Jan 9, 2018

Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!)

I never really thought that I would end up in the countryside at any point in my life—certainly not in the Japanese inaka—and yet I now find myself in Minamiuonuma City, a town best known for its rice and voluminous snowfall.

I spent most of my childhood growing up in cities or suburbs, where there was always so much going on you were never want for things to do, great places to eat, or fun events to attend. So when I moved out here, I wondered if my new hometown could live up to my expectations. Here’s the strange thing: this town has far exceeded them.

Look, Minamiuonuma does not have a lot of everything—museums, restaurants, special events—but what it does have, it does extremely well. The museums are beautifully constructed and well-appointed. The restaurants are top notch, and the special events are truly memorable.

The other great thing about it is that you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy it out here (which, on a student budget, is paramount). Allow me to introduce you to my favorite free things to do out here in Minamiuonuma.

Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!) photo

I’ve seen some pretty awesome temples and shrines throughout Japan, so when I went to the Bishamon-do, I wasn’t expecting much. After all, I've seen the Todaiji in Nara that is the largest wooden structure in the world, and Kiyomizudera in Kyoto which is iconic for its nail-less latticework balcony set among the trees and overlooking the city. Still, there is something so spectacular and charming about the Bishamon-do that resonates with me, and I reckon most people who visit feel the same way.

The main gate of Bishamon-do is magnificent. Its huge structure looks every bit the part of a gate that has to withstand tens of feet of snowfall every year, and the fact that it has been standing for over 150 years adds to its grandeur.

The rest of the temple is a lot older, however, with a history dating back to the 800s--incredible, right?

Aside from the cool architecture and rich history, there are two other great things about the Bishamon-do: 1) admission is free, and 2) there are numerous festivals that take place there throughout the year. Here is the most famous one:

Haddaka Oshiai Matsuri, aka the Naked Pushing Festival

This is quite the name for a festival, right? Well, it’s about as literal as you can get, so allow me to explain. Every year on the 3rd day of the 3rd month (i.e. March 3rd), a procession of individuals wearing little more than fundoshi ("loin cloths") carry torches to the temple's purification well, set aside the fire to jump into the freezing cold water, and then push their way into the hondo (main temple) to receive a blessing. "Naked Pushing Festival" indeed, right?

Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!) photo

Although you have to be selected to participate in the naked pushing (if that's your thing), folks are free to attend and watch at their leisure.

Echigo Winery

Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!) photo

Niigata is known for having Japan's best nihonshu, or sake, on account of its pure water and delicious rice, so it may seem odd that one of Minamiuonuma's coolest attractions is a winery. Still, it is pretty incredible to visit a winery that survives and thrives in an environment with such harsh winters. After all, most wineries throughout the world operate in places with mild, temperate climates. Echigo Winery, however, is fascinating for all the ways it embraces its home in yukiguni.

Rather than using traditional vine grapes, Echigo Winery uses bush grapes that are much better suited for this climate. Also, the winery employs the snow in order to age and cool the wine. The roof of the winery opens up, allowing up to 250 tons of snow to enter insulation spaces in the wall. When the snow melts, the icy cold water circulates into the cellar to keep the wine storage at a perfect 5 degrees Celsius.

You can visit Echigo Winery 365 days a year, and while there is no formal tour, the staff allow you to tour the facilities on your own. Rather than talking you through everything, the staff will happily offer you free samples of the various wines Echigo winery produces. All of that is free of charge.

If you decide to spend a little cash, there is a wine shop the winery as well as a restaurant offering some delicious food and even wine-flavored gelato.

Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!) photo

Tanaka Kakuei Statue
Experiencing Old and New Culture at Yukiguni (for free!) photo

I know this attraction is more of a personal favorite than something most people would be interested in seeing, but just outside of Urasa Station is a statue of Tanaka Kakuei, Japan's most prolific (and arguably most corrupt) politician. Tanaka is probably better known for his involvement in the Lockheed scandal (accepting bribes in exchange for favorable consideration of Lockheed jets during the bidding phase) and his resignation from the post of Prime Minister. Still, this man orchestrated the revival of Niigata by securing public funds for major expressways and the Joetsu Shinkansen. Previously, getting over the Nippon Alps to Niigata was at best a chore, and at worst, impassable during the winter. With these new arteries, Niigata was easily accessible all throughout the year. As such, it's no wonder that the town commissioned a statue in Tanaka's honor in spite of the political controversy. Like I said, for me, this is a cool statue for the back story behind it.



Hitting the books once again as a Ph.D. student in Niigata Prefecture. Although I've lived in Japan many years, life as a student in this country is a first.

Blessed Dad. Lucky Husband. Happy Gaijin (most of the time).