Minami Uonuma in southeastern Niigata is an area known for its flavorful rice and deep snow. It is just a short drive north of Yuzawa, where novelist Yasunari Kawabata, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, set his famous novel, “Snow Country.”
So, when we visited the region in late January, the view from the rotenburo, or open air bath, at our lodgings in Minami Uonuma was not quite what I had expected.
The hills in the distance were only lightly dusted in snow while the surrounding trees showed no trace of the white flakes portrayed so elegantly by Kawabata. It was snowing very lightly but the temperature was not low enough and the flakes were too wet to remain on the ground. Every now and then, blocks of snow heavy with moisture would come crashing down from the roof of our ryokan, or traditional inn, with a loud thud.
We had come to Ryugon, a ryokan in the town of Minami Uonuma, about 30 minutes by car from the train station at Echigo Yuzawa, to enjoy soaking in its hot spring waters while gazing at what we thought would be a view of mountains and plains shrouded in snow.
But Japan’s snow country, including the Yuzawa area, popular for its ski slopes, was experiencing one of the warmest winter seasons on record with relatively little snowfall. We were lucky to see the little we did, as it had just started to snow a few days before our arrival.
“Usually, we would have more than a meter of snow on both sides of the road,” the driver of the hotel’s shuttle bus who came to pick us up at the station told us.
Still, Yuzawa was much colder than Tokyo and we were at least able to feel that we had escaped the city’s clamor and arrived in a secluded world with a semblance of snowy silence.
Most visitors to this area come for the skiing, but Ryugon’s guests were mostly there, like us, to enjoy the thermal waters of Muikamachi hot springs and a sumptuous meal featuring Niigata’s famous Uonuma Koshihikari rice in the peaceful atmosphere of a traditional Japanese inn.
Ryugon was built around sections of old Japanese farmhouses and merchants’ houses dating from the early 19th century and takes its name from a temple, which used to be located on the site where this impressive ryokan stands. The entrance and part of the reception area are registered as a tangible cultural property of Japan.
The ryokan re-opened last year after extensive renovation work to add several suites, each of which has a view of the surrounding garden and its own open-air bath. The older section consists of more traditional Japanese style rooms with dark, heavy beams and tatami mats.
Ryugon’s beautifully appointed interior, soothing medicinal hot spring baths and proximity to Tokyo make it a great choice for a weekend break.
We left Tokyo on the 13:40 Hokuriku shinkansen, or bullet train, to Niigata, arrived at Echigo Yuzawa in an hour and 20 minutes, hopped on the Ryugon shuttle and were in our room by 16:00.
Our first port of call was the communal bath with its translucent, soft hot spring waters. After washing under a hot shower and warming myself in the indoor bath, I went outside to soak in the open-air rotenburo bath, where I could look out on the scenic winter landscape.
Ryugon makes an effort to entertain its guests with various activities and this evening it was a performance of shamisen, the traditional Japanese stringed instrument often seen being played by geisha in old prints.
On our way to the lounge, where the performance was to take place, we stopped at the bar where complimentary drinks were being served. The friendly bartender happily filled our glasses of umeshu, or plum wine, with soda water from the tap.
Once we had seated ourselves on plush armchairs, the shamisen player – an elderly man – began an impressive performance while his wife sang traditional Japanese songs accompanied by clapping to the beat of the music by the audience.
Having been transported back in time to a world of simpler pleasures by the traditional music and the atmosphere of the room with its dark beams and classic furniture, we headed to dinner, which was served in the main dining room.
The meal was beautifully presented and painstakingly prepared.
However, while some dishes were excellent, others were either over-seasoned or quite bland.
Among the more memorable dishes was a simmered turnip with snow crab, which had a soft texture and delicate flavor, and local, Uonuma Koshihikari rice, cooked in a donabe clay pot with maitake mushroom.
The next morning we woke to discover that it had both rained and snowed overnight.
While our suite was wonderfully warm, thanks to the floor heating, the air outside was bitingly cold – a perfect excuse for a soak in our private open-air bath on the deck.
After a hearty traditional breakfast, we had time to relax with our books and magazines on the comfortable sofas in the lounge with complimentary coffee and views of the garden before checking out.
It was a short break, but one that reminded us that a weekend spent in a traditional Japanese onsen ryokan, preferably with an open-air bath, was the perfect way to unwind and forget the stresses of city life.
1-6 Sakato, Minami Uonuma, Niigata
phone : 025-772-3470
fax : 025-772-2124
Rates : Rooms are from around Y19,000 per person for accommodation in a standard room and two meals and from around Y27,000 per person for a suite with private open-air bath and two meals. Rates depend on the season and type of accommodation plan.
Access : From Tokyo take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa. From there take the JR Joetsu Line to Muikamachi. Ryugon is 20 minutes on foot from the east exit of Muikamachi station or 6 minutes by taxi.