Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line (Part 2)

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Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line

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Road Trip on Hokuhoku Line (Part 2)

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We continue our two-day journey along Hokuetsu Express’ Hokuhoku Line in Niigata Prefecture. At the end of the first day, we spend the night in Matsunoyama. It is one of the three major medicinal hot springs towns in Japan, the others being Kusatsu and Arima.

On the second day, Hotel Fukuzumi serves breakfast featuring dishes that go well with koshihikari rice produced in Uonuma. One such dish is a local favourite called Yatara and it comprises finely diced vegetables and ginger. A hotel staff member takes us to Matsudai Station. After a 20-minute drive through the mountains, we reach the station and take the 9am train to Mushigawa-Osugi. We arrive at the station after 10 minutes and our next train will depart at 11.30am.

We go to a hair salon near the station to ask about recommended spots. We are told about an agricultural processing plant called Uragawara Agricultural Development Corporation. When it first opened, it made miso paste only. It later expanded to produce other things such as pickles and mochi rice cakes. Every December, people would bring their own mochi rice and the facility would make the rice cakes for them. Furthermore, during winter, the residents would gather here to eat freshly grilled rice cakes. We get to try some traditional rice cakes before returning to Mushigawa-Osugi Station.

Our next stop is Oike-Ikoinomori, the 10th station on the line. We don’t see anyone at the station so we decide to explore the area on our own. We take a short walk along the street outside the station and come across a bridge and pond. The station is in fact named after the "Oike" pond, which is a clean water reservoir for agricultural use. In summer, the locals would camp along the pond's banks to relax and enjoy the scenery.

We then take the train to Kubiki Station, where we have two hours to spare till our next train leaves. This time, we meet some locals at the station who tell us about the Sakaguchi Memorial Museum. As the museum is a 40-minute walk from the station, a local offers to drive us there. A museum curator takes us on a tour of the museum, which commemorates the contributions of Kinichiro Sakaguchi, a leading expert in fermentation who was from Kubiki. He studied at University of Tokyo's Department of Agriculture and eventually became a professor at the same university. He also had a PhD in sake brewing and was known as "Dr Sake". The professor was a prominent figure domestically and internationally and the museum has several exhibitions with materials relating to fermentation and sake brewing. There is a bar at the museum where visitors can sample some local sake, such as Chiyo no Hikari, Naebasan, Katafune and the extremely rare Usaki sake, which is only sold here and at the University of Tokyo.

The museum curator suggests we check out the Society for the Preservation of Kubiki's Cultural Heritage. He offers to drive us to the location. We find out that before the Hokuhoku Line, there was the Kubiki Railway, which used to service the area as a mode of transport for people and things such as rice. The Kubiki Railway ceased operations in 1971 and many of its trains were scrapped. However, a railway enthusiast purchased an Orenstein & Koppel train built in 1911 for his collection in Mt. Rokko. He passed away 30 years later but members of Kubiki’s conservation society found out about the train and arranged to get it back to Kubiki. They restored the train and it is exhibited outside the museum during certain events.

We return to Kubiki Station and take the 3.45pm train to the 12th and last stop on the Hokuhoku Line, Saigata. This leg of the journey takes us through the plains of Kubiki. At Saigata, we go to a cake shop near the station to get information. The owner recommends we visit the Unohama hot springs. It is around 5km away, so we take the bus from Saigata Station. We arrive at the Unohama bus stop 20 minutes later and are greeted by the Sea of Japan.

We drop by a barbershop to find out about restaurants which serve seafood. The owner recommends Nabeya, which is about 20 minutes away. We head towards the main highway and have to walk up a hill before reaching the restaurant, the final stop on our journey on the Hokuhoku Line. We order the sashimi platter, which includes squid and shrimp caught in the Sea of Japan.


Tips:

1) Koshihikari rice is a must-try item when visiting Niigata Prefecture
2) Sake lovers should visit the Sakaguchi Memorial Museum dedicated to Kinichiro Sakaguchi, also known as “Dr Sake”

 

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