Sunday, November 25, 2007


The Sumiyoshi Shrine sits atop Hiyoriyama in downtown Niigata City. Hiyoriyama is the highest natural point in the area and, until Japanese adopted western building styles, gave an unobstructed view of the mouth of the nearby Shinano River as well as its roadstead. Hiyoriyama was formerly the site of a military lookout, and the earliest surviving depiction of the knoll shows two guards, one of them surveying the view seawards through a telescope. Drawn in 1831, the picture also shows the pine tree that appears in the second photo. That the pine is the same I have on the unimpeachable authority of the caretaker of Sumiyoshi Shrine, an expert on local history whose fascinating site, replete with photos, maps, original woodcuts, and other items, may be viewed at

Friday, November 23, 2007

Izumozaki: Basho and Ryokan

O'er wild ocean spray,
All the way to Sado Isle
Spreads the Milky Way

Thus reads Dorothy Britton's translation of the haiku Basho wrote from Izumozaki.

During much of August,1689, Basho and traveling companion Sora followed the Sea of Japan coast through Echigo Province, as Niigata was then known, at that point two-thirds of the way through the walking tour that would become known as the Narrow Road to the Interior. Niigata was hot and inhospitable, and as they hurried along the two had little time for poetry. Niigata City, Yahiko, Izumozaki- 70k in 3 days. According to Sora's journal, the two spent the night in Izumozaki at the Ozaki Inn, located across the street from the present-day Basho Memorial Park (see two photos at top). The inn is long since gone, but a white marker on the current occupant of the site indicates the Ozaki's former location and offers information about Basho's visit.
Celebrated calligraphist, poet, and Zen priest Ryokan-sama was born in Izumozaki and spent much of his life in the area. The third and fourth photos commemorate the town's most famous native son.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Sasagawa Yukichi's Picture Postcards

By trade, Mr. Sasagawa Yukichi was a maker of mochi, the glutinous Japanese rice cake eaten at festivals. The Sasagawa shop still exists in downtown Niigata City, as shown in the accompanying photos. My mother-in-law will purchase mochi and related items, such as sasadango, the local mochi delicacy wrapped in bamboo leaves and made with yomogi, or mugwort (whence the mochi derives its green hue), from no other vendor. What few probably know, however, is that Mr. Sasagawa was an avid collector of picture postcards. Indeed, before he died in 1998 he donated more than 26,000 postcards, representing a lifetime of collecting, to the Niigata Prefectural Museum, located in Nagaoka. Some of them may be viewed at the following link: If you are ever in the Furumachi district of Niigata City, ask for the Sasagawa Mochi Shop. While there, observe the collection of curiosities in the shop window. And don't forget the sasadango.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Watanabe House

The Watanabe House, located in Sekikawa Village, is a splendid example of an Edo period samurai dwelling, or yashiki. The Watanabe clan were retainers of the Murakami daimyos, whose powerful influence during the Tokugawa Shogunate was widespread throughout Niigata. The main tourist attraction in Sekikawa, the house and its outbuildings are in an excellent state of repair. A wing of the structure is inhabited by descendants of the former samurai warriors.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Zensaku Roadside Tea Shop

At first glance, the Zensaku Tea Shop appears as unremarkable as it is precariously situated. Located on Niigata's Prefectural Route 7- and practically in the northbound lane-, Zensaku's drab exterior and array of nondescript sundries within (some of them surely past their sell-by date) hardly invite further interest. But no visitor to the vicinity of Kamo City should miss the opportunity to patronize this nationally famous establishment. The Zensaku Tea Shop was opened over 130 years ago. The current proprietor is 80 years old and the fourth since the shop was established. Zensaku, whose name translates as "made with goodness", faces the Kamo River a few kilometers outside of Kamo City, a quaint town known locally as the "Kyoto of Niigata".

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Making Umeboshi

Ume is variously translated as "apricot" or "plum". The larger variety of ume is plum-sized but, unlike the latter fruit, not considered edible in its ripened state. Apricot- yellow when ripe, the ume is pickled, frequently with the deep purple leaves of the beefsteak plant (aojiso), to form the tasty but rather saline delicacy umeboshi, literally "dried plum". Umeboshi range in price from several dollars a pound to several times that amount. I typically garnish with umeboshi the serving of rice I take to work in my lunch box, and last year my wife and I decided that it would be economical as well as enjoyable to try pickling ume ourselves. The accompanying photos show the stages of umeboshi production: the soaking of the fruit; the removal of leaves and stems of the beefsteak plant from the stalk, followed by mashing of the same to a purplish pulp; the layering of ume and salt in an earthenware jar; and finally, the drying of the fruit and aojiso leaves several weeks later. Ume ripen in late June, and the pickling process requires 6-8 weeks. Our umeboshi should be ready at the end of August, about the time we are polishing off the remainder of last year's produce.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Niigata City's Grand Opening

In 1854, the administration of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Bakufu, signed the Treaty of Kanagawa with the United States, thereby ending 250 years of national isolation. Hakodate, on the northern island of Hokkaido, and the town of Shimoda, on the Izu peninsula, south of Tokyo, were opened to American vessels and consular establishments. In 1859, England, France, Holland, Russia, and the U.S. negotiated a commercial treaty with the Bakufu, one provision of which was the opening of the City of Niigata to trade with these countries. Niigata was selected because it was (and is) the largest port city on the country's Sea of Japan coast. According to the terms of the treaty, Niigata's "Grand Opening" was to be New year's Day, 1860. To prepare for this historic event, Niigata conducted surveys of the mouth of the Shinano River and of its roadstead to assess the readiness and suitability of Niigata as a port for large foreign vessels. In April of 1859, the Russian "Jigitt" and the Dutch "Bahli" anchored off Niigata to assist in the port's inspection. Later that year, in October, two English ships arrived as well. The delta formed by Japan's longest waterway, the Shinano River, as it entered the Sea of Japan at Niigata was clogged with silt and other debris, and the depth at the mouth was no greater than seven feet. This meant that foreign vessels were forced to anchor offshore and to rely on scows and other small vessels to transport their freight to the mainland. The result of the inspection that year was that considerable improvements would have to be completed before Niigata could hope to attract significant foreign trade. Recognizing this, the Tokugawa Shogunate designated the deep water port Ebisu, in Ryotsu on Sado Island, as a temporary treaty port. This was hardly convenient, however, as Sado is nearly 70 km. from the mainland.

The Emperor Was Here

n 1878 the Meiji Emperor toured his northern dominions, passing through Niigata and stopping for rest and repast at the residence pictured at right, as recorded by the monument below. Descendants of the Meiji occupants still inhabit the old family estate. The structure, impressive despite its dilapidation, is the only testament of the family's former glory.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Sharon Linn

On the night of July 19, 1945, the B-29 "Sharon Linn" was on a mine- laying mission over Niigata. It was hit by anti-aircraft fire near the city of Niitsu, and it crashed in a bend of the Agano River in an area named "Yakeyama". Six of the eleven crew members did not survive the crash. The five survivors spent the few remaining weeks of the war in a Niigata City POW Camp. Photos of the plane and her crew may be viewed at the following:

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Niigata's POW Camps

Two POW camps for Allied,Korean, and Chinese prisoners were in operation in Niigata City from 1943-45. They were known as Camps 15-B and 5-B. Mr. Gregory Hadley, instructor of English and American Cultural Studies at the Niigata Prefectural University, has conducted considerable research into this dark chapter of Niigata City's history. His excellent site can be accessed by searching for "Niigata POW Camp". Hadley makes inaccurate statements, however. He erroneously asserts that Allied prisoners of war represented Niigata City's first significant influx of foreigners. "Gaikokujin" began arriving in the early years of the Meiji Era(1868-1912), with Niigata's designation as a Treaty Port. Moreover, the POW camps were located at what was then the edge of town, and few civilians would have had contact with the prisoners, whereas the traders and missionaries who constituted the bulk of the early foreign visitors commingled with the local populace. The second inaccuracy concerns what Hadley says is a monument honoring the POWs. Located in a small park overlooking the mouth of the Shinano River, Japan's longest waterway, the monument, erected in 1998, is a peace memorial. The inscription opens with an enumeration of the vessels sunk by enemy mines laid in the river and roadstead and is followed by a kind of collective obituary honoring those who died. No mention of the POWs is made until the third paragraph,which tells of foreigners who died while being held in internment and prison camps in the city. Thus, the monument is less about the POWs than an affirmation of the city's commitment to peace. The photos show the location of POW Camp 15-B, now a row of apartment blocks in the Momoyama neighborhood of Yamanoshita. Contrary to Hadley's statement that the city did not officially recognize the existence of the camps until the mid-1990's, a history of Niigata, published in 1989 under city auspices, contains an aerial photo of Camp 15-B. The buildings that housed the prisoners are clearly marked, as is that used by the camp guards. 15-B is described as having held both Chinese and Korean nationals. Curiously, no mention is made of Allied POWs or of Camp 5-B. The peace memorial is shown in the topmost photo.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Ohata Young People's Center

The Ohata Young People's Center is housed in the building formerly occupied by the Ohata Elementary School. Declining enrollment forced the school to close nearly 20 years ago, and its remaining students were moved to nearby Niigata Elementary School, less than a quarter- mile away. You might wonder why, for the better part of a century, the city should have needed to maintain two primary schools in such proximity. The following explanation is based on what I have gleaned from local residents. The two schools are located in what was formerly referred to as the "Beverly Hills" of Niigata City. The official residence of the prefectural governor is across the street from Niigata Elementary School, and those of his lieutenant and of the city's mayor were, until fairly recently, but a short distance away. Influential private citizens made their homes in the neighborhood as well, and these were joined by a small expatriate community. Niigata's entertainment quarter was (and is) nearby, and geisha were a common sight in the neighborhood. So, too, were their "illegitimate" children, who were nevertheless legally required and entitled to six years of primary school education. Our pillars of the community, who sent their offspring to Niigata Elementary School, objected to this morally contaminating influence- and were perhaps apprehensive lest certain of the urchins be mistaken for their own. Suffice it to say that these influential citizens succeeded in persuading the Board of Education to establish a school for the exclusive use of the geishas' children, and that the Ohata Elementary School continued to operate long after the kimono was replaced by the mini-skirt.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Heaven and Hell Lane

The topmost photo shows the narrow street known locally as "Heaven and Hell Lane" in Niigata City. Whence this curious appellation? Let us begin with the culinary paradise that is Ikinaritei, one of whose exterior walls is visible at left. The restaurant dates to the Edo era, and the lovely wooden structures housing its several dining rooms, as well as their sylvan setting, have been designated a National Treasure by the central government. Though first-time patrons no longer must present letters of introduction from prominent citizens before being allowed through the gates of Ikinaritei's holy precincts, they must still take fistfuls of yen with them, for with lunch a relative bargain at ¥7,000, a full-course Japanese dinner starts at ¥33,000- $350 at the current exchange. This, then, is the "Heaven" to which only the "elect" were formerly admitted. On the opposite, or "Hell", side of the street, was the City Prison. All that remains of the former house of incarceration, which was moved to a new location on the outskirts of town about 20 years ago, are a commemorative plaque or two and a section of the original brick wall, the latter visible in the middle ground of the topmost photo. The vicinity is sometimes referred to as the "Beverly Hills" of Niigata-consider therefore the curious juxtaposition of a detention facility and the homes of local worthies. The grounds of the former prison are now the lovely Nishi Ohata Park.

Monday, April 02, 2007

An Early Loan Shark

The Niigata City Branch of the Northern Culture Museum pays tribute to the contributions to local history made by the Ito family,whose exploits date to the Meiji Era. The Itos began as modest landlords in the late 19th century, but by the 1920's they owned 3300 acres, one of the largest feudal fiefdoms in all of Japan. This they accomplished by extending loans to impoverished peasants and seizing their land in the event of default. The dispossessed peasants became tenants on their former property. At one time as many as nine hundred farming families, comprising 60 small communities, worked lands controlled by the Itos. After Japan's defeat in WWII, the U.S. Occupation confiscated all such estates and embarked on an ambitious land redistribution scheme. The Ito mansion, located a few kilometers outside present-day Niigata City, became the Main Branch of the Northern Culture Museum, while the Itos vast landholdings were parceled out to small farmers in the area. The family would appear to be in general decline, for the direct male line ended a generation ago, the current Mr. Ito being an adoptee. There is a Master Ito, however, a little brat with whom my son has the misfortune to be an elementary school classmate.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Rice Cake Fair

Every year in March, the students of Niigata Elementary School and their parents participate in the Rice Cake Fair. Mochi, or rice cakes, are made from a special variety of rice. The rice is first boiled, and the cooked rice is then placed in a large wooden mortar, the usu. The rice is subsequently pounded with a massive wooden pestle, the kine. When the rice becomes a heavy, glutinous mass, it is ready to enjoy. The school provided bean jam and soybean flour as toppings, and the children and adults speedily devoured what had taken considerable time and effort to produce. Mochi is commercially prepared by machine, the traditional laborious method being used only at festivals. Rice cakes are eaten year round but figure prominently at New Year's, when they are both consumed and used as decorations. The kagami mochi is a traditional mochi decoration as well as offering to the gods, and it consists of two or three rice cakes placed one atop the other. Though our own benighted age permits all manner of regrettable lapses, traditional usage stipulated that kagami mochi be displayed beginning December 28th. This was due to superstitious beliefs regarding auspicious dates for display, the nearest to January 1st being the 28th of the preceding month. Needless to say, such practices have long since fallen into disuse in this decadent era. When they are not being employed for sacred purposes, kagami mochi of plastic construction may be put to uses sartorial. Rice cakes are sometimes offered by shrines as New Year's gifts to visitors, a custom discontinued at Niigata's Yahiko Shrine after a stampede claimed 124 lives on Jaunuary 1st, 1956.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

And The Winners Are...

Monday, March 12, is the date of the anouncement of public high school entrance exam results this year. It is now shortly before 3:00 in the afternoon, and the atmosphere in the teachers' room is tensely expectant as third grade homeroom teachers and the school administration await the fateful ringing of the phone. The high schools post exam results on large notice boards at the school entrance, and the students attempting to enter the school nervously scan the boards for their registration number, hoping they are numbered among the elect. The students are joined by a teacher from their middle school who relays the results to the school itself by phone. Even as I write, the phone rings bringing additional announcements. The students who pass the exam remain at the school for a packet containing information about the upcoming school year. Those who fail the test return to their middle school later in the afternoon to confer with their homeroom teacher regarding Plan B. The latter generally involves sitting the entrance exam the following day at one of the private high schools in the area. Students whose parents cannot afford the exorbitant tuition and fees of private schools may take the "second chance" exam, held March 26, at one of the less desirable public high schools, for at this late stage they are the only ones with vacancies remaining.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Junior High School Graduation Ceremony

There is a ceremony for nearly every occasion at Japanese public schools. The school year begins in early April with the entrance ceremony for incoming first-year students. Scheduled for the following day is the ceremony inaugurating the new school year. Not to discriminate, the first and last days of each term throughout the year are similarly granted their own special notice. Another ceremony, that welcoming new teachers to a school, is held at the beginning of the year and throughout the year when necessary. Niigata City ALTs change schools three times a year and are therefore welcomed at their second and third term placements in what is effectively a private ceremony. The farewell ceremony for teachers is held at the end of the school year. The public servant transfer system accounts for most departures. Under this system, public school teachers are sent to two schools during their first six years, often in isolated or rural areas. If the teacher survives six years in the sticks, he is rewarded with a seven year posting at a school administered by the city in which he hopes to reside. Every seven years thereafter the teacher is transferred to a different school. Finally, Japanese schools celebrate the major anniversaries of their founding, with commemorative aerial photos taken of the students arrayed on the playground in the form of the school logo. These ceremonies are observed with varying degrees of pomp and circumstance. The super heavyweight event of them all, that boasting the greatest endowment of the two aforementioned qualities, is the Graduation Ceremony. The ceremony is formally opened with an official declaration, followed by the singing of the controversial national anthem, the Kimigayo, as well as the school's own song. The graduating students are then called to the stage by homeroom class to receive their diplomas from the principal. Speeches exhorting the graduates to perseverance and excellence are made by the principal and PTA president, the addresses often including references to Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, successful Japanese baseballers in the U.S. Major Leagues. The speeches are followed by choral performances by the entire student body. The accompanying photos show the school entrance and gymnasium decorated for graduation on March 7.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Standoff at Kisaki, Round II

The harassed tenants who persisted in defying the government and its local representative, education superintendent Majima Keijiro, removed their children from public schools. They subsequently established their own schools, further rousing the ire of the authorities. The latter employed forceful measures to counter the tenants, and many activists were detained by the constabulary. Contemporaneously, the national tenants' union underwent a period of debilitating internal dissension, further isolating the tenant farmers in Kisaki. After a protracted eight year struggle, the tenants were finally defeated in 1930. By this time, the only school remaining for tenants' children was a post-elementary institution, the others having been closed years before. The photos show the public elementary and middle schools in Kisaki.
Note: Historian Mikiso Hane's Peasants, Rebels, & Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan is the source of the preceding information, which I have loosely paraphrased.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Standoff at Kisaki

Kisaki, a small community in Toyosaka City, lies twenty kilometers east of central Niigata. Some eighty years ago it was the scene of a bitter and protracted feud between tenant farmers, landlords, and a particularly intransigent superintendent of local schools, Majima Keijiro.
Having formed a union in the early 1920s, the local tenant farmers sought to negotiate a 20% reduction in their rents. To this demand the landlords acceded, but they were overruled by the head of their association, one Majima Keijiro. The tenants responded by refusing to pay any tax at all, whereupon Majima received a court order prohibiting the tenants from working their land. Taking personal responsibility for the failure of the tenants' cause, the union leader committed suicide, and nearly half of the farmers capitulated. Mr. Majima wasn't satisfied, however, for he then demanded that the recalcitrants be evicted and made to pay all taxes they owed.
The bailiff dispatched to execute the court's order was nearly despatched himself, and clashes between police and farmers ensued, resulting in numerous arrests. Majima was superintendent of schools, in addition to being an influential landlord, and the tenants retaliated by removing their children, some 600 all told, from public schools. They then established separate schools to educate their children, the first time such a development had occured in Japan.