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Things to do in MINAKAMI

A few weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to visit Minakami in Gunma Prefecture for the first time: a mountainous town located in northern Gunma, bordered by Niigata Prefecture to the north. Due to its location the region is known for its hot springs and adventure sports like snowboarding. I’ve always been more of a big city type of girl so I was excited to have the opportunity to see the other side of Japan. A side of Japan that is surrounded by natural scenery made up of mountains. This has been one of the coolest experiences I have had ever since I started living in Japan.

Departing from Tokyo Station, the journey to Echigo-Yuzawa Station, located in Yuzawa Town Niigata Prefecture -which is a neighboring city of Minakami- takes around 70 minutes by shinkansen (bullet train), and that immediately caught my interest: knowing that I can completely change the scenery, weather and things to do without going too far from the Capital. From there, To Minakami area we went by car and it took around 35 minutes. I know you can also go by shinkansen and get out at Jomo Kogen Station and from there transfer to a bus for Minakami Station or if you prefer you can take a local train but honestly, the distance and the price is not worth it. This city, Minakami, is known for being part of the Snow Country and has this name because it is a place that snows a lot. It is also an initiative to encourage more tourists to get to know another part of Japan full of natural scenery and adventures. Other cities belonging to the Snow Country are: Uonuma, Minami Uonuma, Tsunan, Tokamachi, Sakae and Yuzawa.

On the way, looking out the bullet train window the first thing I noticed was the change of scenery: the big city illuminated by tall buildings was soon replaced by a natural landscape with lots of greenery, trees and cherry blossoms that began to bloom. I felt refreshed!

The experience starts right inside the station, where I could see some tents selling typical Japanese food, which reminded me of the street food that is usually sold in matsuris. One of the reasons why Niigata Prefecture is known is for its high-quality rice, so at Ponshukan Sake Museum (located inside of Echigo Yuzawa Station) you will find more than 100 different sake options. There, you can get five full shots of sake for 500 yen. You can also personalize your drink by putting salt, drinking hot or cold etc… At the Ponshukan, there are some facilities where you can find a hot sake-infused bath with mineral properties that can make your skin softer, help ease blood circulation and you get the opportunity to relax in an alcohol pool!!!

As soon as I left the station I was greeted by the low temperature typical of Niigata and Gunma Prefecture. It was late March and on my way to my destination, I was able to observe the area surrounded by snow-spattered mountains. It was almost impossible to take my eyes off the landscape that was in front of me. It was honestly breathtaking!

We started our itinerary at Houshi Onsen Chojukan in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture. It was my first time visiting an onsen (hot spring) and the first impression I got was from being in a Japanese drama. As soon as we arrived, we were treated with such hospitality and generosity until the end of our stay. Established in 1875, the 140-year-old cultural property is the perfect accommodation to have the Japanese local experience.

The place has 33 rooms and also different hot springs options and one of the differentials of this accommodation is that it is one of the few that offers mixed gender baths. Near its entrance, the Chojukan has a souvenir shop where you can find typical snacks, beverages among other things, which I found pretty convenient. On the day of my visit, it was raining and there was some snow left, which, in my opinion,  just added more charm to the place. But, I would definitely like to go back during the fall where I would get to see the leaves all around the area.

Despite being a perfect place to relax, I believe that for those interested in Literature like me, they may find this place a little more attractive, and the reason is that “Yasunari Kawabata”, the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature for the book “Snow Country”  (雪国, Yukiguni) once visited Houshi Onsen Chojukan. Another curiosity is that the story takes place in Yuzawa, a neighboring town of Minakami. So, whether you are looking for a good place to relax or learn more about Japanese culture, I highly recommend Onsen Chojukan.

Heading to our next destination, we stopped at the Canyons and met with “Mike Harris”, the person responsible for creating experiences for those who are ready to risk it all and do outdoor activities and have some adrenaline.

Before my trip to Yuzawa and Minakami, I always thought about the area being more focused only on activities to be done during winter (and yes, you will surely find magnificent places to do so such as skiing and snowboarding, where you can also find a group and private lessons) and the kind of place you go to experience a more traditional Japan.

However, at the Canyons, I met another side of the country that I had no idea that existed: an environment where you can have a unique and challenging outdoor experience doing some extreme sports and at the end of the day you can connect with the other guests at the Canyons Alpine Lodge: their own base location where you can sleepover, enjoy the beautiful view on the wood deck, have some BBQ and have fun at the regular music events while socializing with lots of people from different parts of the world.

Or if you prefer to stay in another type of accommodation, you can find a few nearby: ranging from something more traditional, continental cuisine, the campground sits or somewhere calmer, it all depends on your preference!

With the most friendly team of staff, they focus mainly on giving rafting and canyoning tours and you can also choose what type of courses you want to do, so you can choose one which suits what you are looking for, whether you are a novice or professional. On their website, you can also find more information about their activities such as level, accessibility, location and highlights. However, if you are down for more you can personalize your itinerary and include activities such as mountain biking, paragliding, lake canoe and more!

So, if you decide to come to Minakami looking for adventures,be ready to get your adrenaline pumped and to get a little out of the obvious. You won’t regret going to check out the Canyons!

For our next stop, we decided to try the local cuisine and went to a typical Japanese restaurant not far from the Canyons. It was a small but very cozy and cute place, as soon as we entered we were greeted by the staff with the traditional Irashaimase, which means welcome in Japanese. Minakami is a very touristic spot that is used to receiving foreign tourists so even if you are not familiar with the language you will find English menus in restaurants. We decided to go for a big cold soba dish to share. It was my first time trying and I can say I enjoyed it. It was delicious!

If the reason for your trip to Snow Country is only with the purpose of skiing and extreme sports, you are missing the opportunity to experience the many cultural activities that this place has to offer. After we enjoyed our soba we headed to a mountain village called Takumi No Sato.It was one of the most charming places I have ever been to.

A spot was full of cultural workshops where you can learn how to make noodles, strawberry sweets, pottery, bamboo and straw work, Japanese crafts and so on! Or you can just watch them being made by first hand. Since the environment is chill and peaceful it makes a great place to take a break after a big day of adventures.

During our visit, the shop owners were really kind with us, they were always trying to help and communicate even with the language barrier problem. We also had no problems with taking pictures inside the shops but I would recommend asking them before you do, just in case.

One of the reasons why this became one of my favorite places during the trip was due to its historic background linked to the Edo Period, Takumi No Sato was part of Mikuni Kaido, an important highway that once connected Niigata to Gunma Prefecture. I remember during Japanese History class back in my high school days, my teacher lessons about this period so I started to see things a little differently when I discovered the importance of the place in the history of Japan and felt good knowing that I had such an opportunity to see the spot with my own eyes.

Talking about seeking adrenaline and unforgettable experiences, Mount Tanigawa is definitely a must-go if you’re planning to snowboard. What makes this place more than just your average ski resort is the fact Mount Tanigawa is considered the most deadly mountain in Japan. More than 800 people have died there, which is four times more than the number of people that have died on Mount Everest! Compared to other famous mountains, Mount Tanigawa is not that high (measuring 1,977 meters at its highest point) But what makes it so dangerous is its location: on the border between Niigata and Gunma, it sits right where the weather systems from the Asian Continent and the Pacific meet, causing extreme and unexpectable weather patterns. So, even if you are a very skilled climber I would recommend you plan carefully and be sure you’re properly equipped.  

Or if you have no interest in dying on a mountain and prefer something more chill you can go for the Tanigawadake Ropeway. You can reach there by train through Jomo-Kogen Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen to Minakami and Doai Stations, buses from there connect you to the ropeway.

The line goes from Doai-guchi Station(746m) to Tenjindaira Station(1,319m) and climbs Mount Tanigawa. This crossing will give you the most beautiful panoramic views and depending on the season you will have different sceneries and experiences. It’s the perfect spot for getaways during the hot summer, or in the winter, when the landscape would be covered by snow or even the autumn to appreciate the pretty leaves in yellowish and orange tones.

Whenever you decide to visit Tanigawadake, you are going to have a good time and ensure good pics for the gram!!

In addition, located near to Tanigawa Mountain you can find Mt.Tanigawa Tenjindaira ski resort (also known as Tenjin) so you can also take the Tanigawadake Ropeway to get there. The resort is very small compared to others, it only has 9 courses for snowboarding and skiing and they are divided into elementary, intermediate, advanced and expert courses and 3 pairs of lifts. They provide a safe environment by controlling risk areas so as long as you follow the rules you will be able to enjoy your trip with safety.

Near the area, 10km from Tanigawadake Ropeway, you can find the most stunning resort you have ever seen: the Hot Spring Resort Matsunoi. This refined hotel surrounded by nature and greenery scenery is a great spot for sightseeing, recreation dining and relaxation.

The accommodation provides a game room, hot springs, karaoke, outdoor pool, hot tub, table tennis, spa, massage, bar and among other facilities. You can choose from 3 types of guest rooms, from western and Japanese style or even mixed with both, all with bath and toilet! Besides all the activities the resort offers, this huge place definitely got my attention because of its traditional Japanese architecture. I don’t think you will ever be bored in this sophisticated hotel!

The site trip in Minakami was a great start to get to know this part of Japan, and from now on, living here I am looking forward to visiting, discovering new places and making sure that as many people as possible learn more about Japan’s hidden gems and make the most of their trip.

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