What does a five thousand year old intricately decorated pot have to do with life today? Surprisingly, a great deal. This, and many other things, we learned this weekend on the Jomon Era & Snow Country Culture Tour.
The tour started in Niigata City where Japan’s longest river, the Shinano, flows into the Sea of Japan. It then followed the course of this river all the way through the prefecture to the very border of Nagano where the Shinano become the Chikuma River. Along the way were stops in many different facilities, interesting facts, great food, works of art, and beautiful scenery. The soundtrack to this trip was the clicking of camera shutters as one sight after another astounded the participants.
Some of the coastal land in Niigata is lower than sea level which has caused problems with flooding, especially with the large Shinano and lagoons here too. There have been some ingenious solutions with the course of the river being diverted, drainage channels being dug, and has led to bridges carrying the river over the channels. This and much more is featured at the Niigata City History Museum.
A boat trip down the river, and then a gorgeous lunch in a traditional ryokan.
Next was a trip to Shitada Township Museum and Yagigahana to see our first flame-shaped pots, and a cliff face that started life as an undersea mountain, and which during the Jomon period was a landmark to the locals who lived among the forests and rivers of the area.
After travelling back in time we were brought back to reality by the bright lights of Nagaoka City and our lodgings at the Grand Hotel by the station.
Day 2 started with a trip to the Umataka Ruins. The main facility has an impressive array of flame-shaped and crown-shaped pots, and plenty of other Jomon era relics. The changing styles of the pots over time can be seen with the older ones being plainer and smaller, but growing larger and more intricate over time. The pots themselves were probably only manufactured for a short period of about 500 years. Pots of this age can be found all over Japan but those of the Shinano River basin are the most intricately decorated. The man that found the first one was just a hobbyist but his discoveries are of huge importance and led to the preservation of this historic site. There were also a couple of reconstructed Jomon era dwelling, with the wooden struts of the buildings placed in the exact holes that remain today from the remains of a village 5,000 years ago.
Next stop – Tokamachi Museum and the wealth of knowledge it contains. The ancient people who made these pots were able to do so because they stopped moving around and settled in one place. The pots would have been too cumbersome to carry. Nomadic people used to leave the old or injured if they could not keep up. Now people could live together with their elders and the knowledge from the more experienced could be passed on to younger generations. Making pots allowed them to cook and therefore eat different things and improve their diet. The Jomon Period spanned well over 10,000 years with people surviving off the land in harmony with nature, and at peace with one another. While other great cultures were involved in agriculture, and battles between kings and cultures, the Jomon people lived more simple lives. Their amazing pots were the very start of art, and are so important in Japanese history that they will be one of the symbols of the 2020 Olympics. The people of that time were making thread to weave with, and the tool they used can be seen still in use thousand of years later in the history of Tokamachi’s textile heritage in later parts of the museum.
The next stop was a delicious lunch of local ingredients prepared by friendly Tokamachi residents. The location was an old thatched house damaged by the Chuetsu Earthquake but lovingly restored as a work of art to become Ubusuna House in the Echigo Tsumari Triennale modern art exhibition. A side trip to another exhibit, The House of Light, was another highlight.
Last stop for the day was Najomon, where we saw the biggest flame- and crown-style pots found. We learned about the Japanese landmass splitting from the Asian mainland 8,000 years ago, and a warm current starting to flow into the Sea of Japan. This warm current, combined with the cold north wind brought the start of the heavy snows that affect the area to this day and make Tsunan one of the snowiest places in Japan.
A luxurious dinner and stay at Shinanosou rounded off a great day.
Day 3 started with a trip on a picturesque local line train to the Niigata/Nagano border where years ago over 7 meters of snow lay piled up during a particularly fierce winter. Back into the Naeba Geopark and we strolled around Ryugakubo to see the spring sources that keep the pond crystal clear, supply the local towns, and help melt the snow. The clear water flowing out of the ground here is rain and snow from 40 years before which has passed through the ancient lava from an eruption of Mount Naeba. The locals have built shrines here and promise to keep this pond clean, as if it gets dirty the resident dragon will get angry and stop the water.
Lunch was at a mountain soba restaurant where an unusual plant is used as the binding agent in the noodles and everything on the table has been grown, harvested, and cooked by the old couple who live there. There was time for a quick stroll over an old suspension bridge through a gorge before our last stop at a yet to be excavated Jomon site.
Work to create rice fields here has turned up Jomon relics and flame-shaped pots. The land next to it is still used as gardens and has yet to be dug. Locals are often turning up bits and pieces from thousands of years ago. The area was rich in the clay that Jomon potters used to create their amazing works of art and with rivers and forests close by, was a good place for a settlement. We strolled around finding cutting stones and fragments of pots, before our guide stumbled across a big bit of pottery that even had him excited.
This just scratches the surface of all the amazing information that we uncovered over the three day trip. It is an eye-opening tour that spans the length of the Shinano River and will make you feel as if you are in touch with the past from 5,000 years ago.
And if you really want to touch the past, and think you won’t drop it…