SNOW COUNTRY WINTER WONDERS
Enduring traditions, village festivals and amazing winterscapes of Niigata & Nagano (12 DAYS)
Japan’s ‘Snow Country’ is among the snowiest areas in the world. The people of the Snow Country have developed a distinct culture to overcome and ingeniously utilise the extreme conditions in their everyday lives. The region’s diverse and unique traditions, including its cuisine, crafts, and architecture, relate in one way or another to the snow that dominates the landscape for up to half the year. The hardships brought about by heavy snow have also cultivated a deeply spiritual society. The numerous temples and village festivals reflect the Snow Country people’s gratitude and wish for survival in the harsh, yet nurturing environment. This tour will provide you with a deep insight to the culture and traditions of Niigata Prefecture in the heart of the Snow Country, including three little-known village festivals that celebrate the end of winter in unique ways. One day of snowshoeing in the neighbouring Nagano Prefecture will allow you to enjoy the stark beauty of the winter countryside with all your senses.
DAY 1—MUIKAMACHI-ONSEN: Depart Tōkyō (Shinjuku) in the early afternoon and travel to Muikamachi in the fertile Minami-Uonuma region of Niigata. Arrive at your accommodation in the late afternoon, an atmospheric boutique onsen-ryokan overlooking the town. Indulge in a warming pre-dinner soak in the private onsen baths at the ryokan, with a view to the majestic snowy peaks of the Echigo Mountains.
DAY 2—MINAMI-UONUMA HISTORIC TOWN WALK: Spend your day exploring a charming old-world Snow Country town in Minami-Uonuma. Visit a workshop to learn about the painstaking processes involved in weaving the town's celebrated kimono textiles, and enjoy lunch featuring the premium-quality local Koshihikari rice sought after by chefs worldwide. In the early afternoon, take a side-trip to an ancient country Zen temple outside the town, set among towering trees. Accommodation as per Day 1, and enjoy further onsen relaxation.
DAY 3: URASA HADAKA-OSHIAI FESTIVAL— After a relaxing start to the morning, travel to Urasa, the gateway town of Niigata’s Uonuma region. Enjoy an Italian-style lunch at a local winery where wines are slowly matured in snow-cooled cellars, or a more Japanese lunch showcasing the best of Niigata’s fresh produce. After lunch, stroll around town to take in the festive atmosphere in the lead up to Urasa’s famous Hadaka-Oshiai Festival. In the evening, be enthralled by the festival, which has a 1200-year history and is counted as one of the three most bizarre festivals of Japan. Join the throngs of worshippers following groups energetic young men, stripped down to their underwear in the freezing night air and jostling with each other to be the first to reach the temple overlooking town. Accommodation at a lower mid-range city hotel for convenience of transport access.
DAY 4: WOOD CARVING TEMPLE & KASHIWAZAKI RURAL VILLAGE STAY: In the morning, travel to a nearby temple renowned for the elaborate wood carvings inside the small chapel by the 19th-century ‘Michelangelo of Japan’, Unchō Ishikawa. Return to Urasa for lunch, then travel during the afternoon to a rural district of Kashiwazaki. Get a feel for the quiet country life at your accommodation, a private rental house that combines the beauty of Snow Country architecture with modern comfort—within a picturesque thatch-roof village untainted by mass tourism. Enjoy a dinner of farmhouse cuisine featuring traditional vegetable varieties, prepared by the local villagers.
DAY 5—TRADITIONAL PAPERMAKING, FERMENTED FOOD & MODERN ART EXPERIENCE: Get an insider view of some of the Snow Country’s craft and food traditions. During the morning, visit one of the last remaining workshops making traditional paper in the region. Observe artisans craft beautifully textured paper and learn why the Snow Country traditionally was a major producer of fine handmade paper. Travel to the nearby town of Matsudai and be fascinated by modern art at one of the galleries comprising the internationally acclaimed Echigo-Tsumari Art Field—a community-based, rural-revival project which links modern art with the Snow Country’s rural environment and traditions. Enjoy a late lunch showcasing the diverse local produce at the gallery restaurant. In the afternoon, visit a local specialist in traditional fermented foods and learn about how health-giving Snow Country staples such as miso, natto and doburoku (farmer’s sake) are made. Accommodation at a traditional Snow Country town house (private rental).
DAY 6— TOKAMACHI HISTORY AND TRADITIONS WALK: Travel during the morning to neighbouring Tōkamachi, a major regional centre of the Niigata Snow Country. Take a walk through town amid towering piles of snow, and witness first-hand the immense challenges the Snow Country urban centres face yearly. Drop in at a showroom in town to admire Tōkamachi’s fine kimonos and textiles, coveted by traders from all around Japan. Enjoy a lunch of hegi-soba, a local buckwheat noodle speciality with a curious connection to the local textiles industry, or another genre of cuisine. In the afternoon, visit the Tōkamachi City Museum for an overview of the region’s natural environment, traditional life, and history spanning more than 5000 years. In the early evening, travel to your accommodation on the outskirts of the town, a beautifully restored 19th-century Snow Country house featuring heavy timberwork typical of the region.
Days 7 & 8—IIYAMA WINTERSCAPE EXPERIENCE: Travel on a slow local train during the morning into the neighbouring Nagano Prefecture, taking in the scenery as you travel through one of the snowiest lowland areas on the earth. After a lunch stop and a brief walk in the town of Iiyama, travel to your accommodation for the two nights, a modern, self-contained log cottage in a wooded, rural area outside town. On Day 8, spend much of the day snowshoeing through the beautiful countryside in its pure winter mantle. Enjoy the sensory experiences as you traverse silent forests and windswept fields. On both nights, enjoy home-cooked dinners featuring a variety of local produce, perhaps paired with the region’s renowned sake or wine, in the comfort of your own cottage.
DAY 9—‘FERMENTATION TOWN’ WALK: Spend the morning travelling to Nagaoka area of central Niigata Prefecture. Arrive in the early afternoon in a district of Nagaoka city known as the ‘Fermentation Town’ with the historic townscape dominated by soy sauce and sake breweries. Take a tour of a soy sauce brewery to see how soy beans are fermented to yield an amazing range of soy sauce and miso products. Visit the famous Yoshinogawa Sake Brewery with over 400 years of history for a tasting of their crisp brews made with premium locally grown rice. In the early evening, travel to a hill village outside Nagaoka city, famous for its photogenic terraced fields. Accommodation at a small, family-run village minshuku serving fresh farmhouse cuisine using homegrown vegetables.
DAY 10—HILL VILLAGE FESTIVAL 1: Celebrate the end of winter with the locals at a village festival. The festivities include a bull wrestling tournament (a strictly controlled fight between two bulls, without injuring the bulls), an ancient tradition that celebrates the god-like status of cattle in the local culture, and a night-time fire festival. Accomodation as per Day 9.
DAY 11— HILL VILLAGE FESTIVAL 2: In the morning, travel via mountain roads to another hill village in the rural district of Nagaoka. Join the keen crowds to spectate a curious festival that symbolises the villagers’ wish for bountiful harvests and fertility. Enjoy rustic street food for lunch from one of the festival stalls before travelling to Nagaoka city in the afternoon. For dinner, choose from a variety of cuisines on offer, including fresh seafood from the nearby Sea of Japan.
DAY 12: In the morning, travel by rail from JR Nagaoka Station to Tōkyō (Shinjuku). Arrive in the early afternoon at JR Shinjuku Station, where the tour concludes. Alternative onward destinations can be arranged, however, it may incur an additional charge.
Temples and shrines
Prehistory and history
3 nights in restored traditional Japanese houses (private rentals) with Japanese-style futon bedding in a town to rural setting
2 nights in an upper-range modernised traditional onsen-ryokan with Japanese-style futon bedding and private onsen baths in a semi-rural setting
2 nights in a minshuku (Japanese B&B) with Japanese-style futon bedding in a village setting
2 nights in a modern self-contained log cottage with Western-style beds and attached baths in a forested setting
2 nights in a mid-range city hotel with Western-style beds
DEPARTURE DATE: Thursday 1 March 2018; itinerary subject to change depending on, but not limited to, accommodation availability, transport timetabling and weather conditions.
BOOKING REQUIRED BEFORE: Thursday 21 December 2017
MAXIMUM GROUP SIZE: 6 persons
COST: from AUD $5400 per person (4–6 persons); from AUD$6000 per person (3 persons); from AUD$6400 per person (2 persons); POA for 1 person.
FINAL PAYMENT DATE: Tuesday 30 January 2018
Full tour planning and guiding—12 days
Ground transport (rail, bus, taxi)—12 days, departing from/returning to Tōkyō (Shinjuku)
Admissions and fees for all attractions and activities listed in itinerary
Relevant information material
PHYSICAL FITNESS REQUIREMENT—MODERATE: all days of the tour involve periods of walking on surfaced and unsurfaced roads and footpaths mostly on gentle to moderate gradients. Participants must be able to walk for up to 10 km per day, and continuously for up to 3 km at a time, on gentle to moderate gradients. You will be required to walk for extended periods of time on snow, ice and mud with an uneven and slippery surface that the unaccustomed may find exhausting. There may be short sections of steep terrain including stone steps. The weather conditions are likely to be poor with frequent periods of windy, snowy or rainy weather and low temperatures typically between minus 10°C and +5°C. During sunny spells, sun-sensitive people will require protection against the intense glare, such as sunscreen and sunglasses.
Day 8 features several hours of snowshoeing. No previous experience is necessary, however, you must not suffer from existing health conditions (or have a high risk thereof) that compromises your fitness, mobility, endurance, coordination or navigation skills, including, but not limited to, conditions affecting your heart, blood pressure, brain, nervous system, breathing, movement of your limbs, neck and the back, eyesight and hearing. There are short sections of steep terrain where it is easy to fall over; you must not suffer from health conditions that makes you susceptible (more than a normal person) to fractures, muscle injuries, bruising or bleeding. Much of the terrain traversed is open and exposed to the weather, including possible blizzard conditions.
The accommodation on Days 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10 feature traditional open fireplaces that can make the air inside smoky—participants must be able to tolerate low to moderate levels of wood smoke for extended periods, accept the risk of smoky odour lingering on your clothes and belongings during and after your stay; you must not suffer from existing health conditions that smoky air or soot may aggravate including, but not restricted to, conditions affecting your breathing, eyes and skin.
CULTURAL TOLERANCE REQUIREMENT—MODERATE: accommodation on most nights feature Japanese-style futon bedding. Most meals will be traditional Japanese style served as a set menu, including a range of traditional country foods, with non-Japanese food options unavailable. The tour features festivals that are crowded with spectators; you must be able to tolerate crowds and a certain amount of jostling. Those with particular views on animal welfare may find the bull-wrestling at the village festival on Day 10 objectionable.