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.