Niigata, a Kinder World
Dear Family and Friends,
Niigata Prefecture is southwest of Miyagi. It is not far, but it never held my interest enough to consider a visit. However, for the past few months I have been supporting a friend, helping-hoping to keep her travel agency alive. Together she and I decided Niigata was off the beaten track enough to allow for a safe trip. So, I went, armored with my two vaccinations, double masks, a teeny spray jar of alcohol, and the year-long habit of following social distancing.
Niigata is indeed rural. At this time of year, everywhere is green: sharp thanks to paddies, complemented by lush home gardens, and beautifully contrasted with the dark mountains serving as a perfect backdrop or frame for the entire verdant setting. The vast paddies produce Koshihikari rice, famous for feeding locals and Tokyo residents in abundance.
Along with that, there are thermal baths scattered throughout. Spa towns are everywhere, as are free footbaths, which farmers enjoy together, drinking sake and laughing, after a hard day of work.
Besides the ski slopes that attract people from all over the country in winter, there are a few other tourist attractions. Two very old Buddhist temples are particularly famous. They have carvings by Ishikawa Uncho. Saifukuji has an elaborate, rather gaudy ceiling.
Eirinji is more humble and gracious, probably made when the sculptor was older with years of experience behind him. Photos of either temple were not allowed, so I captured the images from the brochures I received.
What I loved most in the latter was a series of teeny carved monks, not being reverent or pious, but rather showing their delightful humanity. One was scrubbing clothes, another grating a daikon, one was patting a rabbit, another bellowing out songs to his heart’s content, while yet another was falling head over heels in an unexpected tumble.
One town boasted millennium-old metal working.
Another had stunningly handsome weaving, also a well over-1000-year-old tradition. The quality was superb An obi, or kimono sash, could easily cost the equivalent of $20,000.
The food, of course, we outrageously delicious.
But what struck me the most were the people. They live in small communities, need each other, trust each other, help each other. They are open, friendly, curious, and extremely helpful.
The transport system was frustratingly inconvenient, with trains or buses coming very irregularly, most trips requiring several changes, fast running to catch the once-every-two-hour train, and then waiting for 45 minutes or longer in the next village for a connecting train to arrive. It was confusing at best for me, but the locals, from grandmas to young school kids, were eager to get me to where I needed to go.
And aboard, older people would want to chat, sitting across from me for social distance.
Once when I missed a train and had to wait over an hour for the next one, a man laughed and said, “Isn’t this kind of time wonderful? It gives you a chance to reflect and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.” The station was wooden and small, surrounded by paddies. It was indeed peaceful and graciously stunning.
I had to take a taxi to get to Saifukuji Temple. The driver had marvelously slicked back hair, shiny as if it were lacquered. He had pointed black shoes and a trim suit, despite the relentless heat. He told me everyone there was a farmer, including himself. He reassured me many in the younger generation were choosing to stay on the land, rather than flock to cities. Later I found a flyer, “Know the Future”, praising the work of farmers. I was relieved to know that essential tradition was proud and continuing.
Other people either drew or printed out maps so I could find my way. Some were along very circuitous roads that had once been pathways through paddies.
One bus driver even got off the bus when he saw me at a stop and asked where I was going. “This is holiday time, so buses are really scarce. Get onto my bus because it is here. I will help you make the connection you need.”
The people are used to very hot summers and bitterly cold winters. It is common for summer temperatures to reach 38º C or higher (over 100º F), as they were when I was there.
But you could tell winters were fierce because roads were lined with high poles to mark their location when snows became exceedingly deep.
After a rain, a grandmother said to me, “Today’s cool weather is such a welcomed break. It is only 34º today. What a relief!” I laughed and agreed. In fact, when I got back to unusually-hot-for-Sendai’s 28º, it almost felt chilly.
My final stop was back in urban Niigata City to a kite museum. It was an hour bus ride out, then an hour’s walk along horrendous major highways, with trucks, buses, cars, and motorcycles roaring past. Of course, it was made of infernal blacktop, and bordered by huge parking lots, shopping malls, and chain stores. There was even a kitch golden Buddha with two cute stone owls. What a shock anytime, but much more so after the few days I had just spent.
But the museum was superb, so I was glad to have made the effort to get there.
Before heading back along the hell that had brought me there, I sat down to munch on a rice ball. While there, one of the museum staff stepped outside and politely came to chat. “We don’t get foreigners here much. So, it is a privilege and very exciting having you here. Thank you for coming, especially since it took so much effort. That means a lot to us.” I smiled and said I was the one who should thank them. My stay in Niigata had been wonderful.
My four days there reassured me that the world has tremendous potential for living in harmony with nature, for human kindness, openness, and trust. Surely, we humans can be larger, deeper, and more thoughtful than what many of us in recent years have come to expect.