Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line (Part 1)

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Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line

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Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line (Part 1)

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We continue our local train trips to discover recommended tourist spots and this time, we will embark on a two-day journey along the Hokuhoku Line in Niigata Prefecture. Completed in 1997, the line is operated by Hokuetsu Express and links Minami-Uonuma and Joetsu city. The Hokuhoku Line consists of 12 stations between Muikamachi Station and Saigata Station, spanning a total distance of 59.5km. It offers stunning views of farmland and rural landscapes.

Our trip begins from Muikamachi Station in Minami-Uonuma. The station is operated jointly by JR East and Hokuetsu Express. We catch the 10.55am train and head to Uonuma-Kyuryo first. As Niigata is famous for rice production, we get to see beautiful rice fields during the ride. Once we reach Uonuma-Kyuryo, we check the train schedule. Our next train will only leave at 12.45pm. A local at the station suggests we check out the cedar trees which form a special gate to the Matakura Shrine. These trees are over 300 years old and lead worshippers to the shrine, which is said to bring good luck in marriage and childbirth.

We then drop by an auto repair shop to ask about another recommended spot. We are told about Kasahara Farm, where its own brand of the well-known koshihikari rice is grown using homemade organic fertiliser. On the way to the farm, we see Mt. Hakkai. The famous sake brand, Hakkaisan, was named after this mountain, which is one of Japan's famous peaks. We later meet the farm’s proprietor, who has won the diamond medal in Japan's largest rice competition.

We return to Uonuma-Kyuryo Station and take the train to Shinza Station. Soon after leaving the station, the train enters a tunnel. The Hokuhoku Line runs through a mountain range and tunnels make up 70% of the track. Upon emerging from the long tunnel, the train pulls into Shinza Station - the fourth stop on the line - at around 1pm. Our next train will depart at 3pm.

We ask someone at the station to recommend a good lunch spot. We are told to go to a service station called Cross 10, where there are several restaurants. It is a 15-minute walk from the station. We choose to eat at a restaurant which serves soba and rice dishes. This region is famous for a dish called "hegi soba". Funori, a type of seaweed, is used to bind the buckwheat for the soba noodles. The broth has lots of thick wakame leaves. Another local speciality is "kirizai", which features fermented natto beans and finely diced vegetables. Another local stewed dish is called "noppe", where root vegetables and chicken are simmered in a soy sauce broth.

We walk back to the station and head to Tokamachi Station, the fifth stop on the Hokuhoku Line. We arrive at 3.05pm and have till 5.45pm to catch the next train. We go to a shopping district in front of the station and drop by a liquor shop which sells local brands of sake from Tokamachi. The owner lets us try some Yamatsuto sake; customers travel all the way from Tokyo just to buy this brand of sake. She also offers us some homemade pickled eggplant to accompany the sake.

The shop’s owner recommends we visit the Tokamachi Museum of Natural History. It displays a collection of over 50 pottery pieces from the Jomon period which are national treasures. On the way to the museum, we pass by a local bakery and buy some Danish pastries. We reach the museum after a 10-minute walk. The items here were discovered at the Sasayama excavation site around the Shinano River, the longest river in Japan. Other exhibitions at the museum illustrate daily life in the snow country and educate visitors on the Shinano region along the Shinano River basin.

After this, we travel by train for 10 minutes from Tokamachi to Matsudai Station. We ask the locals to recommend a hotel and they tell us to take a bus from Matsudai Station to the resort town of Matsunoyama. One of the residents mentions Izumiya and we call the hotel to make a reservation but it is fully booked. So we call another recommended hotel, Fukuzumi. It has rooms available but since it’s already past 6pm, dinner will not be provided.

We then take the 6.35pm bus to Matsunoyama, which is 20 minutes away from Matsudai Station. The hot spring district straddles Nagano and Niigata prefectures and has 10 inns. Fukuzumi was established in 1942 and some rooms come with their own private outdoor hot spring. For dinner, we head out to a ramen restaurant called Yanagiya, recommended by the hotel’s proprietor. We order ramen, dumplings and “Toji Pork”, which is famous in Matsunoyama. The pork is vacuum-packed and cooked for two to three hours in hot spring water. As for the noodles, the chef kneads the dough with water from the hot springs and this gives the noodles a unique texture.


Tips:

1) The natural history museum in Tokamachi has a collection of pottery items which are national treasures
2) Some hotels do not provide dinner if a room reservation is made too late


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