Plant your feet, and get a refreshing look at life outside the city


Japan has a number of major cities along its pacific coast, and you'll likely find yourself spending a lot of time in Tokyo, Osaka, and Hiroshima when you visit. But most agree that an escape from these cities is needed to have a relaxing and culturally rewarding time in Japan. Niigata is only a little more than an hour from Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train, and is bursting with activities, tastes, and sights to get you in touch with Japan's countryside roots.

Niigata's quality of rice is revered throughout Japan, and you can expect to find beautiful expanses of rice fields all over. Rice is planted in the late spring, and grown throughout the humid summer to be harvested in autumn, making the summer scenery a captivating ocean of green, with the stalks reaching up to chest-high.

When ready to be harvested, the rice stalks are chopped at the base and hung to dry for some time. In Niigata's past, it was common to hang the stalks on trees planted along the sides of rice fields. This method was called "Hazaki". In the Natsui area of Niigata, near Iwamuro Station on the JR Echigo Line, you can see the Hazaki trees still intact, giving a slightly unique appearance to other rice fields.

You may be aware, but after the rice is husked, the dried stalks, called "wara" have many applications. It was an important material in the past for rope, baskets, clothing, roofing, and much more. Nowadays, it's more of a novelty, but people have found ways to use it for art! Wara art has gotten popular, so much in fact that there is a "Wara Art Festival" nearby in the fall season here.

Designed mostly by students, the towering sculptures made entirely of wara are a mystical sight. They sit proudly in Uwasekigata park, just behind the Echigo Beer Brewery, each with their own special theme.

Learning country life through trekking

Niigata is also very mountainous, necessitating the use of "Tanada" (terraced rice fields) in many areas. Rice farming is tricky in the mountains, as managing water drainage and retention, not to mention transportation of equipment, is significantly more laborious. City living makes us take things for granted, removing us from not only the human effort that goes into our food and goods, but also the knowledge of how these things came to be in the first place.

We had a chance to trek through an old mountain route leading to the "Hoshitoge Rice Terraces" of Tokamachi. Starting at Hokuhoku Oshima Station, our guides made the hike educational and fun, teaching us about the local flora that mountain villages depend on for food and materials.

The hike was steep at times, but punctuated by sections of mellow trail among the darkening fall colors. Stopping to admire the dense nature all around from time to time, we reached the first peak "Yakushi" in about an hour after starting.

On the way, our guide pointed out an interesting plant. Many "yama-imo" (mountain potatoes) grow wildly here without ever being harvested. From these potatoes sprouts a plant which produces many "mini" potatoes, that can be eaten off the vine! Also, the branches and leaves themselves can be brewed into a tea, which he promised to make us at the second peak of our hike.

After the hike was done, we returned to "Minna no ie," a guest house managed by one of our guides, where we were treated to a "Sasa Dango" workshop. "Dango" is a common round snack of rice cake eaten in Japan, usually with "anko" sweet bean paste. Sasa Dango mixes in the dough a fibrous green herb called "yomogi", which gives Sasa Dango its iconic green appearance. After kneading the dough, the dango is wrapped in leaves and steamed. Deceptively difficult to make, this was such a pleasure to eat after exploring the very landscape the ingredients come from.

There are many ways to get away from the city, and this is just one small episode in the serene mountainsides of Niigata. You can get anything you want at nearly any time in Tokyo, but our hiking guide had a message for us in one word: "Biorhythm". Ups and downs, hardships and fun, if the journey is absent of the legwork, you'll probably have trouble remembering you actually did it.