Yuzawa (湯沢) in Niigata prefecture is a small town (population of less than 8,000) that I have visited many times – but never stayed at. That I have been there so many times is thanks to the fact that it has a shinkansen station and is only about 90 minutes from Tokyo Station. If you are on a JR Pass (which allows you unlimited use of most shinkansen services) then Yuzawa is easily in reach for a day trip. But why go? I suspect my answer to this is different to many people.

For many Japanese people I suspect their knowledge of Yuzawa links to it being a ski resort, having hot springs, and being the setting for Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country. For me, while the first two are not unrelated to my interest, it was primarily in this tiny town have not one, but two shinkansen stations. As well as the main Echigo-Yuzawa station on the Joetsu Shinkansen between Tokyo and Niigata, it also has a second station, Gala-Yuzawa. Gala-Yuzawa is only open during winter months and has a ski lift built into the station to whisk people up to the ski slopes above.

View of Gala-Yuzawa station (E4 shinkansen in station) from cable car
View of Echigo-Yuzawa station (shinkansen pulling into station) from cable car of Gala-Yuzawa

I went to the area in 2003 and 2004 as part of my fieldwork for my book Shinkansen, and was impressed the use of the sprinklers to keep snow from building up on the track. Although I didn’t get very good pictures during those visits, I got better ones during another visit in 2006…

A 200 series approaches Echigo-Yuzawa through the sprinklers

I had also walked around Gala-Yuzawa station to get views of the shinkansen there.

An E4 series approaches Gala-Yuzawa
E1 shinkansen at Gala-Yuzawa

And despite the cold, I also enjoyed my walks through Yuzawa itself – seeing sights that you would not see in the UK…

Clearing snow off the roof
Icicles under the shinkansen track

By the time I went back in 2006, there was another reason for my visits other than my academic research about the shinkansen. By that time I was working on my first novel, Hijacking Japan, and I had decided that I would put to use my various trips on E4 series shinkansen and to Yuzawa to set part of the book on that type of shinkansen and at Yuzawa. So I was going back to Yuzawa to double check details – and also enjoying an onsen afterwards – before returning to Tokyo.

One of the problems with these visits was that they were all in Winter, whereas the book was set in Summer. So, before completing the book, I made a trip back to Yuzawa in 2015 to walk around and check details on a summer’s day.

Yuzawa certainly looks different without snow and on a bright, hot day.

Note the different colour of brick for the ground level – this part will be beneath snow during the winter. Most houses in this area have the front door above ground level.
An empty ski slope

For those who have read my novel Hijacking Japan, as well as the two shinkansen stations, you will be aware that there is another key location in Yuzawa related to the story (which is much more than about a train hijacking). The extra place is marked by the orange pointer on the map above. I have not named it here as I don’t want to introduce any spoilers for those who haven’t read the book yet (although it gets referred to in Tokyo 20/20 Vision also).

Another reason why I have been back to Yuzawa subsequently can be seen in the bottom right hand corner of the map – Mount Tanigawa. I have written about Tanigawa in another post, and it also features in my book Japan: The Basics and in Tokyo 20/20 Vision (and will feature in other books in the Iwakura Series (also see About My Novels)). To access Mount Tanigawa by public transport, you can go via Echigo-Yuzawa and then take the local line (which as you can see from the map above goes in a loop (inside a mountain)) to Doai station.

Despite having never stayed in Yuzawa, it has been a place that I have been drawn to so many times over the years for different reasons. It’s now five years since I was last there. I hope I can get back again soon.

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