Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture 糸魚川
Itoigawa is a small city in the far west of Niigata Prefecture, known for its geological heritage, where the Northern Japan Alps meet the Sea of Japan.
The area around Itoigawa is located on a huge geological feature known as the Fossa Magna ("Great Ditch" in Latin). This is a fault line between the Eurasian and North American continental plates that stretches south from the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean in Shizuoka and divides Japan into East and West geological sections.
The rocks in the Fossa Magna are younger than those in the rest of the Japanese archipelago and consist of a coral sea that was thrust upward millions of years ago during a period of violent volcanic activity.
In recognition of the area's geological wonders, Itoigawa became the first member of the Japanese Geoparks Network and is also a part of the Global Geoparks Network.
KiHa 52 diesel train at Itoigawa Geostation Geopal, Itoigawa Station, Niigata Prefecture
Itoigawa's attractions begin right at Itoigawa Station with the Itoigawa Geostation Geopal (Tel: 025 555 7344), a free train museum which has an original KiHa 52 diesel train on display.
These iconic diesel trains operated on the Oito Line in Hokuriku until 2010. Subsequently a number of these trains have been sold to Myanmar and The Philippines. As well as the KiHa 52 there are some interesting model railways which operate on a diorama that represents a part of the characteristic, mountainous terrain of Itoigawa. You can bring your own model train along and operate it on the diorama for a small fee.
The brick facade of the old train garage has been preserved and is displayed outside Itoigawa Station.
Takaname-no-ike Pond, Niigata
The 1,188 meter-tall Mt. Myojo, was formed from ancient coral reefs and contains a number of marine fossils. The 450 meter limestone rock face is popular with rock climbers from Japan and overseas.
The nearby Takanami-no-ike Pond has views of Mt. Myojo and legend has it that the mountain lake, at an altitude of 540 meters, is inhabited by a huge four meter fish called "Namitaro".
The area as a whole rises from sea level along the coast up to 2,766 meters at the top of Mount Korenge. Renge Onsen, at an elevation of 1,475 meters, has a number of outside baths set in a natural mountain environment with fantastic views of the surrounding peaks. Here hot water bubbles to the surface of the mountain accompanied by billowing clouds of steam.
Itoigawa is also known for its jade which has become a symbol of this area of Japan. The Kotakigawa Gorge at the foot of Mt. Myojo is home to considerable deposits of this precious stone. Other materials that have been extracted from the mineral-rich area include coal at the Kotaki Coal Mine and gold at Hashidate Goldmine.
Itoigawa Onsen at the Hotel Kunitomi Annex, Niigata Prefecture
Hisui-en Garden, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture
Jade is also a theme in the beautiful Hisui-en Garden, where jadeite rocks have been used throughout this modern Japanese garden, which also uses the surrounding mountains for "borrowed scenery."
Hisui-en which opened in 1978, covers an area of 17 hectares (42 acres) with three waterfalls, a pine grove, a pond, and a large number of stones and boulders containing jade including a 70-ton boulder of raw cobalt jade. Visitors can relax and enjoy a snack in the garden on a jade table, while taking in the views of the garden and surrounding mountains. There's an exhibition room with pieces of jade art sculptures on display. Open 9 am - 4 pm, closed Tuesday from December to March, but open on any Tuesday during this period that falls on a public holiday, in which case it is closed the next day. Be warned, however, that Hisui-en may close on days of bad weather. 500 yen for adults, or 800 yen for a combined ticket to see both Hisui-en and the nearby Tanigawa Art Museum and its adjoining Gyokusui-en Garden, about 3 minutes walk away.
Hisui-en Garden, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture
Gyokusui-en Garden which opened in 1981 is another beautiful strolling garden very nearby. An 8 meter statue of Kannon in natural stone stands at the entrance. Virtually next door is the Tanimura Art Museum which houses ten exquisite wooden Buddha images carved by the master Japanese sculptor, Seiko Sawada (1894-1988). The museum building, too, is notable for having been designed by a giant of Japanese architecture, Togo Murano (1891-1984). 9 am - 4 pm, closed Tuesday from December to March, but open on any Tuesday during this period that falls on a public holiday, in which case it is closed the next day. 500 yen for adults, or 800 yen for a combined ticket to see both the Tanigawa Art Museum and the nearby Hisui-en. The Museum is about 18 minutes walk south-east from Itoigawa Station.
Jade Art, Hisui-en Garden, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture
Visitors can also enjoy hunting jade on the beaches of the Omi Coast as the Himekawa and the Oumigawa rivers washes stones down from the mountains.
Other gorges in the Geopark popular with hikers include Umidani Gorge, known for its woods of beech trees and Himekawa Gorge reached on the Oito Line, which still uses diesel trains on part of the track.
Back in the Edo Period, Itoigawa was the start of the "Salt Road" that transported sea salt and marine products from the Japan Sea coast to Edo (present-day Tokyo). The salt was carried by porters and oxen and was often traded for rice and tobacco.
No visit to the Itoigawa area would be complete without sampling some of its delicious seafood, of which crab is the most prominent or trying some of the area's famous sake, produced by five local sake breweries.
Accommodation in Itoigawa
In Itoigawa itself try the three-star Hotel Route Inn Itoigawa. Pension Crew is a little to the east of town near Itoigawa General Hospital. Hotel Ebiya and Hotel Geopark are both close to Itoigawa Station.
Itoigawa Station, Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture
Access - Getting to Itoigawa
With the opening of the Hokuriku Shinkansen in March 2015, the natural wonders of Itoigawa are now just over two hours from Tokyo Station in Tokyo by the Hakutaka express train.
From Tokyo to Niigata on the Joetsu shinkansen bullet train is 2 hours or 2 hours and 5 minutes. From Niigata Station take the Shirayuki Limited Express to Naoetsu (1 hour, 42 minutes) and change to the ETR Nihonkai Hisui Line for Itoigawa (42 minutes).
The scenic, 105km-long Oito Line runs from Itoigawa to Matsumoto.
By car exit the Hokuriku expressway at Itoigawa I.C. or follow the coast road national Highway 8.
Guide Books on Japan
Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture known for its geological heritage and plentiful jade, where the Northern Japan Alps meet the Sea of Japan.