees, and some people stop to take pictures, but little do they know what’s ahead.

yes, it gets better!

After living here for a while, I’ve learned that Japan likes to rank things. But instead of a Top 10 list for things, it’s the Best THREE, and trust me, there’s a list for everything. There’s a list for the Top 3 Hot Springs, the Top 3 Summer Festivals, the Top 3 Places for Ramen, the Top 3 Night Views, the Top 3 Comedians, even the Top 3 Largest Buddhas. Who exactly makes these lists, I’m not sure. Sometimes they can be spot on, other times not so much.

As for Takada Park, it’s considered as one of the Top 3 Best Places to View Sakura.

It’s a title it totally deserves.

what can make this even better? how about a beer.

So what do you do at a hanami? Well, most bring a giant tarp, bring some food and drinks, and simply sit under the sakura for hours on end. For me, it’s the closest thing to having a BBQ at the beach.

Mt. Myoko in the background. Great snowboarding in the winter!!

This park is huge draw not only to the locals, but people come from far away to visit. I came here last year and I remember it being tough to find a spot to lay down our tarp. This year however, there was still a lot of people, but a noticable difference from the previous.

its literally 360 degrees of this

For many, the draw can be the countless sakura trees. Around 4,000 I’ve been told. However, another huge draw (ok, maybe not so much for others, but for me) are the food stands. Like any good festival, there are plenty of places to get your grub on.

go ahead. go nuts.

All in all, there are about 300 different food stands. Amazing, yes. And although you’ll be able to find most of the usual Japanese stall-food fare, like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (battered octopus),  and okonomiyaki (a Japanese-like pancake?), there’s plenty of other food. How about a meat-wrapped riceball? Or a crepe filled with tuna and pizza sauce? Those willing to stick to the classics will find something to enjoy too, like ice cream, candied apples, and even fried chicken and french fries. Literally, something for everyone.

no shortage of octopus here.

Once sunset starts to hit, lights are illuminated throughout the park bringing out the pink from the sakura trees. It’s also around this time that you realize that you probably should have brought another jacket, as it gets cold…FAST.

Finally, it’s time to pack up the tarp, recycle the cans, finish the big plastic bottle of grandpa’s basement wine, and head back home.

sadly, thats not us.

It’s rare when JR adds additional train services to a route due to a event or something, but SO MANY people come to Takada that they had to create a special rapid train to handle the capacity. They named this the Takada Hanami Rapid Express. All aboard!

its uh, the top one.

From Nagaoka to Takada, the local train costs ¥1280 and takes a little under two hours. There’s also a limited express that runs between, but the price goes up more than double. Easily adds up when going both ways. With this special rapid train, the cost remains the same, but only takes about an hour and 15 minutes to complete the trip. Also, I found some kids to play rock, scissors, paper with along the way. They grew tired of it and soon evolved into a game show where we were quizzing each other about poop and stuff. They were six. And it helped the time pass.

unfortunately, we had to stand the whole way

For some reason, I didn’t make it to Takada Park until my 3rd year in Japan. And I’m still kicking myself over that fact. I wish I went sooner!! If you live anywhere in the Kanto/Tohoku/WHEREEVER part of Japan, it’s definitely worth the trip.

It’s a shame that sakura can only be seen a couple days out of the year, but as soon as it ends, you’re already looking forward to next years.

Luckily, there’s PLENTY to keep me busy until then.

heres to you, nature!


Densha de Dan: A Travelogue Series

(A little late, but) Happy New Year!!

I’d like to introduce a new section, and its a section that I hope becomes the focal point of this blog. Today brings Part One of a series called Densha de Dan. Densha de Dan will cover my travels around Japan by rail, not only including information about the trains and routes themselves, but everything else around it. For me, traveling by rail is just half the adventure. The other half comes in exploring your destination, whether intentional or not. To be honest, I wish it was a project I started when I first came to Japan, since my journeys by rail have taken me all the way to the most northern point of Japan, down to Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture, and everything else in between.

But, better late than never. So with that, I bring you my first travelogue:

Part One – Yahiko Hot Springs, Niigata Prefecture

The journey to Mt. Yahiko isn’t a far one. In fact, on a clear day, I can easily see it from my apartment. But for one reason or another, I’ve never made the trip by train. So, one free Saturday afternoon, we decided to make the trek.

Nagaoka Station

Our adventure starts at Nagaoka Station. The 40.6 km trip will move across two train lines: the Shinetsu Main Line, and the Yahiko Line. With transfers at Higashi-Sanjo Station, and (sometimes) Yoshida Station, the trip can take between an hour to 2 hours, depending on how long each transfer is. The service on the Yahiko Line is very limited, which can sometimes leave you waiting for the next train to arrive.

same price as a big mac extra value meal.

Round trip, the fare comes to 1480 yen, which isn’t too bad… but some consider to be pricy considering the distance. Going to Yahiko by car would probably be cheaper, and maybe even a little quicker, but with the ridiculously heavy snow we’ve been having this year, it’s just safer to go by train.

as much as it looks like a chinese food box, its not chinese food

30 minutes later, we arrived at Higashi-Sanjo Station. Fortunately, we had a 1 hour wait till our next train so I figured it would give us the chance to look around.

Unfortunately, there was nothing…

-cricket-

After spending an hour in the waiting room watching a TV show about ramen, our transfer finally came.

i dont know of too many stations that have a platform ZERO. maybe it'll take us to hogwarts

A few stops later we pull into Yoshida Station where we transfer trains, again. But this time into a much more colorful looking train.

Yoshida Station.

ooo, artsy

If it seems we’re zooming through the Yahiko Line pretty fast, it’s because we are. With just 8 stations, and 17.4km of rail, you can be on and off the train before you know it. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to look at. In the summer, you’ll see miles and miles of sprawling rice patties. There’s a nice sense of calmness and tranquility when the rice stalks sway to a passing breeze. A literal ocean of green.

However, in the winter you get this:

everywhere, everywhere white

Now it’s not to say that the view isn’t nice. On this particular day, the snow just wasn’t letting up.

pulling into Yahiko Station

get off the train, a spike lee joint

Coming into Yahiko Station, you can’t help but notice that this station is a little different from the others.

...thats not why.

ah, thats why.

Outside of the metropolitan areas, stations can usually look quite simple. Most stations have an attendant to help with ticketing or other transit business, but when you get far into the countryside like, like here, some stations are called 無人駅 (mujin-eki), which means that there is no one staffing the station. Obviously, this means that there can be some people who may board the train without paying full fare, or traveling from one mujin-eki to another without paying any kind of fare whatsoever. However, this being Japan, they seem to rely on the trust system and most people do buy the appropriate ticket and pay the appropriate fare to their destination regardless if there’s a train station attendant to check their ticket or not. Crazy, huh?

Anyways, getting back on topic, this station differs from most because its designed to look like a temple! The roof is constructed with traditional red tiles, while the conductors booth and ticket gate resemble the main hall of a Japanese temple. Stations can sometimes deter from the usual construction design, especially if the station is in a heavily trafficked area, such as a tourist destination. The Mt. Yahiko area relies on tourism as it’s famous for its hot springs and of course, Yahiko Shrine.

make sure to bring snow boots

one of the main gates (torii) into yahiko shrine

Outside of Yahiko Station, there’s an information booth which has maps (in English!) about the local area. They also provide a list of hot springs within walking distance, however it is HIGHLY encouraged that you arrive early enough as most of the day spas seemed to be open to visitors until around 4pm. Most of the hot springs are located at inns scattered throughout the area, so it leaves us to believe that they close off the hot springs after a certain time to allow priority to the guests staying at their resorts. Just a guess.

A 15-minute walk from the station leads you to Yahiko Shrine. With the HUGE red torii, it’s pretty difficult to miss the entrance. After passing the torii, you come to a lush green forest. With all the snow perched on the branches high above, it’s quite the sight to see.

there's never a bad time to dance

What made walking through here wild was that every so often, you’ll hear the snow falling from the branches. There were even times where the branches just couldn’t support the weight of snow, bring both the branch and snow down. Kinda felt like Indiana Jones walking through the temple avoiding the various traps throughout the way…but colder, I’d suspect.

not even -3 degree weather can keep me away

History points to Yahiko Shrine being over 1,300 years old. However, the area where it sits now has had a turbulent history, such as civil wars, natural disasters, and other events. The shrine we can see today was built in 1916 as the former one was destroyed due to a village fire in 1912. (Don’t worry, I’ll cite my source later).

Unfortunately it couldn’t been seen on this day, but Yahiko Shrine sits in the shadow of the 638-meter high Mt. Yahiko. Outside of winter, visitors can ride a ropeway to the top of the mountain giving them awesome views of both the Japan Sea, and the inland valley of Niigata Prefecture. From this view, you’ll really be given the chance to see just HOW MANY rice fields there really are. It’s insane!

staring contest. ready? go...........I WIN.

Near the shrine, there’s a small fenced area with a dozen or so deer. Not sure why. The sign was either buried in snow or it was too cold to find one. One of those reasons.

Sunset was quickly approaching, but it wasn’t late enough for dinner, so we thought it was time for a coffee break. Fortunately, there was a coffee shop just across the street from that torii that I showed earlier.

don't let the snow fool you, it was toasty inside

The first floor is a gift shop selling local items such as sweets made from locally grown rice, and a WHOLE BUNCH of other stuff. Really good selection if looking for souvenirs.

 

ooo, sweet red bean parfait

i opted for the cake and coffee set...and im glad i did.

2nd floor of the cafe. excellent place to relax and escape

Fresh from coming off a sugar high, a trip to Yahiko wouldn’t be complete without visiting the hot springs. Remember when I said earlier that it’s best to arrive early? Well, after around 5pm, only 3 places are open (with the information booth telling us to avoid 2 of them), leaving us to go to a place called Sakura no Yu. We were familiar with Sakura no Yu as we’ve been to it by car once, but I didn’t realize at the time that it was so close to Yahiko. From the station, you can hail a cab and it’s just a short 5 minute ride to the hot springs. Fare came to about ¥1100 one way, so the more people riding in your cab, the cheaper it can be!

Obviously taking pictures within the hot springs is forbidden (since there’s naked people inside!), so I’ll have to rely on this picture from their website to give you a view of the baths.

¥950 (about USD11.50) gives you a day pass into the hot springs, which seems a bit pricier than most, but it also offers a lot. With the price of admission, you get a yukata (Japanese robe), towel set, unlimited use of the hot springs, and all the soap and shampoo you can wish for. There are about 7 different baths you can try, including one that changes themes daily. On this particular day, there was an herb bath which smelled like well, herbs. There’s also a full-service restaurant, lounge with massage chairs, and a sleeping room. Overall, an excellent place to get away. Dinner was pretty dang good too.

a smile of approval!

After dinner, we took a taxi back to the station, and then made our way back home.

For a day-trip, it’s an excellent choice. If you live near Nagaoka City or Niigata City, it’s almost too close where it at least warrants a return or two. If coming from someplace further, there are plenty of inns that can put you in for the night at a variety of prices, depending on the level of service you’re looking for.

So, that does it for the first edition of Densha de Dan. How was it? I’d like to know!!

Until then, see you on the next trip!

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Useful Links about this Trip:

  • Yahiko Village Official Website – All in English. Gives access information and points out points of interest.
  • Yahiko Onsen Guide – An excellent PDF English pamphlet about Yahiko Onsen. Very useful map included.
  • Sakura no Yu – Official Website. All in Japanese, but plenty of pictures to give you an idea of what it looks like.

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