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Photo: Samantha Lees / Taken with permission from Tomioka City and the Tomioka Silk Mill

A Journey Through Gunma and Niigata: Ancient Crafts with Modern Passion [PR]

Stretching northwest from Tokyo, the Gunma and Niigata regions of central Japan teem with ancient crafts revived by modern artisans. Silk, metalwork, sake brewing, and numerous other facets of traditional Japan have been boldly revamped for the 21st century. Travelers keen for an off-road Japan adventure can discover these captivating cultures in Gunma and Niigata all while surrounded by pristine nature and delightful cuisine. Join us as we venture through the heart of Japan for three days to uncover what gems these alluring regions have to offer!

*This article was written in collaboration with the Hokuriku-Shin'est District Transport Bureau, Gunma Prefecture, and Niigata Prefecture.

Getting to Gunma from Tokyo

Bullet trains run frequently from Tokyo directly to Gunma’s largest city of Takasaki, with the journey taking roughly 50-60 minutes. Our first destination, Tomioka, can be reached from Takasaki Station via the Joshin-Dentetsu Line. Get off at Joshu-Tomioka Station and catch the Machinaka Sightseeing Bus to the Tomioka Silk Mill. Check the official homepage of the bus for more details: http://www.tomioka-silk.jp/excursion/traffic/detail/E-bus-test.html

Day 1: Gunma and South Niigata - Unique Histories and Thrilling Skiing!

Our first day would see us traversing the mountainous hot spring prefecture of Gunma before catching the bullet train to the skiing heartland of south Niigata. With an open-mind and adventurous spirit, we headed off!

Tomioka Silk Mill - A Fascinating Blend of France and Japan

“French people lived in rural Japan during the 1800s!?” As soon as we stepped off the train into Gunma, we were already discovering a new side of Japanese history! Looking to dive deeper, we were told by one of the locals that there’s no better place to experience this peculiar history than the renowned Tomioka Silk Mill.

The mill was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage in 2014. It was registered as “Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites.” The year after it became a World Heritage Site, it received four times more visitors than it had the year prior! Smack-bang in the middle of the quaint town of Tomioka, the mill is a dynamic exploration of a lesser-told French and Japanese history.

Taken with permission from Tomioka City and the Tomioka Silk Mill

Originally constructed in 1872 under the direction of French engineers to thrust Japan into the modern era, the mill boasted state-of-the-art technologies streamlining the tedious task of reeling silk from cocoons. Providing the silk-hungry world with an alternative source, the mill quickly became one of Japan’s most prosperous ventures.

Taken with permission from Tomioka City and the Tomioka Silk Mill

We were able to freely explore the Silk Mill’s grounds and enter several of its restored buildings, including two massive cocoon storehouses and the silk-reeling plant itself. I was captivated by the French architecture, particularly the home of lead engineer Paul Brunat, which boasted a sumptuous colonial-style design fit for a king!

Brunat House / PIXTA

While operations ceased in 1987, the Silk Mill continues to support the surrounding town through tourism. Seeing such antiquated Western-Japanese architecture deep in rural Japan gave us a profound appreciation of the magnitude of history.

Taken with permission from Tomioka City and the Tomioka Silk Mill

We were also lucky enough to experience traditional silk reeling and make our own cocoon fridge magnets. It was a bit tough at first, but we quickly got the hang of it and had an amazing time. You can try yourself for just 200 JPY by asking at the Tomioka Silk Mill information counter!

Photo: Samantha Lees / Taken with permission from Tomioka City and the Tomioka Silk Mill

Tomioka Silk Mill
Open: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Closed: December 29-31
Admission:
- Adults: 1,000 JPY
- High school/College: 250 JPY
- Elementary/Junior high school: 150 JPY
- Child (below school age): Free
*You can also rent a multilingual audio guide for 200 JPY. It supports Japanese, English, French, Chinese, and Korean.
Access: 10-minute walk from Joshu-Tomioka Station on the Joshin Line or 1 minute from the Tomioka Silk Mill bus stop via the Machinaka Excursion Sightseeing Bus

Tomioka Silk Mill

1-1 Tomioka, Tomioka-shi, Gunma

Lunch: Ichinoya - Mouthwatering Local Flavors!

Longing for a taste of hearty Gunma cuisine, we got lunch at Ichinoya! A breezy 3-minute walk from the Tomioka Silk Mill, this charming luncheon is tucked away in the former nightlife district of Tomioka. The nostalgic interior is warm and welcoming, and the adorable chef, Shunsai-san, beams with pride at his authentic renditions of traditional Gunma cooking.

The restaurant’s specialty is “okkiri-komi udon,” a 1,200 JPY local specialty featuring thick, extra-wide noodles and ample helpings of seasonal vegetables boiled in a tangy broth. Shunsai’s rendition adds a twist of yuzu and is completely free from additives, creating a nourishing wholesomeness that felt like a warm hug.

Ichinoya
Open: 10:30 am - 2:30 pm
Closed: Tuesdays
Access: 8-minute walk from Joshu-Tomioka Station on the Joshin Line

Ichinoya

28 Tomioka, Tomioka-shi, Gunma

Heading to Niigata!

After returning to Takasaki, we boarded the Joetsu Shinkansen to Niigata’s ski paradise of Echigo-Yuzawa. A quaint town filled with restaurants, hotels, hot springs, and, of course, a multitude of ski slopes, it’s undoubtedly the best place to base yourself when exploring the Tokamachi/Uonuma regions.

Tokamachi City Museum - A Fascinating Dive into the Lives of the Locals

Often considered Niigata’s heartland, Tokamachi and the greater Uonuma area has been a cultural hotbed since ancient times. While currently celebrated for its contemporary art scene, we thought we’d first take a gander at where it all began at the Tokamachi City Museum!

A stylish, intelligently designed showcase of the region’s culture and history, the Tokamachi City Museum traces the artistic mindset of its people from early beginnings to modern times. Starting with the expressive flame-like patterns of Jomon era pottery (around 2,500-12,000 years old), we were spellbound by the detailed Japanese and English explanations into Tokamachi’s textile practices, agriculture, and general way of living.

The museum also provided us insight into how the locals dealt with the notorious “snow country” climate. From painstaking snow removal to deadly winter horror stories, we left with a newfound appreciation for modern comforts!

A diorama exhibiting snow removal before modern machinery. / Photo: Samantha Lees

Tokamachi City Museum
Open: 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Closed: Mondays, December 28 to January 3
Admission
- General (high school and older): 500 JPY
- Junior high school or younger: Free
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Tokamachi Station

Tokamachi City Museum

1-448-9 Nishihon-cho, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata

Echigo-Tsumari Art Field - Blending Art with Nature

We saw the old, now let’s see the new! Niigata’s Echigo-Tsumari region has been gaining a lot of attention recently for its vibrant art community that weaves together nature, history, and pure, unabated creativity.

Photo: The Rice Field(IIya&Elillia Kabakov)

Instead of a single, concentrated collection, the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field blankets the entire region. Dotting the tiny settlements of Tokamachi and Tsunan, dozens of captivating exhibitions, including some from world-famous artists, form a tantalizing countryside treasure hunt. While each piece left an unforgettable impression on us, we found the following three to be the highlights:

Kiyotsu Gorge - An Artistic Glimpse at the Beauty of Nature

One of the world’s most impressive views, the formerly treacherous Kiyotsu Gorge was transformed in 1996 into an easy-to-access passage penetrating deep into the valley’s natural wonder. In 2018, it underwent another transformation into an artwork by Ma Yansong / MAD Architects.

Photo: Ma Yansong / MAD Architects「Tunnel of Light」(Echigo-Tsumari Art Field)

After journeying through the moody, atmospheric tunnels, we were utterly mesmerized by the breathtaking “Tunnel of Light.” Utilizing the reflection of water, a shallow pool mirrored the gorgeous valley scenery, doubling its natural beauty. You can actually walk across the pool to the edge of the platform, so we were thankful for our waterproof shoes!

Kiyotsu Gorge
Open: 8:30 am - 5:00 pm (last entry: 4:30 pm)
Closed: May close due to weather, check the official homepage in advance
Admission:
- Adults: 800 JPY
- Children (elementary to junior high school age): 400 JPY
- Those with disabilities: Free
- Children (under school age): Free
Access: 25-minute drive from JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station

Kiyotsu Gorge

2119-2 Koide, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata

Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, KINARE - Gorgeous Exhibition of Interactive Art

Another celebration of light and reflection, we were absolutely captivated by the modern art center KINARE’s central pool exhibition! Emulating every detail of the sky through the aid of a cleverly concealed underwater mirror, the center once again showed us that true beauty is nature itself. As if that wasn’t enough, each room inside the complex houses a unique piece of modern art flowing flawlessly into the next, linking the exhibitions in a world of daring imagination.

Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, KINARE
Open: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm (last entry: 4:30 pm)
Closed: Wednesdays
Admission:
- Adults (high school age or older): 800 JPY
- Children: 400 JPY
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Tokamachi Station

Echigo-Tsumari Satoyama Museum of Contemporary Art, KINARE

6-1 Honcho, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata

Tsumari in Bloom - A Spectacular Look at Nature Through the Eyes of a Famed Artist

Having previously encountered her work on the island of Naoshima in Shikoku, I couldn’t resist checking out legendary Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s Niigata piece! Known for her distinctive polka-dotted structures, lovers of Kusama’s quirky sense of style will not be disappointed with “Tsumari in Bloom.” A part of the “Matsudai Nohbutai Center,” a museum/art house surrounded by an assembly of outdoor art, this eye-catching expression of Niigata’s lustrous nature is undoubtedly one of her most spectacular works to date!

Tsumari in Bloom
Open: Late April to late October (buried by snow during winter)
Closed: Wednesdays
Admission: Free to look at
Access: 20-minute drive from JR Tokamachi Station

Tsumari in Bloom

3743-1 Matsudai, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata

Lunch: Kojimaya - Soba with Seaweed?!

When asking a Tokamachi local what to eat, time and time again we heard “hegi soba!” As die-hard fans of Japanese cuisine, we were all too familiar with soba, but hegi soba? Turns out, hegi soba is a beloved Niigata soba rendition that uses seaweed as a binding agent. The seaweed yields a satisfying bite and firm texture that literally glides down your throat! This enticing delight is best enjoyed with the accommodating tangy “tsuyu” sauce, a Japanese dipping sauce made from mirin (Japanese sweet sake), sake, soy sauce, kombu, and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). The tsuyu can be later diluted with hot water and relished as soup - like two meals in one!

After feeling a little worn out from our art scene gallivanting, we slowed down for a fix of hegi soba at the idyllic Kojimaya Main Restaurant. Established in 1922, this beloved eatery has perfected their hegi soba recipe through painstaking traditional methods and without the assistance of additives. We felt honored to be able to relish the local cuisine at one of its most famous restaurants! With our reserves replenished, we were ready to continue deeper into Niigata!

Kojimaya Sohonten
Open: 11:00 am - 9:00 pm (last order: 8:30 pm)
Closed: None
Access: 15-minute drive from JR Tokamachi Station

Kojimaya Sohonten

758-1 Nakayashiki, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata

NASPA New Otani - Skiing Right on Your Doorstep!

Lustrous snowfall, boundless mountains, and unmatched convenience - some of Japan’s best skiing lies in Echigo-Yuzawa! I was excited to explore this world-famous ski resort. We booked our stay at NASPA New Otani, a hotel/ski resort that prides itself on less-intense beginner and family-friendly skiing with access right in its backyard. I was free to go as slow as I wanted, which was perfect since I was a beginner at skiing, and if I needed a break, my room was just upstairs!

If you’re feeling anxious about riding with the pros and want to try things other than skiing, NASPA New Otani is the hotel for you!

And with a pool and spa, a lavish buffet of Western and Japanese cuisine (including all-you-can-eat sushi!), stunning panoramic views, and comfortable rooms, you’ll be able to rejuvenate after a day on the slopes in pinnacle luxury. Just take a look at the view from my window!

NASPA New Otani
Open:
- Check-in: 3:00 pm
- Check-out: 10:00 am
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station

NASPA New Otani

2117-9 Yuzawa, Minami Uonuma-gun, Niigata

Day 2: Central Niigata - Traditional Inns and Captivating Metalwork

After a busy day in Gunma and south Niigata, we journeyed closer to the Sea of Japan to unearth more of Niigata’s historical gems. As a history fanatic, I couldn’t wait to see what legends we were about to encounter!

Gyokusendo - Metalwork So Fine, The Techniques Behind It Became an Intangible Cultural Property!

Our next day began at the metalworking town of Tsubame, just off the coast of central Niigata. Renowned for its prestigious craftsmanship blending ancient wisdom with modern technology, the knives, tools, pots, kettles, and cups produced here are second to none. As a fan of Japanese knives myself, I couldn’t resist a look!

Seeking an authentic encounter with traditional Tsubame metalwork, Gyokusendo, a short drive from Tsubame-Sanjo Station, was our first visit. Specializing in copperware, the artisans working with this Intangible Cultural Property of Japan tirelessly pursue the knowledge entrusted to them by their predecessors. Using time-honored hammering and coloring techniques, Gyokusendo’s range of copper masterpieces burst with character, perfectly encapsulating the “wabi sabi” “beauty through imperfection” aesthetic.

While once a business doomed to disappear after the final generation retired, Gyokusendo has strived to revitalize the industry by offering young artisans extensive training programs and the opportunity to work with others to design and create different works. Beginning from tinning and fire work, these artisans will slowly work their way through polishing, coloring, hammering, shaping, and so on, until they are masters in their own right.

Lacking the whirring gears and glossy floors of most 21st-century operations, Gyokusendo’s open workspace transports visitors back to an age of raw talent. Each piece is ever so slightly unique, a quality owed to the nature of the craft itself, and worth a good look.

Photo: Samantha Lees

After watching the artisans in the fascinating open workshop, we were able to view and even touch some of Gyokusendo's finest achievements in the display room. Most impressive was their seamless kettle, painstakingly shaped from a single piece of copper!

Perhaps the biggest highlight was witnessing the work of Norio Tamagawa, a designated Living National Treasure specializing in the extraordinary “mokumegane” technique. Using between twenty to thirty sheets of copper, silver, and “shakudo” (gold copper alloy), he meticulously blends and shapes the metal before carving and exposing the individual layers buried underneath to form intricate patterns. Seeing such genius is one thing, but knowing the intense degree of passion and labor involved through the workspace tour deepened our appreciation for this majestic artform.

One of Norio Tamagawa’s mokumegane pieces. / Photo: Samantha Lees

Gyokusendo
Open: 8:30 am - 5:30 pm
Closed: Sundays, National holidays
Admission: Free
Access: 7-minute drive from JR Tsubamesanjo Station

Gyokusendo

2-2-21 Chuo-dori, Tsubame-shi, Niigata

Tojiro Open Factory - Modern Japanese Engineering at its Best!

After encountering time-honored and traditional Tsubame metalware, we dove straight into the contemporary with a visit to legendary knife maker Tojiro! A 15-minute drive from Gyokusendo, the Tojiro Open Factory allowed us an unobstructed peek into the knife making process.

Photo: Samantha Lees

Founded in 1953 as a farming tool specialist, Tojiro ventured into knives in 1955 as a means of support when business was slow. They have since blossomed into one of Japan’s leading knife producers, with renowned chefs across the globe insisting on their products.

From the entrance, where we saw and held the best of their extensive range, we were guided to the massive open factory floor. Separated only by a small guardrail, we literally stood right next to the workers as they played their part in the greater assembly line. We were surprised to see that this gleaming, cutting-edge factory, which boasted laser cutters and other state-of-the-art technology, was still surprisingly hands-on! Despite the leaps and bounds in automation, it appears the delicate touch of human hands and the trained eye of an expert are still at the heart of modern knife production.

Photo: Samantha Lees

Next up was the Knife Atelier, where we witnessed bladesmiths crafting top-tier customized knives. Using a free forging technique inherited from sword makers, each blade is crafted start to finish by the hands of just one person.

Photo: Samantha Lees

From the cutting of the sheetmetal to the forging, grinding, and engraving of their signature, we walked with these masters every step of the way! If a knife is on your Japan shopping list, don’t miss Tojiro!

Tojiro Open Factory
Open:
- Weekdays: 10:00 am - 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
- Saturdays (knife factory closed): 10:00 am - 12:00 pm, 1:00 pm - 5:00 pm
Closed: Sundays, National holidays
Admission: Free
Access: 20-minute drive from JR Tsubamesanjo Station

Tojiro Open Factory

9-5 Yoshida, Higashi Sakaecho, Tsubame-shi, Niigata

Nadaiya Ryokan - Seasonal Local Dishes and Hot Springs Await!

After another intense day, we decided to unwind in the sacred mountainside town of Yahiko. Boasting bubbling hot springs, rich gourmet cuisine, and a deeply spiritual culture all enclosed by lush nature, Yahiko is the ultimate city escape!

Photo: Samantha Lees

Located right in the center of town and just a stone’s throw away from the illustrious Yahiko Shrine, we decided to stay at Nadaiya Ryokan. Accommodating travelers for over 300 years, Nadaiya is the quintessential Japanese inn providing travelers with a tender escape from the harsh Niigata climate. With a private outdoor hot spring boasting sweeping views of Mt. Yahiko, we were able to rejuvenate in peace, ready for another action-packed day!

Perhaps most impressive, however, was the food! Specialists in seasonal cuisine, the chefs at Nadaiya source the best in-season seafood, vegetables, and meats in Niigata, resulting in a fresh meal every visit! When we stayed, it was the peak of the winter crab season. From crab soup to crab hot pot, crab tempura, and more, we were surprised at just how versatile the humble crustacean can be! Needless to say, we were stuffed!

Nadaiya
Open:
- Check-in: 3:00 pm - 6:00 pm
- Check-out: 10:00 am
Closed: None
Access: 11-minute walk from JR Yahiko Station

Nadaiya

2934 Yahiko, Nishikanbara-gun, Niigata

Day 3: Niigata City - Modern Japan with a Hint of Sake

After our countryside wanderings, it was high time to hit up the city! We descended the otherworldly Yahiko for the high-rises and narrow laneways of the bustling Niigata City.

Bandai Bridge - A Charming Landmark of Niigata

Once one of the largest metropolises in Japan, Niigata City grew as a diverse trading and entertainment hub with a highly sophisticated culture. While now a modest city of around 800,000, traces of Niigata City’s original grandeur can be found in the tantalizing hidden alleyways of the Furumachi geisha district, along with dynamic architecture leftover from the prosperous Meiji and Showa periods.

One such example is the eye-catching landmark of Bandai Bridge. Built in 1929 to replace the older bridges straddling the enormous Shinano River, the charming stone bridge joins the chic Bandai shopping district with the traditional Furumachi, serving as a literal icon of the city’s foundation.

Keen for a panoramic view of the bridge and surroundings, we headed up to the observation deck in the nearby MEDIA SHIP building. The magnificent view here extends across the Echigo Plain all the way to the Japanese Alps, while the mammoth Sado Island can be easily spotted across the sea. If you’re itching to explore, both banks of the Shinano River are chock full of lawns inviting you to absorb Niigata’s laid-back atmosphere before diving into the ancient streets of Furumachi - but we’ll save that for another time!

Niigata Nippo MEDIA SHIP Observation Deck
Open: 8:00 am - 11:00 pm
Closed: None
Admission: Free
Access: 10-minute walk from JR Niigata Station

Niigata Nippo MEDIA SHIP Observation Deck

20F, 3-1-1 Bandai, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata

Ponshukan - Over 150 Varieties of Japanese Sake!

Before boarding the bullet train back to Tokyo, we made some extra time to indulge at the sake mecca of Ponshukan! Boasting three neighboring stores—Ponshukan Marketplace for sake, Ponshukan Complex for food, and Ponshukan Craftsmanship for crafts—our souvenir shopping was sorted!

Photo: Samantha Lees

As Japan’s leading rice producer, Niigata is sacred ground for sake lovers. With over 80 breweries dotting the prefecture and producing a range of tastes suiting all palates, both beginners and connoisseurs alike are bound to discover something exciting!

Photo: Samantha Lees

Ponshukan’s biggest draw are the “kiki-zake” sake vending machines. Found in the Ponshukan Marketplace furthest from the bullet train ticket gates, a paradise of 150 tantalizing local brews awaits! Despite it being barely lunchtime, as a sake fanatic, I couldn’t resist!

To use the machines, first head to the counter and pay 500 JPY. You’ll be given 5 special coins and a small sake tasting cup. The rest is up to you! Find a brew that takes your fancy, place your cup into the machine, insert a coin, push the button, and watch your drink be automatically poured! One coin equals one drink, so you’ll be able to enjoy five in total - unless you go another round!

If you aren’t game for five cups, you can trade your coins in for one glass of a top-tier sake. Some of these go for over 10,000 JPY a bottle and taste amazing, so don’t hesitate to ask the staff! I tried a glass of daiginjo sake from the Niigata brewery Yukitsubaki. It was light and sweet, with a pleasant rice-like aftertaste lingering in my mouth for hours afterward. It was only 4 coins (400 JPY), so I’d definitely recommend it for beginners!

If you feel like something to eat, wander up to the Ponshukan Complex. Here lies the “Bomb Onigiri” rice ball - an onigiri supersized with 8 cups of rice and 5 different fillings of your choice, including tuna, salmon, miso, and more! Unless you’re absolutely starving, don’t tackle this alone!

Ponshukan Niigata
Open: 10:00 am - 7:30 pm (last order: 7:15 pm)
Closed: None
Admission: 500 JPY
Access: Inside the west side of JR Niigata Station

Ponshukan Niigata

CoCoLo Niigata West, 1-96-47 Hanazono, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata

Getting Back to Tokyo from Niigata

Thankfully, our trip back to Tokyo from Niigata City was a breeze thanks to the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train! The ticket gates are right near Ponshukan, so we could shop and eat away without worrying about rushing back! Trains run a few times an hour until around 10:00 pm, with the journey taking 2 hours.

Out of all the fantastic sights, sounds, smells, and tastes we experienced on our trip, perhaps the most captivating was seeing how Gunma and Niigata’s cultures and crafts—silk, textiles, art, cuisine, metalwork, sake, and more—have been both preserved and adapted to meet the needs of the modern world. Rather than just a historical reminder, these industries are flourishing, reeling in fresh audiences and guaranteeing their survival for another generation to enjoy. As someone who adores both the old and the new, it was a welcome sight indeed! For an off-road, deep dive into the lesser-explored cultures of Japan, take the bullet train from Tokyo to Gunma and Niigata on your next cross-country Japan adventure!

For more information on Gunma and Niigata, visit the links below:

▼ Gunma Prefecture
https://www.visit-gunma.jp/en/

▼ Niigata Prefecture
https://enjoyniigata.com/en/

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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