Rural Sights, Sounds, Smells, and Tastes of Niigata


Bicycling through Niigata's countryside introduces me to generous residents and immerses me in local culture. I'll see things and meet people I would never have experienced otherwise. I've been living and working in Niigata for almost twelve years, but every journey, even short bicycle rides through the beautiful rustic countryside, brings discoveries.
For instance, the other day, my friend and I hopped on bicycles for an impulsive spin around Minamiuonuma, Niigata. We rented two electric bikes at Ryugon, a traditional ryokan close to Niigata's splendid mountains and fertile farmlands. We spun our wheels with a desire to explore, breathe fresh air, and learn about the area.
We didn't need a map or specific plan because much of Niigata's countryside feels like an interactive open-air museum of Northern Japanese culture. The values and history of the people are evident in the friendly folk's gardens, farms, homes, and religious architecture.

It was a weekday, but barely any cars passed us on the main two-lane road, which we soon left for an even less busy one. This road, empty of traffic, was so quiet that we heard the beating wings and caws of crows chasing a hawk off the roof of a traditional wooden two-story house.
The neighborhood had stories to tell. In Niigata's snowy regions, tall houses are typical. In years with deep snows, the second story serves as the entrance. I paused to photograph the brilliantly colored gardens around the homes. The farming and gardening impulse runs strong in the people of Niigata. Even those with city jobs often grow onions, daikon, potatoes, cabbage, yams, flowers, and fruit trees around their homes.

A middle-aged lady carrying freshly picked chrysanthemum flowers smiled at me. I asked her where we should ride our bikes for the best views. She pointed toward a range of mountains a few kilometers away, beyond a plain of harvested rice fields. The hills were aflame with red, yellow, orange, and green fall foliage.

Excited, we peddled in their direction but soon stopped for more photographs. Numerous tiny shrines and temples whose beauty, exotic shapes, and history demanded attention.
A clear trickling stream with small fish and slender green plants flowed behind a curving row of homes. We wheeled down a gravel road. Tied rice sheaves lay on the wet soil of some harvested fields. Herons, crows, and sparrows searched the ground for food within a stone's throw of farmhouses. Daikon and dried persimmon hung from the eaves.

I stopped to photograph a persimmon tree glowing with a bounty of autumn orange fruit. Then, I noticed a man picking the persimmons. Our eyes met, and we exchanged greetings.

Then, he walked to me with four gorgeous persimmons and gave them to me. This generosity to strangers is typical of Niigata farmers. In early summer, passing a corn farm, I asked if I could buy some for dinner. The farmer responded by giving me six ears and refusing to accept money. While walking with my wife this morning, I met farmers harvesting burdock. They thrust a large bag of burdock into my arms.

After receiving the gorgeous persimmons, my bicycling partner and I continued exploring a road winding up a mountain. We noticed a grove of tall trees with brilliant foliage behind a wooden fence. I peered through a gap in that fence and saw exquisitely manicured grounds leading in the distance to what appeared to be a centuries-old temple. It was enchantingly beautiful; we had to park our bikes and enter.

By chance, our unplanned bicycle ride brought us to Untouan Temple, a temple with wooden carvings, stone monuments, paintings, and other religious art equal in quality to those of famous Tokyo and Kyoto temples and shrines. Yet, in contrast to Tokyo and Kyoto, there were no rows of souvenir shops, crowds of tourists, or constant chatter to detract from Untouan's sacred and serene atmosphere.

I recently heard from a Kyoto resident about her visit to relatively unknown Niigata temples and shrines. She expressed that being in these local sites was more meaningful than experiencing the World Heritage temples and shrines of Kyoto. I could not agree more.

From Untouan, we pedaled back to the Ryugon Ryokan for another Niigata rural experience. With the guidance of local 73-year-old Atsuko-san, I learned how to cook a lovely home-style miso soup dish with an old-fashioned wood-burning stove on an earthen floor. Atsuko told us about growing up in Minamiuonuma and foraging in the mountains for wild vegetables.
The number of Niigata towns, cities, and businesses providing rental bikes is steadily growing. Also, cooking workshops are becoming more available. So please come and sample the rural sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Niigata. You're sure to have as great a time as I always do.

Written by Greg Goodmacher

After living in five countries and traveling to about twenty-five countries, I have settled in Japan. Deep snows, refreshing Japanese sake, ancient customs blended with modern technology, regional cuisines, fantastic arts and crafts, unique traditions, and magical festivals combine to create a country that fascinates me so much that I may never return to my home country, the US. Japanese onsens, in particular, have a hold on me. So far, I have bathed in more than six hundred locations between Hokkaido and Okinawa.