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3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region

3-Day Model Trip Outline of the region / Joshinetsu / Mountains and Highlands of Japan and Sado Island - A trip to explore beautiful nature and hot springs

One need not go too far from the big cities to discover the serenity and dramatic beauty of Japan's deep mountain country. Head for Niigata, Nagano or Gunma prefectures where alpine scenery, hot springs, rice, sake and snow-country culture are at their very best.

The Great Snow-Country Legacy

"As we came out of the tunnel we found ourselves in snow country," begins a famous Japanese novel from the 1930s. The "snow country" which so dramatically appears before writer Yasunari Kawabata's eyes is Niigata Prefecture, also one of the most picturesque rice-growing areas of Japan as well as being home to a wild coastline known for its splendid sunsets.

Wondrous Niigata with its majestic mountains and quiet country roads is closer to Tokyo than most people realize. Just two hours on the Shinkansen (bullet train) takes you to the metropolis of Niigata City - that's closer than Kyoto. Another 30 minutes and you can be at one of the most interesting collections of historical buildings in Japan, the Northern Culture Museum, originally owned by a wealthy rice baron. Or an hour's jetfoil ride from Niigata Port and you are on Sado Island, an ancient place of exile, where there are old temples and noh drama stages, a former gold mine, pretty fishing hamlets and old streets. In summer, it hosts a music festival that includes performances by the world famous "taiko" drumming group, Kodo, which is based on the island.

Above all, Niigata's beauty and culture are defined by its rice-growing culture and snow-country climate. It has some of the most glorious rice-field scenery in Japan, especially on terraced hills around Matsunoyama, and produces some of the most sought-after rice from the Minami Uonuma area, not to mention splendid sake (rice wine).

The deep snow in these parts made it impossible for farmers to work the fields in winter, so farming families made extra income by raising silk worms or growing flax and weaving cloth. The legacy is a treasure of exquisite silks and summer weaves that are among the finest, lightest and coolest textiles in the world. Tokamachi holds an annual kimono festival that testifies to the area's amazing textile tradition.

No introduction to Niigata would be complete without mentioning the outstanding collection of fascinating prehistoric "flaming" Jomon earthenware pots kept at the Niigata Kenritsu Rekishi Hakubutsukan (Niigata Prefectural History Museum) in Nagaoka.

And Niigata also has excellent hot springs, one of the most atmospheric old spa area being Iwamuro, with its traditional geisha entertainers.
(Photo courtesy of Niigata-ken Professional Photographers Society)

Heights of Sophistication

Like Niigata, Nagano Prefecture is surprisingly close to Tokyo. The Nagano Shinkansen can take you to Nagano City - home to the popular Zenko-ji Temple - in less than two hours. Although the world knows Nagano best as the venue of the 1998 Winter Olympics because of its excellent ski grounds, such as those at Hakuba and Shiga, Nagano is traditionally known as a place where special emphasis has always been placed on education. As a result, there is a strong intellectual and cultural air pervading such cities as Matsumoto, which boasts excellent folkcraft shops and interesting museums. Examples of the sturdy yet refined traditional wooden Matsumoto-kagu folk art furniture can also be found in historic hotels, coffee shops and restaurants throughout Matsumoto, adding to the city's charm. Matsumoto is also known for having one of the best preserved castles in Japan - a national treasure with a five-story main keep.

Centrally located and host to the sky-scraping Japan Alps, Nagano is loved by trekkers and mountain climbers, as well as those who just want to sample alpine scenery at such resorts as Kamikochi and Tateshina.

Where there are high mountains there are also wonderful hot springs. Such old spa towns as Nozawa onsen and Yudanaka-Shibu are proud of their many free public baths, which are great places to meet the local people. Also the open-air baths of Jigokudani, near Shibu, are where the wild monkeys like to thaw out when their whiskers become crusty with snow.

Kamisuwa has hot-spring baths distinguished by their foot-massaging, pebble-covered floors. The Grand Shrine here hosts a festival in which men hurtle dangerously down steep mountain slopes on tree trunks.

The charming Bessho hot spring, two hours from Tokyo, is reached via the old castle town of Ueda.

But for many, the most accessible place in Nagano is Karuizawa, one of the first Western-style resorts built in Japan - in 1886. The present emperor and empress dated on tennis courts here. Now it is a sophisticated resort that can be reached from Tokyo in only an hour.

A Wish Come True

Even closer to Tokyo, in fact, right next door, is Gunma Prefecture, which is surely the hot-spring capital of Japan. The innumerable hot springs range from such one-inn classics as Chojukan at Hoshi Onsen with its atmospheric, lamplit mixed-bathing bath house, and Osenkaku at Takaragawa - whose stream-side open air baths have been proclaimed the "grand champion" of outdoor bathing - to the major spa resorts of Kusatsu and Ikaho. Kusatsu has the reputation as one of the best therapeutic spas in the country, claiming to heal anything but love sickness. Kusatsu's romantic traditions live on in its atmospheric old inns and a public bath called Netsunoyu ("very hot bath") where the waters are ritually "cooled down" four times a day by stirring with long boards.

Gunma is also where thousands of people head every year for the chance to trek through a glorious highland Oze Marsh, which presents a startling new face in every season. Walking along raised boardwalks that meander through the marsh, visitors enjoy seas of flowers in spring and quiet autumnal tints in the fall. One may even spend the night at any of the numerous huts set up along the way.

Shimonita, whose traditional claim to fame is its production of "devil's tongue jelly," a fiber-rich food made from the starchy root of a plant called "konnyaku," also offers splendid country scenery and rustic hot-spring experiences. Some establishments encourage day-trippers, making Shimonita a good alternative to Hakone for hot-spring bathing if one merely seeks a refreshing day in the country without an overnight stay.

The same can be said for Gunma's Kawaba village, which provides maps for countryside walks planned to take in the numerous historic stone markers on ancient byways. There is also an excellent local dairy industry.

One reason that thousands visit Gunma every year is to purchase a red roly-poly doll, called a "daruma," at the annual "daruma" market held in the temple of Shorin-zan in Takasaki. The "daruma" is an image of the Indian priest Bodhidharma who founded Zen Buddhism in China and is said to have lost the use of his legs from nine years of seated meditation. "Daruma" dolls come with two large spaces for the eyes. The purchaser paints in one eye, and if a wish is fulfilled, paints in the other eye.

While in Takasaki, a major commercial center, art lovers should not miss the superb Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, a masterwork of architect Arata Isozaki.