Naoya Terakubo speaks in front of the cafe he opened near Zenkoji temple in Nagano.
Shinkoji is the name of a back street near the ancient Zenkoji temple in the city of Nagano. As you walk along it, a large roof distinguished by its vast overhanging eaves comes into view. Six months ago, the 44-year-old three-story building under this roof was “relaunched” as office space, apartments and a cafe. Naoya Terakubo, 49, worked on the renovations together with planning and design experts.
Terakubo, who founded a real estate company in his native Nagano Prefecture five years ago, aims to support the revitalization of the town.
In the autumn of 2012, he heard that the offices and other tenants in four buildings on either side of the Shinkoji street were moving out and the buildings were to be put up for sale. “I thought it should be possible to restore the buildings under private leadership without support from the prefectural or municipal governments,” Terakubo said. He purchased the buildings the following summer and started a project with his colleagues to brainstorm how best to put the buildings to use.
Restoring old things brings out their character. A former company cafeteria was reborn as a total of seven apartment rooms. The cafeteria kitchen was turned into a communal kitchen, and the rooms were each fitted with wooden doors from a neighborhood clinic that were no longer needed. When Terakubo began soliciting tenants in March 2014, he received one inquiry after another.
The cafe, featuring an inviting wood deck, was opened in April. The communal "share office" has no partitions. “I want to create a place where entrepreneurs can have casual discussions,” Terakubo said.
Public viewing events for the soccer World Cup in Brazil were held in the hall next to the cafe in June, and many supporters cheered for the national team. In August, a former warehouse was renovated and reopened as an arts and crafts building that can be used for creative activities and exhibitions.
The light of local life that had been fading from the street is being rekindled. “I believe we can create a new culture if residents [of the street] and tourists can interact here,” Terakubo said.
Iiyama Station as seen from a Yomiuri helicopter
“Since I like making washi Japanese paper, Iiyama appeals to me as a place I might move to,” said a woman in her 50s from Saitama city. “It has become like home to me.”
Iiyama is located in northern Nagano Prefecture, an area famous for heavy snowfall. Production of washi paper known as “Uchiyagami” has flourished as a winter side job since about 350 years ago.
The Saitama washi enthusiast is the type of person Iiyama would like to attract to live in the city. In 2006, the Iiyama municipal government established the “Why Not Live in Iiyama” Section, which will be renamed the Immigrant and Settlement Promotion Section in April. It promotes cultural exchange and migration to the area by offering one- or two-night countryside life experiences, as well as long-stay programs over two weeks to six months.
As a result, 111 households -- or 333 people in total -- have migrated mainly from Tokyo and Osaka. With the opening of a new Shinkansen station, the section anticipates an increase in the number of people who live in Tokyo on weekdays, but stay in Iiyama on weekends.
The Saitama woman has participated in Iiyama’s farming programs, weeding ridges on rice fields and harvesting crops. Last year, she and her husband, a businessman, exerted themselves in the fields once a month to bring home fresh vegetables like asparagus and sweet potatoes.
“When the Shinkansen station opens, going back and forth from the Tokyo area will become easier,” she said. “If I can find a house in Iiyama, I’d like to move here and enjoy making washi.”
The municipal government also promotes long-term tourism, such as forest therapy taking advantage of the area’s nature and heavy snowfall, as well as health tourism that includes health checks. It also focuses on eco-tourism, which features trekking and skiing.
At the new station, an information center provides information on highland outdoor activities and offers skis and bikes for rent. To improve convenient access for those who arrive at the station, further transportation services will be offered to connect the station with nearby sightseeing spots, including bus service to the Shiga and Madarao highlands in the prefecture, and to the Myoko Highlands in Niigata Prefecture.
Lerch Association members skiing with one pole in front of the Lerch statue.
Maj. Theodor Edler von Lerch (1869-1945), a soldier of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, introduced skiing to Japan. An event honoring Lerch has been held every year on Jan. 12 on Mt. Kanaya in the Onuki area of Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture.
The gathering is held in the city on the anniversary of the day in 1911 when Lerch first taught skiing to Imperial Japanese Army soliders.
In front of the statue of Lerch on Mt. Kanaya, members of the Lerch Association demonstrated skiing with a single bamboo pole. The men wore coats and hats, while the women wore kimono and hakama pants on skis. They used a two-meter long bamboo pole instead of the pair of poles usually seen today. The society strives to educate people about Lerch.
“We want visitors who arrive by the Hokuriku Shinkansen to know about the birthplace of skiing in Japan, and we want to spread the culture of skiing,” a spokesman for the association said.
Itoigawa Station is the Shinkansen station nearest to the Sea of Japan.
In Japanese, “Itoigawa” sounds like the name of a river. But ironically, there is no such river in the city of Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, on the Sea of Japan.
There are a number of theories about the origin of Itoigawa's name. The most common one says that itoyo, three-spined stickleback fish, were numerous in the city's rivers. Another theory says that the city's Himekawa and Umikawa rivers often overflowed, making it difficult for residents and travelers to cross. This gave rise to the term “Itohigawa,” which means “abhorred river.” Another theory says that it originated from “Idomigawa” meaning “river of challenge” because battles were fought with two sides facing each other across the river.
The city of Itoigawa, on the Fossa Magna rift that geologically divides Japan between east and west, boasts the Mt. Yakeyama active volcano and many other geological resources. In 2009, Itoigawa was designated as Japan’s first Global Geopark.
Itoigawa is also a producer of jade. The jade trade flourished since ancient times. Around the Kamakura and Muromachi periods, Itoigawa was an important transportation point with the Kaga Kaido road connecting eastern and western Japan along the Sea of Japan and the Matsumoto Kaido road, also known as the Salt Road, going to the Shinano area (current day Nagano Prefecture). Kitamaebune boats sailing along the Sea of Japan also called at Itoigawa.
“Most of the comma-shaped magatama jewels and other jade pieces from the Jomon, Yayoi, and Kofun periods came from Itoigawa,” a curator at the Fossa Magna Museum explained. Ancient people found the jade along rivers and beaches and shaped them. The jade pieces were highly valued even on the Korean Peninsula.
The Kotakigawa Hisuikyo gorge in Itoigawa was designated as a natural monument by the Niigata prefectural government in 1954 and by the central government in 1956.
With the start of Hokuriku Shinkansen service, Itoigawa is set to again play an important transportation role, and the locals are hoping to attract more tourists to the Global Geopark.
Izumi Sakai, center, talks about the Kurobe River during his tour.
Every morning, Izumi Sakai goes for a walk. As president of Green Hotel Kisen in Unazuki Onsen, a hot spring resort in the mountainous area of Kurobe, Toyama Prefecture, Sakai offers a walking tour for guests.
When a bus carrying his guests up the Kurobe River emerged from a tunnel, the emerald green surface of the lake created by Unazuki Dam unfolded before their eyes. “The green leaves are so beautiful!” guests said as they took pictures one after another.
Sakai, 52, a native of the area, smiled as he told his guests about Unazuki Onsen’s history and nature. He took them to the shore of Unazuki Dam’s lake, where visitors enjoyed the sharp contrast between lingering snow and fresh green leaves. The tour also included the suspension bridge over the Yatazo-dani, a tributary of the Kurobe River, and the tunnel through which the dam’s workers walk during winter.
After walking around the dam, the group visited the Old Yamabiko Bridge near Unazuki Station, the starting point of the Kurobe Gorge Railway. Sakai described the bridge as the spot from which the railway’s trains look “the most beautiful” as they cross the bright-red New Yamabiko Bridge.
Sakai’s guests waved at the day’s first train as it rolled over the bridge, getting a friendly response from the construction workers on board. “They began to wave back to us as I hosted more and more tours,” Sakai said.
When the hourlong tour ended, the satisfied guests headed for breakfast. “Kurobe Gorge’s great nature and the history of electric power development [harnessing the Kurobe River] can only be found in Unazuki,” Sakai said. “I hope that we can boost our ‘tram plus one’ value by telling sightseers about our favorite local spots and stories about Unazuki.”
Nobuo Yamashita, the person behind the Toyamawan-zushi project
Firefly squid in spring. Nodoguro black-throated sea perch in summer. And buri yellowtail in winter.
“Toyamawan-zushi” is a brand identifying a set of sushi made only with seafood from Toyama Prefecture’s Toyama Bay. It is the brainchild of Nobuo Yamashita, 69, owner-chef at Sushi Masa in the prefectural capital.
“Fish from Toyama Bay is very succulent,” the chef said proudly. “It tastes different from that from other places.”
In 2011, Yamashita came up with a plan for Toyoma Prefecture sushi restaurants to offer special menus, under a common brand name, using only seafood from Toyama Bay. He set the price at around ¥3,000 for 10 pieces, based on his conversations with customers over the counter. Many told him they feel hesitant to enter sushi restaurants that look expensive.
At first, many members of an association of local sushi restaurants were not confident about the project, and only about 30 eateries took part when it was launched in November that year. Yamashita himself felt concerned in the beginning, thinking, “If we allow ourselves to use seafood only from Toyama Bay, we’ll have some times when tuna or salmon roe is not available.”
Whenever he got orders for Toyamawan-zushi, Yamashita tried to give his customers as much information as possible about the sushi toppings. He also visited many events outside the prefecture to promote the project. As the association and the prefectural government worked hard together, the project gradually became known through word of mouth. The brand has often been featured in newspapers and on TV.
The number of restaurants taking part in the Toyamawan-zushi project has more than doubled. At Yamashita’s restaurant, the menu has become so popular that he gets orders almost every day. It is now common for Yamashita to welcome foreign visitors and young female customers who travel alone all the way from the Tokyo metropolitan area to visit his eatery.
Now ink stamps featuring images of Toyamawan-zushi fly off the shelves, and New Year’s greeting cards with these images have been created. Plastic replicas of the sushi can be found at Toyama Station and Toyama Airport, showing that the menu has now become a major attraction for local tourism.
When Yamashita traveled from Toyama to Tokyo for the first time, it took as long as 10 hours. The time will be shortened to just over two hours when the Hokuriku Shinkansen reaches his hometown.
“I hope many more people come here to enjoy our Toyamawan-zushi,” Yamashita said.
Yutaka Ota has composed a melody to be played at the time of train departures from Shin-Takaoka Station in Toyama Prefecture by featuring the sounds of locally made copper orin Buddhist singing bowls. To give a deeper sonority to the 15-second melody, the 39-year-old musician used a polyrhythm by playing quadruple and six beats at the same time, thus creating a distinctive melody that expresses the speed of the bullet train.
The melody is based on “Toppiki,” a piece usually played on the shakuhachi bamboo flute that has been passed down since the Edo period (1603-1868) at the Kokutaiji temple in the city, but it was recorded using orin, a local specialty in a city known for its cooper products. In addition to the orin’s high-pitched metallic sounds, the melody features deep bass created by a string quartet and gakudaiko, drums used for gagaku court music. The composition is described as “a sound suitable for a station that is heir to local history and culture.”
“I’m so happy that a soundscape that symbolizes our city has been selected and will welcome visitors to Takaoka,” Ota said.
“Toppiki,” little known even to locals, features upbeat and light tones that are said to have originated from the festive musical sound “toppikipii.” In contrast, the orin’s sounds reverberate longer as their players add multilayered strokes. Therefore, orin sounds are hard to modify once recorded. Ota described orin as “difficult instruments to handle.”
A professional gagaku musician, Ota not only plays yokobue flute and biwa lute, but also sings traditional songs and performs sanomai dance. After graduating from Takaoka High School, Ota moved to Tokyo and joined a band as a jazz saxophonist. At one point, he was fascinated by Western music, taking part in rock festivals.
When Ota visited Europe for a tour, he played yokobue briefly as a sign to start playing, which sparked strong applause from the audience. “I found that the Japanese flute has great power,” Ota said.
The incident led Ota to practice the flute more seriously. He enrolled in Tokyo University of the Arts’ Traditional Japanese Music Department when he was 23. He has developed his own unique style, saying, “I have experience with both Western and Japanese music, which has made it possible for me to discover something between the two worlds.”
Ota and members of his group, which promotes local traditional sounds, have set their next goal as “orin for the Olympics,” aiming to perform the instrument for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
"Things can be gradually realized as long as someone gives me just a little piece of inspiration," Ota said.
Yokokawa, far left, poses with foreign guests who tried calligraphy.)
Pongyi is a small guesthouse near Kanazawa Station. Accommodating about 10 people, Pongyi reverberates with the laughter of the staff and foreign guests trying Japanese calligraphy for the first time.
Whenever guests show their calligraphy, a mood of friendly admiration can be felt in the Japanese-style room. The guests’ faces show satisfaction, and not just because they are experiencing Japanese culture. A 25-year old tourist from Singapore remarked: “The staff is friendly and very warmhearted. They are like family and it’s very comforting.” The guests are evenly divided between foreigners and Japanese, showing how popular the guesthouse is.
Manager Masaki Yokokawa, 52, says he extends “antennas” throughout the house to sense what the guests want and where they want it.
What they want can be diverse. It could be tourist information, relaxing together, talking about life, or just getting some rest. To catch all this, Yokokawa and the staff need to be sensitive.
Pongyi organizes many hands-on activities for guests such as calligraphy, folding origami cranes, nabe pot dish parties, and nagashi-somen – noodles served in flowing water. “Pressing our own ideas is just egotistical,” says Yokokawa. Just because a guest chooses to stay at a guest house does not mean they want to socialize.
Pongyi staff members also advise incoming guests who arrive in Kanazawa in the early morning where to spend time when they make a reservation by phone. They also offer practical information such as where to rent rain boots if rain is forecast.
Along with famous ryokan inns and luxury hotels, Pongyi was ranked 12th in 2013 as the most popular accommodation among foreigners in Japan surveyed by one of the world's largest travel review websites. “I’m happy that the heartfelt connections we value are also recognized internationally,” says Yokokawa. Pongyi’s Facebook page is full of smiling guests.