Road Trip on Echigo Tokimeki Railway (Part 1)
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Japan Hour (Synopsis Only):
Road Trip on Echigo Tokimeki Railway (Part 1)
This week, we will explore Niigata Prefecture on Echigo Tokimeki Railway’s Myoko Haneuma Line and Nihonkai Hisui Line. These local lines, comprising 21 stations over a distance of 97km, offer stunning views of Mt. Myoko and the Sea of Japan. The Myoko Haneuma Line traverses the inland areas, while the Nihonkai Hisui line runs along the coast. In conjunction with the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen, the Echigo Tokimeki Railway was established in 2015 as an extension of the local JR line.
Our journey begins in Myoko City in southwestern Niigata Prefecture. This scenic town is located at the base of Mt. Myoko. It is also home to the first station on the Myoko Haneuma Line, Myoko-Kogen. We go to Arai Station, three stops down the line. During the scenic ride, we get to see Mt. Myoko. Known as "Echigo's Mt. Fuji", it is 2,454m high. The train first stops at Sekiyama Station and then Nihongi Station. At the latter station, the train makes a switchback before travelling towards Arai. This is the only switchback remaining in Niigata Prefecture. The switchback system allows steam locomotives and other trains to manoeuvre steep inclines by advancing and reversing in a zigzag pattern.
We reach Arai Station at 9.15am, 25 minutes after leaving Myoko-Kogen Station. We decide to take the 10.50am train from here, which gives us enough time to explore the area. Arai was a post station along the former Hokkoku Kaido road linking Kyoto and Kanazawa. A local tells us to visit the town’s famous flea market called the “6-10 Morning Market”. She recommends we try small bean cakes called dorayaki at the market. The market is held on certain days of the month only and the tradition is said to have begun in the Muromachi era. It became popular thanks to the patronage of Kenshin Uesugi, the powerful daimyo who ruled Echigo in the Sengoku period. With over 500 years of history, the 6-10 Market offers a wide selection of seasonal fruit and vegetables, attracting both locals and tourists. We try the recommended dorayaki cakes, which are called “Imagawayaki” in Tokyo. These treats are a famous staple at the 6-10 Market.
We head back to Arai Station and take the train to Joetsumyoko, two stations away. Previously known as Wakinoda Station, the name was changed to Joetsumyoko when the Hokuriku Shinkansen opened two years ago. We plan to catch the next train at 11.50am so that gives us nearly an hour to walk around. We first go to the Hikari Terrace, which was built next to the station as a venue to relax and enjoy the breathtaking surroundings. On a clear day, visitors are greeted by panoramic views of Mt. Myoko, Mt. Kurohime and Mt. Iizuna.
After this, we drop by a hair salon to ask about restaurants in the vicinity. We are told there are none so we take the train to the neighbouring station, Minami-Takada. We choose to take the 1.40pm train from here. We speak to a resident who mentions Kotake Confectionary, which is famous for its “sandwich bread”, a traditional favourite in this region. The person also tells us about Takahashi Magozaemon, which has been in business since the Edo period. It is known for its mizuame candy.
We first go to Kotake, which opened in 1924. For the sandwich bread, bread rolls are stuffed with a generous dollop of homemade butter cream. On busy days, the shop sells over 3,000 of these rolls. Besides sandwich bread, it also sells sasa dango bread, the shop's creative new take on Niigata’s famous delicacy. Sasa dango is a rice cake made from local koshihikari rice. Kotake’s version features gelatinous rice cakes which are encased in a bread shell.
After this, we walk to Takahashi Magozaemon which has been in business for 392 years. In the early Edo period, Ieyasu Tokugawa's sixth son, Tadateru Matsudaira, built a castle in the region and founded the Takada Domain. This candy shop opened during that time and the shop's owners have retained the name Magozaemon for over 14 generations. One of its treats is "awa-ame", a local delicacy which played a historic role as a gift presented by feudal lords to the shogunate. The traditional Japanese sweet was originally made with grain millet but it was changed to glutinous rice in 1790 by the fourth-generation owner. Famous author Jippensha Ikku wrote about this shop’s confections in his travel diary. To show his gratitude over the shop’s hospitality, he wrote a poem and got it sent to the shop, which displays the scroll till this day.
We return to Minami-Takada Station and take a short train ride to Takada Station. In 1914, an Austro-Hungarian Army Major named Theodor Edler von Lerch introduced skiing to Japan. The “birthplace” of Japanese skiing is the Kanayasan Ski Slopes which is serviced by Takada Station. This station was built to resemble the Marunouchi Building at Tokyo Station. The architectural style stretches all the way from the station to the city.
A local tells us to check out Takada Sekaikan, a movie theatre which has been patronised by many famous people. It was built in 1911 and has been renovated over the past century. This theatre first opened at the end of the Meiji period as a playhouse named Takadaza. Its name was changed to Sekaikan in 1916 and it became a movie theatre. It is one of the oldest movie theatres in Japan. The historic building is also a Registered Tangible Cultural Property. At certain times, visitors can take a tour of the theatre and projection booth.
We then take the 3.50pm train to Naoetsu Station, two stops away. The train reaches the station, the final stop on the inland Myoko Haneuma Line, 10 minutes later. The Nihonkai Hisui Line starts from here and runs a coastal route along the Sea of Japan. We drop by a shop called Kusanoya near the station. Opened in 1885, it was the first to make "sasa dango" in Joetsu. Its recommendation is rice cake wrapped in real bamboo leaf. We ask the owner to suggest an inn and he mentions Nihonkai at Unohama Hot Springs. We call to make reservations but it is closed on this particular day. So we head back to Kusanoya to seek another recommendation and are told to try Sankei. We call the inn and are thrilled that it is open, has rooms available and even offers to pick us up.
1) Dorayaki cakes are a famous staple at the “6-10 Morning Market” near Arai Station
2) Go to Hikari Terrace next to Joetsumyoko Station to enjoy panoramic views of the surroundings