If you don’t ski or snowboard but still want to enjoy the beauty and peace of a snow-enveloped landscape, head over to Satoyama Jujo (里山十帖) in the hot spring resort area of Osawa, Niigata.
This is an area that sees some of the heaviest snowfall in Japan.
The Nobel-prize winning novelist, Yasunari Kawabata, came here and wrote “Snow Country,” the novel which imprinted the wintry landscape of Niigata on every Japanese student’s mind.
And just as Kawabata described it in the famous opening line to that novel – “The train came out of the long border tunnel – and there was the snow country.” – as soon as the train re-emerges from the Shimizu tunnel, which separates Gunma and Niigata prefectures, there is an almost magical change in scenery from bare countryside to a silvery world of snow.
When we visited in mid-March, there was still more than a metre of snow on the ground, which formed a mini-tunnel along the narrow road leading to Satoyama Jujo.
And the snow continued to pile up as large flakes of wet spring snow fell from the sky throughout the time we were there.
Satoyama Jujo is an old Japanese country house, which has been renovated to accomodate all the modern comforts expected of a high-end hotel these days but has still managed to retain the charm of a bygone era.
Sturdy beams and posts in dark wood typical of Japanese country homes criss-cross the high ceiling and walls of the foyer and lobby, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere, which is enhanced by the (western-style) wood-burning stove by the entrance.
A set of stairs leads up from the lobby to a loft, which serves as a guest lounge, complete with complimentary coffee and tea, as well as sake and whisky after 7PM.
There is a bathhouse, with two indoor baths and two outdoor baths, or rotenburo, that offer magnificent views of the surrounding mountains.
The hotel is home to a variety of famous designer chairs, from the Egg Chair by Arne Jacobsen and the Three-legged Shell Chair by Hans J. Wegner to the Butterfly Stool by Sori Yanagi, which are scattered throughout the premises and in the guest rooms.
The meals served at Satoyama Jujo feature local ingredients, such as organically grown rice (Niigata, and nearby Uonuma in particular, is famous for its rice) cooked with local spring water and dishes typical of the region, such as a vegetable hotpot which uses home-made miso.
The hotel aims to promote organic wines, particularly from the Niigata area, and while there is a line-up of imported wines as well, unfortunately, the wines are not as satisfying as the food. Guests are welcome to bring their own bottle for a corkage fee.
A key attraction of Satoyama Jujo is that it is just a short ride on the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa (1 hour 20 minutes) and a two-stop ride from there on the local Joestu line to Osawa, where you can either reserve a taxi or hop on the complimentary transport service (provided just once a day) for the 10-minute ride to the hotel.
In a months-long search for a ryokan that offered a yukimi-onsen, or hot spring bath from which to gaze on a snow-covered landscape, I failed to find any other place as inviting as Satoyama Jujo that didn’t involve a major journey by train and bus or a daunting drive up snow-covered mountain roads.
In the warmer months, there are a number of easy walks from which it is possible to survey the typically Japanese rural landscape that surrounds the hotel.
From mid-April to early May, colonies of several hundred thousand katakuri flowers (fawn lilies) carpet the surrounding woodlands.
We took the Joestu Shinkansen to Urasa (one stop after Echigo Yuzawa) and visited Saifuku-ji temple, a Soto Zen Buddhist temple.
Saifuku-ji temple boasts a spectacular prayer hall, or Kaisando, which is covered in wood carvings by Uncho Ishikawa. Known as the “Michaelangelo of the Orient,” Uncho left no nook or cranny unadorned and his intricate carvings create a riot of activity that might even be described as kitsch.
From Urasa (浦佐) station on the Joetsu line take a taxi (about 10 minutes). Urasa is 7 stops from Echigo Yuzawa but there are only a few trains on this line (about one every hour). Some Joestu Shinkansen trains stop at Urasa after Echigo Yuzawa so if you are going directly from Tokyo it is easier to take one of the shinkansen trains that stop at Urasa.
Open everyday from 9:00 to 16:00 with irregular closings. The ticket office closes at 15:40. Check the website for exact schedule.
Housed in a huge thatched roof house that has been around since the third year of Meiji (1870), Keyakien serves seasonal country-style cooking in authentic surroundings.
The afternoon we visited for lunch, we were served a massive meal consisting mainly of vegetable dishes, many of them grown right there on the grounds of the house and unfamiliar to me. I had never heard of urui (Hosta Monatana) for example, a mountain vegetable which looks somewhat like leek but without the pungent aroma, or touna, a sweet green winter vegetable, which is also known as sugina (field horsetail).
There were also a number of small dishes featuring tofu in various forms.
My favourite was a lotus root manjyu (cake) containing lily root, gingko nuts and shrimp and accompanied by fried fuki-no-tou (butterbur). The lotus root cake was soft and fluffy but spiced up with a pinch of shoga (ginger).
The iwana (char), which was grilled in an irori (sunken hearth) had just the right amount of salt sprinkled on the skin to make it crisp on the outside but light and fluffy inside.
Warning – Dining at Keyakien may require sitting at a low table on a tatami mat floor.
Operated by Hakkai Shuzo, which makes the famous Hakkaisan sake (八海山), this visitor center includes eateries, such as a soba restaurant housed in a traditional Japanese minka, a garden where regional flowers and vegetables are grown and sake distilleries.
There is a natural refrigerator, Hakkaisan Yukimuro (八海山雪室) where sake is stored in a room cooled by snow.