Travel

Joetsu: A historic town braces for the first snowfall of winter

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

Joetsu, southwestern Niigata Prefecture, is snow country.

It may be a mild, mid-autumn day as I walk around the downtown neighborhood of Takada, but its specialized infrastructure is already poised in anticipation of the year’s first big snowfall, as it has been for generations.

Local community leader Hajime Kobayashi, manager of Musashino Shuzo, a family-owned sake brewery with over a century of history, points out several architectural and technological quirks.

There’s the retractable shōsetsu (snow-melting) pipes installed along major streets, which sprinkle warm water over the pavement; the steep, thick gangi roofs that extend over the sidewalk from almost all the buildings; and the distinctive interior courtyards of most older houses, which act as dumping grounds for snow swept off the roof.

Snow plays a big role here. Indeed, this was the place where, in 1911, Theodor Edler von Lerch, a major in the Austro-Hungarian military, first introduced skiing to Japan. It’s still a popular winter attraction on nearby Mount Myoko.

But there’s more to Joetsu than its 20th-century history. The region was part of the former Echigo Province, whose most notable daimyo, Uesugi Kenshin (1530-78) — known as the “Dragon of Echigo” — was one of the most powerful leaders of the tumultuous Sengoku (Warring States) Period (1482-1573). The Joetsu of today was formed in 1971 with the merging of Takada and Naoetsu towns, expanding again in 2005 when it annexed 13 neighboring municipalities.

Kobayashi leads us to confectionery store Takahashi Magozaemon, which has been around for nearly 400 years. The shop closed briefly in 1944 due to rice shortages after World War II, but reopened in 1951. Sonoko Takahashi, part of the family that’s run the shop for 14 generations, tells me that its signature sweet is okina-ame (literally “old-man’s candy”), a mild, chewy sweet made from agar and mizuame (starch syrup), a natural sweetener. I nibble on one of the square, surprisingly dense sweets, enjoying the smooth mouthfeel and earthy sweetness.

After Takahashi, we stop at Takada Sekaikan, one of Japan’s oldest movie theaters, dating back to 1911, before continuing down the gangi-covered shōtengai (shopping street). Parting ways with Kobayashi, I’m joined by Tetsuya Asaoka, from Takada Honmachi Urban Planning, and Takashi Yamada from Joetsu’s Industry and Tourism Exchange division. Asaoka pulls out a map of the same street from a century prior, locating us in the more than 16 kilometers worth of gangi-covered streets and pointing out other shops that have passed the 100-year mark, such as Sugita Miso, which is famous for its miso filled with kome-kōji (rice malt).

Walking down the main high street, I’m struck by how quiet the entire city is. Despite the fact it’s a sunny Saturday afternoon, there are whole stretches of shops with their steel shutters drawn and few other pedestrians out and about. Used to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, I find the atmosphere eerie.

“Lots of people pass through the shōtengai in cars, so they don’t really know what stores are even there,” Asaoka says, addressing the lack of foot traffic.

It’s not just a lack of pedestrians, but of people in general. Like most places outside of Japan’s major metropolitan areas, Joetsu — and Niigata Prefecture as a whole — is experiencing a declining population. According to the Niigata Prefectural Government, as of April 1 this year, Joetsu’s population was 190,386, down 2,064 compared to April 2018; Niigata’s total was 2,228,517, down 22,739.

Feeling this visible decline, residents are more than aware of the need to jumpstart the vibrancy of Joetsu’s day-to-day atmosphere.

Though lacking a steady stream of visitors, the city nonetheless does see impressive seasonal tourist numbers. In spring, more than 1 million come for hanami (flower viewing) at Takada Park, which boasts some 4,000 cherry trees scattered around the moat of the three-story Takada Castle.

The annual Echigo Kenshin Sake Festival in October, which has more than 100 tasting booths of sake, wine and local culinary specialties stretching down Honcho-dori, draws another 100,000-plus visitors. There’s also the autumn art festival Takada Flower Road, when the city’s shōtengai is decorated with greenery and lined with stalls to entice locals and visitors alike.

The number of international tourists, around half of which are Australians who come to ski at nearby resorts, are “still low,” according to Yamada — only once in the past decade have they surpassed 70,000.

The town is trying to develop walking tours of the city center to highlight its history, and shops that are comfortable conducting customer service in English paste “welcome, please come in” stickers on their doors. Only time will tell if these interventions are successful or not.

Away from the shōtengai and candy shops, I end my time in Joetsu at the 522-year-old Rinsenji temple. Located near the base of Mount Kasuga, its claim to fame is its association with Uesugi Kenshin, who spent several formative years in study there. It’s also his final resting place, his grave a surprisingly humble stone monument tucked up a flight of moss-covered steps just beside the main graveyard.

Autumn colors — the bright yellow ginkgo in particular — are starting to tint the trees. But like the snow country Niigata is, it’s easy to imagine the forthcoming slopes blanketed in white and the drifts slipping off the old roofs back in town.

From Tokyo Station, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen and alight at Joetsumyoko (about three hours, ¥9,890 one way). There, transfer to local trains bound for the Naoetsu and Takada areas of Joetsu (five to six minutes; ¥190 one way).