Marred though the view is with power lines and other trappings of modernity, the rainbow that appears at the far end of Tsubame-Sanjo Station seems a rather auspicious beginning. The initial impression that greeted us in front of this largely unpopular station just south of Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen line was a panorama of patchy snow, dirtied by tires and car exhaust, pounded down with a light layer of hail. As the clouds break and the multicolor mirage appears, however, I begin to feel slightly optimistic about our escape to snow country.
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kaawabata was the man who coined the phrase “snow country,” but it’s no stretch to imagine that residents of this slender prefecture on the Sea of Japan have long considered their home in such simple yet appropriate terms. Winter snowfall accumulation in Niigata averages around 150 cm, though several years in the late 1970s saw totals reaching twice that number.
Most people come to Niigata Prefecture for the skiing, disembarking at high altitude stations such as Jomo Kogen or Echigo Yuzawa, where wintery peaks loom large on the horizon. My family, however, is an embarrassment to our pedigree. My husband and I, both hailing from the snowy northeastern states of the U.S., have never so much as strapped on a ski. Despite growing up near numerous winter recreation areas, our affinity for ski lifts is purely based on how capably they can convey us to our chosen summertime hiking trails. Our island-born daughter, on the other hand, thinks snow is nature’s best playground and regularly begs for vacations of the “Frozen” variety.
We’ve compromised with a reservation at Rankeiso, a secluded, century-old hot-springs ryokan (Japanese-style inn) tucked in a valley a 30- to 40-minute drive east of our train terminus. The photos online portray it as a winter wonderland, something I’m beginning to doubt in the precipitation-poor precincts of the shinkansen station. In a normal year, even the low-lying plains of Niigata would be heaped with drifts by the dawn of the new year. With the weather this year being anything but predictable, I can only cross my fingers and hope for the best.
The accommodation’s free shuttle bus meets us just as the rainbow is retreating from the sky and we’re bundled off with heat on full blast to the hot-springs village of Echigo Nagano. The grim nondescript suburbia of Tsubame-Sanjo soon gives way to a two-lane country road. Muddy rice fields — ubiquitous in this “bread” basket of the nation — sport sudden blankets of frost as we enter the gorge around Yagigahana. Sheer rock walls rise 200 meters above the crystal clear Ikarashi River. Literature dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) claims that peregrine falcons roost in the scraggly, snow-speckled pines that cling to the cliffs like evergreen mountain goats, but it’s the swans in the river — wintering here from Siberia — that make up the bulk of the birds we see.
Forty minutes after setting off from the station, we step off the bus and into a pair of proffered boots held by Yukari Otake, co-proprietor with her husband of Rankeiso.
“It just snowed yesterday,” she says cheerfully as we pick our way along a slippery path to the front door. “This is when the ryokan is at its prettiest.”
And indeed, I feel a bit like Dorothy waking up in Oz to some sparkling dream world, only here the palette is reversed, nearly entirely monochrome. Layers of white powder lie heavy on the eaves of the wooden building that earned Rankeiso its designation as a Tangible Cultural Property. Originally built outside Tsubame-Sanjo Station in 1926, the three-story inn was dismantled in the 1950s and reconstructed here in the quiet forests of eastern Niigata.
There are no other buildings around Rankeiso, though a small village lies a few minutes’ drive back down the road towards Yagigahana. Some would argue that the point of venturing so far into the wilds is to simply “be” and, absent of any other diversions, we put forth our best efforts. Laden down with protective layers, we walk the property along the river, careful not to step unknowingly into any of the myriad water channels that crisscross the yard. Even under the increasing snow drifts, I’m certain I see a lingering footprint of the former bridge that once connected the inn to the opposite riverbank. Otake later tells me it was washed away in heavy rain four years ago, and they’re unsure if they will rebuild.
The snow itself is airy yet contains the right amount of moisture to form the perfect snowball. A snowman-building session leads to a spirited snowball fight, both of which result in our exhausted trio collapsing in our room, simply watching the swirling flakes as the season’s first storm seems to intensify. A recovery is needed, and we find it in Rankeiso’s private onsen bath, Yamanoyu.
What made the first proprietor of Rankeiso, Yasukichi Otake, begin digging a well in this shady grove back in the early decades of the 20th century remains a mystery. Despite the surrounding area boasting no other hot springs, Otake labored for two years to build a pump system for the water reservoir he tapped. In the end, the entrepreneur struck liquid gold — a surprisingly tepid hot spring with a concentrated level of sodium chloride that appeared to cure a variety of illnesses. Otake successfully peddled his remedy in the pharmacies of Taisho Era Tokyo. As its popularity grew, more and more people came to the woods of Niigata seeking treatment from the source itself. The current Otake owners no longer sell the salty beverage in take-away bottles, but guests will find it a crucial ingredient in their morning rice porridge.
We’re not necessarily in search of a certified antidote for our aches, but a soak in the outdoor bath — bookable by all guests for a free private session — seems just what the doctor ordered. From the tub, we can see down to the river and, if we crane our necks, to the waterfall that sits just beside the main road. It’s more relaxing, however, to simply stare upwards, mesmerized by the snow as it dances in the dusk.
Buoyed by the soak, we retire to our room for dinner, where Otake herself serves up the inn’s specialties in a parade of courses. Given the location, mountain vegetables figure into a large part of the menu. My impeccably-translated English menu introduces me to a host of plants I’m certain I’ve never consumed before — silverine, anchor grass, esharetto, a local species of taro — and that’s just the selection on the appetizer plate. It’s followed by carp sashimi, sliced from fish that once swam below our windows and the obligatory course of ayu (sweetfish). Otake takes time to elaborate on the accompanying warabi (bracken), mentioning that it was cooked in one of the famous hammered copper pots from Tsubame-Sanjo. It’s good, but the next course is by far the best, three cubes of Niigata marbled beef, cooked on hot black stones.
The only misstep is our own, when my husband bravely orders the local specialty of kajika sake.
“It’s a fish that’s been left to soak in a bottle of rice wine,” Otake explains and encourages my husband to take the plunge. Years of living on Okinawa with habu-sake (a potent alcoholic concoction with a dead viper inside) have made us no strangers to odd-looking liquor, but the taste is … well, exactly as one might expect. I quickly wipe away any traces with a serving of sweet potato creme brulee for dessert, leaving my poor husband to down the questionable drink alone.
As we ensconce ourselves in our comfortable futons, the view from our picture window is nothing but snow. For a moment, we panic about the morning — Will the roads be passable? Will we be forced to stay on another night? But the worries are fleeting. The endless flakes once more work their hypnotic powers on us and we succumb to the slow rhythm of a night in snow country.
Tsubame-Sanjo is easily reached via the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo (¥9,480, 100-120 minutes). Rankeiso provides a free shuttle service once daily to the inn in Echigo Nagano. Rooms can be booked by contacting the inn (www.rankei.com/english.htm) in either Japanese or English.