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Tour de Nippon

Niigata Itoigawa

Situated on the western tip of Niigata Prefecture, the city of Itoigawa is something of a jewelry box. Scrawling down the topographical traits and famous places on a map, you realize that it is crammed full of world-beating spots. As you pick up the round pebbles on the seashore, a glance over the city reveals the dramatic backdrop of the Northern Alps, including several of Japan’s most celebrated peaks. Time to take a trip into this bucolic yet unforgiving land, where locals agilely coexist with nature.


Blessings bestowed by the vast earth, and jade culture

To know Itoigawa requires stretching one’s imagination back to ancient times. Many eons ago the Japanese archipelago broke free from the Asian Continent, prompting the formation of the Fossa Magna (the “Great Crevasse”) and the formation of a new stratum due to the uplift of volcanos and the ocean floor. With the old Japanese salt road extending along parts of it, this geographical stratum reaches from 1,000m deep under the sea all the way up to 3,000m above sea level, creating the stunning natural scenery of Itoigawa, and bringing many blessings to this land. Pure water, produce cultivated with this water, forest resources, hot springs welling up from the ground.  What is more, Itoigawa is a region that produces jade.

Generated deep inside the earth, jade rises to the surface due to plate and volcanic activity, and then drifts down the Ōmigawa River and the Himekawa River. The ancient Jōmon people picked up and treasured this jade. Tools including stone axes for processing precious stones date back 7000 years, which were used for crafting beads and other ornaments that amazingly found their way all over Japan, particularly Eastern Japan. The hub for trade was the general area that flourished around the “Chojagahara Archaeological Site”.

As Yusuke Koike explains, “archeologically speaking, there is no other stone like jade that has been the subject of faith and status for thousands of years”. As a curator of Itogawa City, he is responsible for communicating the culture from the Itogaiwa people of old, including at the “Chojagahara Archaeological Museum” which houses precious artifacts unearthed nearby.  Flanked by rivers including the Ōmigawa, Himekawa, Hayakawa and Nougawa, Itoigawa has 7 valleys which have each spawned a distinctive culture. “These topographical features have barely changed from when people first laid down roots here, and the daily lifestyle hub has become the town that you see today. That is why historic ruins are distributed throughout the city.” The Jade Coast, towns with babbling brooks running through, and historical ruins. Famous around the world, the Itoigawa Geopark is a story of time in all its splendor.

The horse-headed Kannon, praying for the safe passage of the people and animals that pass through the salt road.
Earth ocarina flutes crafted by Osamu Yamada, an authority on Jomon culture and also a jade artisan.
Precious ornaments made with Itoigawa Jade, polished by Yamada-san in his atelier.
Papersky’s Tour de Nippon project is about finding the magic of Japan’s rural districts, their inhabitants, nature, culture and food. We travel to various prefectures and ride bicycles. Traveling via bicycle allows us a clean and healthy way to explore Japan’s rural areas.
text | KaO photography | Tsutomu Yamada special thanks | Itoigawa City, Masaki Igarashi, Kaoru Ito