Niigata, Saaaaahkey, and the Senbei Kingdom
Over the weekend I got the hook-up from Brian and Bryan to go with them on a free bus tour to Niigata. Niigata’s up like northwest of Tokyo near the Japan Sea and is famous for rice, sake, and ski resorts. I’d never been there before and didn’t have anything planned so I figured why not. It was overall pretty fun since it was like a short road trip with friends, but I don’t know if the actual planned activities on the tour were as awesome as I had imagined. It was a pretty rough schedule too, so that might have something to do with it.
Woke up around 5AM on Saturday morning in order to get to Ikebukuro by 7:40. The only people I knew of course were Brian, Bryan, and Saori, but whatever. There were some actual tourists on the bus and some of B and B’s coworkers who seemed all right. We took a Greyhound-ish bus from there up to Niigata, stopping along the way at 2 or 3 “service area” rest stops. These are significantly better than highway rest stops in the US being that they actually have decent restaurants and shops, lights at night, and restrooms that have been cleaned this decade. Also there is much less of a sense of “you will be gruesomely murdered here.” The bus ride took about 5 or 6 hours, which was pretty grueling to be honest. I was able to get some sleep but not as much as I would have liked.
After getting to Niigata we immediately went to the “main event” of this tour, the にいがた酒の陣 (Niigata Sake no Jin), a convention for Japanese rice wine. They had over 500 different varieties you can sample, which meant by the time we got there around 2 in the afternoon, there was a huge crowd of old Japanese guys stumbling around totally red faced. There were seriously people sitting on the ground completely wasted. We also saw a women who had passed out in a pool of her own vomit get carried away in a wheelchair. I heard her friends say something like “she’s resting. She should be fine in about 30 minutes.” What a country. I’m no big sake connoisseur, but they had some good ones and some bad ones there. In addition to just regular sake, they had plum wine (umeshu) and the unfortunately named and milky white in color jizake, a kind of unfiltered rice wine.
We stayed at the show for a few hours, even though it seems like most people on the tour, including us, would have been fine with leaving earlier. We checked into the Toyo Inn and went to dinner, covered by the tour. It was a pretty fancy sushi place, but unfortunately the tour only covered one drink and like 10 pieces of sushi. I mean, the sushi was really awesome, but 10 little pieces of fish on rice isn’t what I would call a full dinner. Afterwards a small group of us went out to get dinner and drinks at a standard izakaya. This ended up being a pretty long night, topped off with some awesome spicy ramen.
Slept for a few hours again, at least actually in a bed this time. Woke up for another 9AM meeting time. We were taken to the せんべい王国 (Rice Cracker Kingdom), which sounds about 50 times more sweet than it actually was. It was pretty much just a small senbei store that also had a small factory in it. They at least had some funky little mascot characters I guess, but to be called a Kingdom I was expecting something more Namja-like. We also hit up some kind of museum village or something that didn’t have much worth mentioning except we found a hidden PaRappa the Rapper in the wall displays. Lunch was at some “wealthy mansion owner’s home” that has been converted into a tourist trap, but at least they had pretty good traditional Japanese food.
So yeah I’ve been to Niigata!