With Isabella Bird — Part 3: On the Road to Yamagata
British explorer and writer Isabella Bird arrived in Japan in 1878, a mere 10 years after the country opened its doors to the West. Accompanied by just one young man who served as both interpreter and attendant, she traveled deep into the hinterland. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is her highly praised travelogue of that journey. It is a valuable record written from the perspective of a devout Christian endowed with critical thinking, which smashed the fairytale image of Japan that had spread in Western countries. In this episode, actor Akino Roza traces Isabella's footsteps in search of vestiges of the past — and also to make new discoveries. Starting from the city of Niigata, she travels along the old Jusan-toge route to the Yamagata Basin.

Niigata Butsudan (Buddhist Altars)

Niigata has a long tradition of producing gorgeous butsudan (Buddhist altars for people's homes), which are finished with urushi (lacquer) and covered with designs in makie (gold lacquer). This is one of the traditional crafts that Isabella Bird observed in the artisans' district of Niigata. In this episode, Roza visits a butsudan shop that also produces innovative contemporary works.

Kurosawa Mountain Pass

The old Jusan-toge road connects Niigata Prefecture on the coast with the southern part of Yamagata Prefecture, inland to the east. The section of the route that crosses the Kurosawa mountain pass is still paved with stones for a distance of 1.7 kilometers. Isabella Bird was carried along this stretch on the back of a cow.

Zashikigura (Remodeled Kura Warehouses)

In the old days, people built fireproof warehouses (kura) next to their houses to store their valuables. In Yamagata, some wealthy merchants remodeled those kura into rooms for receiving guests. Bird writes that she stayed overnight in one such zashikigura at the Kaminoyama hot springs.


To reach Niigata Station from Tokyo, it takes about two hours by Shinkansen bullet train. From there, you can transfer to local trains and buses to continue to other destinations.