I took a longer trip (6 days) in the middle of January to Niigata. The original idea for this trip was to go to Sado Island. I’m a student of history, and I had always been fascinated with the life of Charles Jenkins, the American soldier who had defected to North Korea in 1965. Needless to say, it was a very bad decision and his life there was miserable. Since his repatriation saga in 2004, I had read two books about him, including his biography “The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea”. During his time in North Korea, he was an English teacher.

In North Korea, they typically pair captives for marriage, as they do not believe in intermarriage with the Korean race. It was there where he met his wife, Satomi Soga. Satomi had been abducted as a child living in Sado, captured along the beach and taken away on a North Korean submarine. Like most of the abductees, she had been forced to teach Japanese language to potential spies. They raised two daughters while captive, and their personal family life is what kept them together while living in harsh conditions.

When they eventually made it out, Jenkins faced court-martial as a deserter. After Hitomi returned, they chose to settle in Satomi’s home of Sado island. They had been living there as a family since 2005 and found employment in the tourist sector.

So, my original idea was to try to meet him, but sadly he passed away in December 2017 before I had a chance to do so. However, I had read a lot about Sado so I wanted to go see it anyway.

This time, I chose the Shinkansen – I was a bit more time constrained this time, and this was one of the cheaper Shinkansen runs – about ¥20,000 yen for the round trip, but I did decide to make Niigata city as my “hub” and do kakueki trips from there.

So, here we go!

Niigata city is directly north of Tokyo on the Sea of Japan side. It’s a quick run on the Joetsu line from Tokyo station. Niigata is fortunate to have Shinkansen service, which has been attributed to former Prime Minister Tanaka who was from there.

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The 1 hour 50 min ride was very pleasant. As we got into Gunma prefecture, there was a lot of snow. As it got more mountainous, about half of the ride was through tunnels. I’m always so impressed with the JNR infrastructure. The train was fairly full, but a surprising amount of passengers alighted at the Gala Yuzawa stop. I ski resort destination about 50 minutes from Niigata. There were only a few remaining passengers in the car going on to Niigata. I thought it the was unusual for such a large percentage of the passengers to be on a leisure trip, considering it was on a Tuesday and Niigata should be a major business destination.

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This time, I splurged a bit and burned some of my hotel points to stay at the Crown Plaza. A really good location that is right between the business district near the station, and the core, and older part of the city.  This is the view from my room on the 15th floor.

I found out that even top-end accommodation is very affordable.  Even if I was to pay for a room at the Crown Plaza, it was only ¥6,200 on the IHG website for the night I stayed. A really good value for the quality of this hotel. Perhaps it was because this is the off-season for tourism.

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One of Befco Bakauke Observatory Room is at the top of the Nikko hotel in the Toki Messe area. This is just near the port for the Sado ferries. It’s free to go up to the observatory and you can get a great view of the city. On the left, you can see the Bandai bridge.

One of the really good historical sites is the Saito family villa. The Saito family was the wealthy family of Niigata and was into shipping and banking. This Taisho-era mansion and garden were built in 1918. The grounds are beautiful, and you can take your time to wander around the house which is lovingly preserved. The highlight of the tour was the local guide who is a Niigata local and gave a very rich account of Niigata history.

Another highlight is the Minatopia Niigata City History Museum. This is one of the most comprehensive museums devoted to city history. It emphasizes the coastal city’s relationship with water and features four buildings. The main museum building was constructed to look like the second Niigata City Hall, built in 1911.

Also is an old bank building, with a French restaurant. It was the off-season so I was literally the only visitor I saw in the two hours I was there.

Across the river, I could see the Sado ferry – and I was excited to know I would take that same craft tomorrow!

I’m very fascinated with the Meiji era and the foreigners that made their lives in Japan. Niigata was one of the ports open to foreigners, but there were not so many due to the fact that the port at that time was not deep enough to accommodate larger ships. It was also a major port to Korea with a direct line to North Korea.

Just walking about, there is so much to see. Here is a Buddhist goods shop, traditional public bathhouse, and many old houses like this that are still lived in.

I stayed in a small guest house “Ninjin Guest House”, run by a young couple. It was located conveniently in the “furumachi” or old town part of this city in an only shophouse. The bunks were actually quite private.

If you stay in a Japanese  guest house, you have to expect a lot of rules. They do a good job to make sure you know what they are – from a briefing when you check in, to many signs to remind you! Here are just two – men don’t stand and pee, and make sure you prepare the bed properly otherwise a ¥3,000 fine.

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Right next to the Ninjin Guest House was Ken’s Burgers. Thought I would take a break from Japanese burger and give it a try. It was tasty, but pretty expensive considering I got the cheapest burger on the menu.

Since this is a longer trip, I’ve broken it down into separate parts,

Next day – Sado Island:

Trip to Sado Island

After returning to Niigata city, I went to Murakami:

Trip to Murakami

After returning to Niigata city, I spent the final day seeing one site that was still on my list. Since I love animals, especially birds, there was an interesting place just outside the city called Hyo Lake. At this lake, white swans, that have come down from Siberia in the winter, come to rest at this lake. During the peak times, there are literally thousands of these graceful birds.

The trip there was just a little tricky to plan since the trains do not operate so often, so it is best to check the schedules so that you don’t waste so much time.

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These rural areas are typically served by what is known as a “One Man” train (ウオンマン). They are normally just one car, and not electric but diesel powered – just like a bus you can hear the engine and the transmission shift through the gears. This is the real kakueki experience!

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From the station, it was about a 2.5km walk to Lake Hyo. Some people take taxis, but I recommend the walk. It goes through the old part of the city, and a long covered arcade area with may traditional shops. It is a very nice walk but has a few areas where there are no sidewalks, but it is still very safe.

The board above lists the number of birds present. On this day, it was 2,930 but it can get to be over 5,000 on the peak. Also listed are the feeding times. I just missed the 11:00 time, but you can buy some feed if you want to hand feed the birds. There is also a nice little cafe that overlooks the lake.

The birds come in from Siberia and come to rest in Japan and coastal China.

Many people were feeding the swans and ducks with the food for sale. I was surprised at the gentle behavior of the swans. I had always heard that they were very territorial and aggressive – on the contrary, they only took the food that landed right near them, and would not fight with the smaller ducks. The swans had very white and pristine feathers – such beautiful birds.

The various species of ducks were also very cute too.

It was time to head back to Niigata city, where I spent some casual time in a cafe before going back to Tokyo.

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I stopped at the sake museum which is right near the station. For ¥500, you get five tokens and you can sample your choice of 97 varieties. I’ve not been such a big fan of sake in the past but taking the recommend tasting course that is on the board, tasting them back-to-back, you can get a sense of the very broad spectrum of tastes. One of them tasted just like a fruity white wine.

Before leaving, I had to pick up some of the local delicacies to bring back. On the left is 笹だんご – sweet sticky rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves. The taste of the leaf really permeates the rice. Local crab is very cheap – only ¥700 each.

Heading back to Tokyo, there was a storm advisory for Tokyo, and I was warned that it might be chaos when I reach there.

 

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By the time I reached Tokyo station, it was just before the rush hour, but many people had decided to go home early. Queues were just starting to form as I got there, so I beat the worst part of the rush. After getting home, I learned that many people were stranded due to schedule interruptions. Overall, my timing was fortunate.