Take a trip back to old Japan, learn samurai history in Niigata

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Located on the northernmost part of Niigata Prefecture, Murakami has the look, feel and smell of a classical Japanese town, making for a great tourist attraction. 

My wife and I enjoyed a day in this old samurai town during a recent vacation to Niigata. It’s interesting to note that the city developed and grew to support a castle and a samurai clan.

Although the castle no longer exists, Murakami still retains the appearance from its glorious and prosperous past.

We began our visit at the town’s museum, located in the district where samurai used to reside. We saw swords and armor used by the warriors of the Murakami Clan, various historical documents and local art, as well as beautifully decorated float-like structures that are pulled during the town’s grand festival held each year July 6-8.

Next to the museum is the Wakabayashike samurai house, which was built in the mid-18th century. Its thatched roof and wooden exterior makes a picturesque contrast against its large garden of green pine trees and white stones. The house’s relatively plain and simple interior reminded my wife and me of the samurai’s life of simplicity and fortitude.

In the dining room fireplace, there was an iron pot hanging on a hook above the stove. Tama-konnyaku (konnyaku jelly balls) were cooked in the pot and any visitor could sample it for 100 yen ($0.80). We did. Broth made from kelp and soy sauce matched perfectly with the crispy and chewy texture of the konnyaku. It was delicious.

According to a guide, to protect the thatch roof from insects and rot, they keep the fireplace lit so the smoke keeps the roof dry.

But what really stood out in the house, were the dried salmon hanging about. The smell alone left a strong impression on us.

“They are ‘shiohiki-sake’ (salted salmon), a specialty of Murakami,” the guide said of the fish looking down on us. The Miomote River flowing through Murakami City is well-known for the tens of thousands of salmon who swim upstream to mate and spawn in the autumn.  “You can see countless salmon going up in the river between October and December.”

According to the guide, after the salmon are caught, their guts and gills are removed and salt is rubbed on. The salt is then washed off and fish are hung to dry for at least a month. Interestingly, those cleaning the fish are careful not to open the entire belly of a salmon when removing its innards.  

“Opening the belly can easily be associated with harakiri, and the ancestors hated it,” the guide said. “So, we ensure not to open the fish entirely.

“This shows that the people of Murakami follow and respect the traditions of the samurai,” the guide said. “A lot of houses hang salmon from the edge of their eaves during winter time, even today.”

We left the samurai district for another district that was filled small shops. Our first stop was to Soursendo Kashiten, a traditional Japanese sweets shop.

A shop staffer invited us in and even showed us the living area of the 140-year-old shop. There we saw large Shinto and Buddhist altars on the center front wall. There were no structures above the alters, only a roof window installed high. “They could not have built a second floor because the altars are awed by the gods,” the staffer said.

As the sunlight shone through the roof window and onto the altars, I felt as if I was standing in a large cathedral.

We then visited Missho Kikkawa, a well-known salmon shop.

Even though we had seen – and smelled – the salmon in the samurai home, we stood in amazement as we entered the shop. Hanging above us were more than 1,000 large salmon hanging from ceiling of the traditional shop. Let’s just say it took your breath away.

“The most notable factor in making a delicious salted salmon is the winter wind of Murakami,” said shop owner Tessho Kikkawa

According to Kikkawa, the wind of Murakami isn’t too cold nor too dry. So, it keeps salmon unfrozen, while its moisture enables the drying and fermenting process to be gradual and slow, enabling the flavor to be more concentrated. 

After showing us the dried salmon, Kikkawa invited us for a tea. Murakami is Japan’s northernmost tea growing area, and because of a lesser amount of sunlight, the tea produced there has a sweet aroma and refreshing taste, according to Kikkawa.

Over the tea, Kikkawa told us about the life in Murakami, salted salmons and traditions. We enjoyed his encyclopedic knowledge, humor and bright smile. 

According to Kikkawa, salmon have been deeply rooted in the life of Murakami people for more than 1,000 years. Traditionally, who gets to eat what part of the salmon is determined according to family order. The upper part of fish can be sampled by nobody but the head of family.

The meat around the fin can be sampled only by his wife. “Because the fin is always moving and working throughout the fish’s life, just like a housewife,” Kikkawa said.

When we took a photo of us with the thousand salted salmon as a backdrop, he asked my wife to stand near a large wooden bucket. I wondered why.

“Sayuri Yoshinaga (a Japanese movie star) was standing there for a commercial for the Japan Railway Company,” Kikkawa chuckled. “So, I thought your wife deserves to stand there.”

He was quite the charmer and we ended up buying several things from his store before thanking him for his hospitality and heading back to our car.

If you want get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and explore a traditional Japanese town, Murakami, which is about a five or six hour drive from any military base on the Kanto Plain, is the place to go.

takiguchi.takahiro@stripes.com

Hit the beach for a beautiful sunset
Just past downtown Murakami, you will come across “sasagawa-nagare,” a 7-mile stretch along the coast that features a beautiful white beach, various uniquely shaped rocks and green pine trees sprouting from the sand.

In the middle of the sandy stretch, there is a rest area, Michinoeki Sasagawa-nagare, that is a great place to enjoy a panoramic view of a beautiful sunset, whether on its observation deck or from its restaurant. Local handcrafts, vegetables and seafood are also available here.

Michinoeki Sasagawa-nagare
Hours: (restaurant and shop) 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.; (observation deck and restaurant) 11 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Location: 892-5 Kuwakawa, Murakami City
Website: www.sake3.com/spot173.html
Tel: 0254-79-2017

Murakami Town Museum and Wakabayashike
Hours: 9 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
Location: 7-9 Sannomachi, Murakami City
Admission: 500 yen
Website: www.iwafune.ne.jp/~osyagiri/
Tel: 0254-52-1347

Misho Kikkawa
Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Location: 1-20 Omachi, Murakami City
Website: www.murakamisake.com/
Tel: 0254-53-2213

Sousendo Kashiten
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Location: 3-5 Oomachi, Murakami City
Website: www.sake3.com/spot4333.html
Tel: 0254-52-2528
 

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