Living it up like a merchant from yesteryear (By Juno Valerio)


Port town Niigata City flourished with trade from the Shinano River, Agano River, and the Sea of Japan. Many of what are now the major roads in the city were once canals to transport goods between the rivers and the sea, since it was too difficult to transport large amounts of cargo over land. Many merchants gained wealth and built impressive family residences, some of which still stand today. One of those residences is Saito Villa, which was built and used by a wealthy merchant family over one hundred years ago. The building and attached garden are now a museum, so you can slip off your shoes and slip into the past in this beautiful traditional building.

Saito Villa contains many elements of traditional Japanese construction, the most important of which is the attached Japanese garden. The villa is designed to blend into the garden, making the outside and inside feel like one and the same. Each room offers a different but still picturesque view of the garden. On cold days the glass shutters between the indoor rooms and outdoor garden are closed, doing little to detract from the outdoor view. Glass cannot stop the harmoniousness of these two areas.

Another traditional element is an abundance of specialized rooms, for everything from the entrance to different levels of business meeting rooms to living quarters and even a party room. One of the tea rooms included three trees in its construction: pine, Japanese plum, and bamboo. The pine and bamboo featured as accents in the walls and the Japanese plum is represented by an actual Japanese plum tree directly outside the window. These trees all are associated with good omens. Pine trees, with a life span of 1,000 year or more, represent stability. Plum blossoms bloom early and last a long time, represent endurance and renewal. Bamboo grows very quickly, up to a meter a day, represents development. These are all qualities you seek and value in business relations, hence their presentation in a meeting space.

On the second floor, there is the all important party room. Because if there is one thing businessmen love it is parties. In this very special room, you can party like an 1800s merchant and hire some geisha to entertain you. Geisha, which in the local dialect are called “geigi,” are highly trained performers in the arts of music, singing, dancing, and entertaining. You can gaze upon their splendid kimono as they elegantly dance around the room to the sound of shamisen, a traditional three stringed instrument. Despite geisha being strongly associated with Japan, it is actually rare to see or interact with them. This makes the opportunity to meet Niigata’s geigi that much more special.

How are your rock paper scissors skills? Feeling like a master? You can take on a geigi in a musical, rhythm based rock paper scissors competition. It’s harder than it looks! Everyone can enjoy this classic game with a traditional Japanese twist. Be sure to bring your winning spirit because the geigi are very skilled at their game and will not go easy on you.

Are you ready to explore Port Town Niigata? Whether it’s wandering the streets that were once expansive canals, enjoying the garden views from Saito Villa, imagining the business deals going down in one of the good omen filled conference rooms, or playing a game of complicated rock, paper, scissors with Niigata’s geigi, there is something fun for everyone.


Juno is an assistant language teacher in Niigata. She enjoys collecting shrine signatures in her travels around Japan.