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Niigata: Experience Hands-On Cultural Workshops Across 4 Cities

Niigata Prefecture boasts many charming cities with distinct cultures that are worth visiting at leisure. We introduce Tsubamesanjo, a craftsperson's town, Yahiko, with its hot springs and enormous shrine, Ojiya, home to Nishikigoi fish, and the art town of Tokamachi.


Four Niigata Cities With Distinct Features

Niigata Prefecture is situated north of Tokyo. It is a narrow region running north to south along the Sea of Japan.

For most Japanese people, Niigata brings to mind images of rice and sake. In particular, the Uonuma region's koshihikari rice is renowned for its high quality. Of course, the sake that's made from this rice  is superb.

Many visitors enjoy the famous Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort and Naeba Ski Resort. This time however, instead of ski hills, we dive in a little deeper and explore four Niigata cities and highlight all of their attractive features.

Niigata - Enjoy Hands-On Cultural Workshops In Four Different Cities!

Our adventure begins in Tsubamesanjo, a town known for craftsmanship. Then it's on to the village of Yahiko, a place with hot springs and shrines, and parks featuring the beautiful scenery of each season.

Next, we head for Ojiya, famous for its nishikigoi carp fish, and finally on to Tokamachi, a city brimming with art beside Yuzawa.

The most comfortable way to get there from Tokyo is by the Joetsu Shinkansen departing from Tokyo's Ueno Station. International visitors can use the handy and economical JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and JAPAN RAIL PASS.


Tsubamesanjo: A Craftspeople's Town
Niigata - Enjoy Hands-On Cultural Workshops In Four Different Cities!

For our trip, we boarded the shinkansen train at Tokyo's Ueno Station. The one-way train fare to Tsubame-Sanjo Station is 8,700 yen and travel time is one hour and 40 minutes.

Upon disembarking from the train, we were greeted by a gigantic fork and knife! But they weren't put there simply to surprise visitors. Actually, more than 90% of the all western-style metal tableware (spoon, forks, etc.) found in Japan is produced in Tsubamesanjo.

Tsubamesanjo is a generic term that refers to Tsubame City and Sanjo City. Both cities have various metalworking industries. The craft objects and western tableware produced in Tsubamesanjo City, and the kitchen utensils (knives, etc.) and tools made in Sanjo city are famous nationwide.

How did Tsubamesanjo's western-style tableware manufacturing industry acquire such a large share of the national market? Let's take a closer look at Tsubamesanjo's history and how it developed into a city of manufacturing and craftsmanship.

Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Center: Unique Products Galore!

Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store

To discover different specialty products in Tsubamesanjo, we visited Roadside Station Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Center, just five minutes on foot from the station.

Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store

We found a huge assortment of kitchenware including graters, copper pots for cooking rice, stainless steel hotpots, knives, tea kettles, and cutlery among many items.

We also found farming implements and tools such as saws, garden shears, sickles (scythes), hoes, files, pliers, planes, and so on. These metal products showcase the dazzling craftsmanship that went into their making.

Even people who make planes for shaving blocks of dried fish (katsuobushi) make a special trip here to learn firsthand how to sharpen the blades from a Tsubame City craftsperson.

Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store

There are also many kinds of tumblers.

Metal cups easily retain cold temperatures, So, the instant your lips touch the cup, you can experience the refreshing coldness. The tumblers are made from a variety of materials, including copper, titanium (silver), stainless steel, and so on.

They even look good placed on the table!

Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Store

These chopstick holders are shaped like Japanese nails. But why Japanese nails? We encourage you to continue reading to discover the intriguing answer!

The Regional Products Center also has a branch location inside Tsubamesanjo Station. You'll find limited-edition products that are only sold here.

There are also tables with plug-ins for recharging your cell phone or using your computer, and free Wi-Fi as well. This is the ideal place to relax after shopping.

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Make Your Own Tumbler at Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum

Niigata Prefecture: Experience Hands-On Cultural Workshops Across 4 Cities!

Next, let's go to the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum and learn the history of the flourishing metalworks industry. It's located just ten minutes by taxi from Tsubame-sanjo Station.

The museum is comprised of several buildings, and inside each are many exhibits.

First, let's have a look at an exhibit in the main building called "Tsubame's Metalworking Industry: History and Technologies." A video with commentary tells the story of how Tsubame City flourished due to its metalworking industry.

This industry got its start about 400 years ago during the early part of the Edo Period (1603-1868). Every year, Tsubame city suffered damages from flooding, and even rice fields were washed away. No rice harvest meant no income for farmers.

So as a substitute for rice farming, the locals summoned craftspeople from Edo (present-day Tokyo) and asked to be taught how to make Japanese nails. From that point on, copperware and files (used by craftspeople), and tobacco pipes were made. The industry began to develop and flourish.

That is why the Japanese nail-shaped chopstick holders are on display in the Tsubamesanjo Regional Products Center.

In Japan's Western Cutlery Exhibition Hall, there is a display of knives and forks with ivory designs (made in 1934). Even the knife blades have elaborate embossing.

To learn why the production of western-style metal tableware prospered, we need to look further to the Taisho Period (1912-1926).

During this period, many elements of western culture came into Japan on a massive scale. However, the technology for producing spoons, forks, and other western tableware wasn't available, so Japan was forced to import these items overseas.

Meanwhile, someone asked a craftsperson to make a few western-style metal tableware. After much trial and error, the craftsperson succeeded in making a product that equaled its foreign counterpart.

A plastic model depicting a scene outside Tsubame Station in the olden days. Workers can be seen rushing to their metalworking factory jobs.

Up until then, these products were handmade individually. But as demand increased, this process was replaced by machines for mass production purposes.

People at the time believed that high-quality products had to be flawless and identical in shape and appearance. That attitude is different from today, which places value and importance on handmade goods. What's in style truly changes with the times.

Try Your Hand at Making Patterns With Hammering!

Now, let's get a close-up look at metalworking in the Workshop Room.

There are many hands-on workshops available, including Coloring Titanium Spoons With Oxidation, Tsuchime Hammering On Copper Cups, and Make Your Own Sake Cup Out of Tin.

We chose the workshop where participants create hammered patterns (tsuchime) on a copper beer cup.

The workshop fee is 2,200 yen and the required time is about 30 minutes. You can take your finished tumbler home with you. For international guests, there's an explanation in English, so the process won't be difficult at all.

We've finished! Workshop participants can choose how they want their cup to look. You can hammer and create dimples and other indentations over the entire cup, or simply pound the middle part of the cup and leave the rest in its original smooth condition.

The hammering process required more strength than I expected! I may get sore muscles from doing this.

The copper color gradually starts changing. The tumbler on the right in the photo is from a year later. It has a classic charm to it. We were told that the tumbler is ideal for drinking beer. A staff member explained that the tumbler's bumpy surface (from the tsuchime hammering) catches the beer's bubbles, resulting in creamy foam.

If you choose the "Make Your Own Sake Cup Out of Tin" workshop, 40 minutes is required from start to finish. However, the "Coloring Titanium Spoons With Oxidation" workshop only takes five minutes.

We recommend joining one of these workshops when you're not rushed during your travels.

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Gyokusendo: Featuring Handcrafted Tsuiki Copperware and Factory Tours

Tsubamesanjo has more than 2,000 metalworking workshops. Some are called "open factories," meaning they are open for public tours. On this trip, we visited Gyokusendo's copper hammering (tsuiki copperware) workshop.

Tsuiki copperware is created by hammering and shaping copper sheets into containers or other objects.

Founded in 1816, Gyokusendo's techniques originated in Sendai. An artisan is said to have crossed the Japanese alps and settled in Tsubame, then taught the local people techniques for creating copper vessels.
Since their founding, Gyokusendo have focused their craft on daily necessities such as kettles, teaware, and other vesels.
Afterward, they added an element of beauty by applying patterns and decorations to their products. By combining various techniques, they eventually produced items resembling works of art.

Over 6,000 people visited Gyokusendo and joined a workshop tour in 2019. Tours are conducted by staff five times daily (10:00, 11:00, 13:00, 14:00, and 15:10).

For groups of five or more, please contact Gyokusendo ahead of time. For holidays and other details please see the Gyokusendo official homepage.

As staff lead you inside, you'll soon hear the rhythmical "kan-kan" sounds coming from the back of the room. These are the sounds of dedicated craftspeople hammering away on their copperware.

The number of artisans hammering copperware can vary greatly from day to day, but even with only 6 or 7 people at work you could easily hear the pounding noise reverberating through the space!

These kettles are made from a single piece of copper and gradually take shape as shown in the photo above.

A product that has become representative of Gyokusendo's craft is the teapot pictured above. The teapot's main body and spout are made from a single copper sheet without using seams or joints.

One characteristic of copper is that it tends to harden the more it is hammered. After hammering for an extended period of time, the copper is heated over a fire to soften it before resuming. This process of hammering and heating is repeated as many as 15 times before the final shape takes form.

However, as the copper sheet is hammered into shape, wrinkles form around the edges. If these wrinkles overlap, it’s possible for a crack to form, causing the peice to break or leak. Avoiding this on such a complicated shape takes many years of practice.

Niigata Prefecture: Experience Hands-On Cultural Workshops Across 4 Cities!

The iron bar in the picture above is called a toriguchi. Inside the factory, there are about 200 different kinds of toriguchi. They come in different shapes. Some have a rounded tip while others are long and narrow. These prized tools have been passed between craftsmen for generations
The craftsperson will choose a toriguchi that's best suited for whatever object they're making. Occasionally, an unused tool is modified to suit the needs of a particular pice!
When working on a copperware piece, the container is placed over the tip of the toriguchi and then the craftsperson will hammer away little by little.

After the factory tour, visitors can even purchase some copperware in the adjoining shop. The shop is lined with various products—from traditional items all the way to modern designs—including sake and tea drinking sets, kettles, and cups.

The more copperware pieces are used, the appearance gradually changes. As time goes by, they will appear more beautiful. It's a testament to the painstakingly craftmanship. This is just one sparkling example of metalworking craftsmanship here.

Let's pay a visit to Gyokusendo and see craftspeople at work on their exquisite copperware items.

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Next Page Yahiko: A Town With Enjoyable Shrines, Parks, and Onsen!
The information presented in this article is based on the time it was written. Note that there may be changes in the merchandise, services, and prices that have occurred after this article was published. Please contact the facility or facilities in this article directly before visiting.