Discover Deep Japan

Nature and Culture of Old Japan Together at Naeba Sanroku Geopark

Photo by Steve Douglas on Unsplash

When I first became aware of Naeba Sanroku Geopark- the massive archaeological site and nature preserve surrounding the small towns of Tsunan and Sakae on the border of Niigata and Nagano- I was somewhat perplexed; rather than a closely-connected series of exhibits and curated tourist attractions that is commonly seen here, Naeba Sanroku Geopark is instead a sprawling natural wonderland that encompasses many different aspects of “Snow Country” history and culture. It is simply impossible to experience everything here in a day; I’ve probably been back three or four times now, but there’s still more I want to come and see. Though places in west Tokyo are often considered “inaka” by those who live in metropolitan Tokyo, for example, this is in my opinion the true Japanese inaka, and is much more interesting than many of those suburban commuter towns.

 Things to do at Geopark Part 1: Forest Therapy

My first Geopark experience involved participating in a guided “forest therapy” session at Taruda Mountain Park. Even though I learned a lot from my guide, this wasn’t the strict sort of activity that requires making reservations and waiting in lines. The forests here are open to everyone, and one doesn’t need to be told to relax- it in fact happens naturally when you are away from the sounds of traffic and can no longer see telephone poles or skyscrapers. Instead of convenience stores and pachinko parlors there are miles and miles of trees- mostly beech. They are known for their especially large leaves that help keep the forest below nice and cool even in humid Japanese summer. These are very old sections of forest, some as old as 300 years, and are alive with the sounds of plenty of wildlife. The whole thing was indeed very therapeutic, and it is good to know in this day and age there are plenty of valuable experiences that you can have without needing to download an app or subscribe somewhere!

 Part 2: Visiting the Midama Settlement in Tsunan

The Naeba Sanroku Geopark was originally inhabited by Jomon groups as far back as 10,000 years ago, and even today people still live among this beautiful nature, such as at the settlement in Midama. The Midama settlement is close to Ryugakubo Pond, which is known as one of the 100 most beautiful bodies of water in Japan. This serene forest trail opens up into a pond which is said to be protected by a mythical dragon. It is especially beautiful after the rain, when the entire surface is covered in a light mist. You can see dragons all over Ryugakubo, including at the dragon’s shrine further into the forest.

It was easy from here to see really amazing scenery, such as Ishiotoshi, which is also known as Tsunan’s “Grand Canyon.” One thing that distinguishes Geopark from many other natural sites is the sheer variety of nature on display here.

A little further down into the settlement is Midama Fudoson Temple, a local Buddhist “power spot.” This thousand-year-old temple is located on top of a hill above a serene waterfall. I am told that this is also considered a prime location to view the fall colors. Whereas the previous shrine contained plenty of dragons, the area around the temple here has a frog statue that for one reason or another, seems to attract real frogs! Naturally, this temple isn’t as old as the Jomon ruins here, but instead offers a different view into another era of human culture.

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Geopark Part 3: A Museum at a Geopark?

Similarly, the Time Capsule Museum in nearby Sakae village is a snapshot of the Showa era. You may be surprised that among the mountains and forests, the Naeba Sanroku Geopark also has a variety of fascinating museums. The Time Capsule Museum features many artifacts from the Showa era, including various appliances, advertisements, as well as approximately 1 million illustrated letters and picture postcards. Even though I wasn’t in Japan at this time, it was still nostalgic in a strange sort of way. Many of these illustrations were done by the artist Tomoe Yamaji, who now has her own exhibit on the 2nd floor of the museum. Her works are incredibly detailed, and well worth seeing.

Central to the workings of Geopark is the Najomon Museum. Though it contains many artifacts and various art exhibits are held there, it focuses more on different workshops to give you a hands-on look into Jomon history and culture.

 More things to do at Geopark: Journeying to Akiyama-go

We’ve covered the Jomon and Showa periods, but this region is also significant to Heian-era Japan as well. The area known as Akiyama-go in Nagano was said to be where the remains of the Heike clan fled after the conclusion of the Genpei War in 1185. Though the name may remind you of Shirakawa-go in Gifu, Akiyama-go is absolutely huge by comparison. Rather than being one settlement, Akiyama-go is actually a group of small villages joined together by a series of bridges and mountain passes. The inhabitants of Akiyama-go, being isolated from the rest of the province, developed their own unique dialect and culture. In the midst of this, there are also great photo spots like Maekura Bridge and Jabuchi Waterfall. There are also “hidden onsen,” unique open air baths at Kiriyake and Koakazawa.

 Come and see the Naeba Sanroku Geopark

Though these temples, ruins, and museums are all manmade, they exist together with nature at the Naeba Sanroku Geopark, which seems to be what connects it all. These aren’t gaudy tourist traps that feel out of place in rural Japan, instead it all forms one cohesive, unforgettable experience.

 Helpful Links

More information about geoparks


Geopark official homepage (Japanese only)


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