Having moved from Tokyo to Joetsu towards the end of last year, I often have had to explain to friends and acquaintances in Tokyo where exactly Joetsu is located and what, if anything, is special about it.

The majority of people living in the major cities along Japan’s Pacific Coast are generally not very familiar with Ura Nihon, broadly described as the area facing the Sea of Japan, or with Yukiguni (Snow country) which is a smaller area with very heavy snowfall

Snow Country

Yukiguni describes the Hokuriku coastal area and the mountains that run parallel to the coast. Moist and cold air blown in by Northern and Westerly winds result in massive snowfall. Great for skiing.  The local population in Joetsu remembers all too well the major snow falls in the past forcing them to tunnel underneath the snow in order to reach the opposite side of the road. The winter 2019/2020 was exceptionally mild, in fact the mildest winter experienced in 60 years.

In  “Snow country” Kawabata effectively describes the sense of remoteness, of separation in its opening sentence “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The earth lay white under the night sky.” We have to thank former Prime Minister Tanaka’s pork barrel driven road and railway construction programs for ending the physical remoteness. Yet differences in outlook remain.

In summer Joetsu is one of Japan’s wettest cities.

What does Joetsu look like?

While familiarizing myself with Joetsu and the region as a whole, I came across the following statement on the web site of an Australian photographer who visited Joetsu briefly on a break from skiing in Myoko:

The small coastal city of Joetsu on Japan’s north coast highlights some of the problems facing modern Japan. Joetsu was a  maze of tightly-packed low-rise houses without gardens or street trees interspersed by windswept concrete plazas and big, blocky commercial buildings. The whole shoreline was lined with artificial breakwaters and the schools were more or less indistinguishable from the shopping centers in terms of outward appearance. 

He  concluded that “…it wouldn’t have been a very pleasant place to live.”

My experience is different. Spatial planning is not one of Japan’s strenghts. It lacks the laws, hence the restrictions that in some other countries – notably my home country, the Netherlands – make every building in a street look more or less identical. In Japan the cityscape is generally often a jumble of residential, commercial and industrial buildings. Joetsu is no exception.

Formation of Joetsu

Postwar attempts at rationalizing the local government structure resulted in the creation of Joetsu as a municipality in 1971 by amalgamating Naoetsu and Takada. A further round of amalgamations in 2005 expanded Joetsu, as well as the municipalities of Arai (renamed Myoko), Itoigawa and Tokamachi. As a result the West-, Central- and East-Kubiki districts disappeared from the map.

The amalgamation of Takada and Naoetsu, separated by 8 km of farmland, created a problem. Earlier attempts to combine the two cities in 1934 and again in 1940 came to nothing. In 1955 it was agreed to work towards amalgamation but it took until 1971 to reach final agreement. One of many problems was where to locate the new Joetsu city office. A bitter struggle ensued and the problem was resolved in true Japanese style by locating the city office about halfway between the two cities, creating a new administrative and cultural center (Kida). This kind of compromise is rarely a good idea. Takada and Naoetsu were left behind and Kida has so far not managed to take on a character of its own. At the same time, the large area of farmland between Takada and Naoetsu was gradually filled with residential, commercial and industrial construction and public facilities, negatively counterbalancing the charm and attractions of Takada, Naoetsu and the other cities that together form Joetsu.

What is Joetsu really like?

This background about the formation of Joetsu probably goes a long way to explain the Australian blogger’s comment about Joetsu  that “…it wouldn’t have been a very pleasant place to live.” However, the truth is different. The city is part of a beautiful region, including beaches – not all beaches are marred by concrete tripods — and mountains on all sides. It has a shortage of Western style cultural activities like concerts and art exhibitions. However it has good food and sake, an interesting historical background, a unique network of gangi and machiya, spectacular cherry blossom viewing, a unique lotus pond, and most importantly friendly people. And snow, lots of it ….  All that at less than 2 hours by (Hokuriku) shinkansen from Tokyo Station.

Gochi park

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