Hinoura: With the Master of Blacksmith
Ramen: Sanjo Ramen
Onsen: Hot Spring
Sanjo City in Niigata Prefecture has been known for its blacksmiths since the 17th century. At that time, the area was susceptible to flooding, often resulting in famine. Farmers were encouraged to forge nails as a sideline to their agriculture, to help them survive in lean years. Sanjo became an important production center for wakugi, the Japanese nails used in building shrines, temples and other wooden structures. That tradition continues to this day, with one local artisan producing nails for the periodic rebuilding of the Grand Shrine of Ise, in Mie Prefecture.
Eric Chevallier works as an apprentice blacksmith in Sakai, Osaka. He first came to Japan from France 3 years ago to learn the metalworking skills and craftsmanship of local blacksmiths. On this episode of Journeys in Japan, he observes an artisan creating traditional nails with pride and expertise. At another workshop, he observes close-up the processes for forging blades, where the owner and his son are keeping alive the time-honored techniques. Niigata gets some of the heaviest snowfalls in all of Japan. Eric also enjoys some of the customs observed by people in this area during the coldest season.
Aida Godo Factory
This specialist manufacturer of farm tools produces 4,000 types of hoes, to meet the varying requirements of different terrains and crops.
Address: 1-7-4 Tajima, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on Saturdays, Sundays & holidays.
Koyoshi Blacksmith Works
This workshop mainly produces specialized tools for other artisans, such as cutters. It also plays a central role in the production of wakugi (traditional Japanese nails) in Sanjo.
Address: 1-4-20 Nishi-Yokkamachi, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on Sundays, holidays and occasional Saturdays.
Reservations are required in advance (in Japanese) to view the workshop.
The restaurant specializes in curry ramen (750 yen), which has come to be considered the typical blacksmith's food.
Address: 1-2-8 Aramachi, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on Thursdays.
This hot spring facility has open-air baths offering perfect views of the scenic cliff of Yagigahana. There is no accommodation.
Address: 16-1 Minami-Imogawa, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on the 3rd Wednesday of each month (or the following day if a holiday falls on the 3rd Wednesday).
This traditional inn has its own natural hot spring baths. The building has been registered as a tangible cultural property by the central government.
Rooms from 14,800 yen per night (including 2 meals).
Address: 1450 Nagano, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Hinoura Blacksmith Works
Craftsman Tsukasa Hinoura and his son, Mutsumi, produce bladed tools, including hatchets and knives that are highly appreciated be customers in many countries. Hinoura participates in a trade fair in Germany every year.
Address: 1-9-15 Tsukanome, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Hakucho no Sato Koen (Swan wintering site)
At this site along the Ikarashi River, about 400 swans can be seen closely from November each year.
Address: 1774-1 Morimachi, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Suwada Blacksmith Works
This company founded 90 years ago produces nail clippers. The building is modern and stylish, both outside and inside. Over a dozen cameras have been installed inside the workshop, allowing visitors to watch the manufacturing processes on monitors installed on the observation deck.
Address: 1332 Koanji, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on Mondays, Sundays and holidays.
Sanjo Kaji Dojo
The facility was built by the city to keep alive the blacksmithing tradition and pass on the craftsmanship for future generations. Visitors can learn how to forge Japanese nails, paperknives or other items.
Address: 11-53 Motomachi, Sanjo City, Niigata Pref.
Closed on Mondays (or the following day if a national holiday falls on a Monday).
To reach Sanjo from Tokyo, it takes about 2 hours on the Joetsu Shinkansen line to Tsubame-Sanjo Station. From Niigata Airport, there is an express bus to Tsubame-Sanjo Station, taking about 75 minutes.
My grandfather and my great-grandfather were both blacksmiths who forged tools. Those roots were awoken when I met the owner of the Sasuke Blacksmith Works in Sakai, Osaka. This was my first trip to Niigata, a prefecture famous for its beautiful, snow-covered landscapes. In Sanjo, I discovered a city with a deep culture of artisans and forging. It was a very good trip for me, because the people in Sanjo are very gentle and kind to visitors who are keen to understand their culture and history.
Japanese traditional inns are wonderful places to stay for anyone visiting Japan. They offer a perfect harmony between people and the elements of nature. I believe there is nowhere better for relaxing. The snow of Niigata may be cold, but drinking Japanese sake warms the body, and the smiles of the local people warm the heart. In Sanjo, I saw artisans like Mr. Hinoura working passionately to forge perfect pieces. They are protecting Japanese culture. But I hope younger people will have more interest in these artists, because if we lose our past and our knowledge, we will also lose our soul.
Because Eric's grandfather was a blacksmith who forged horseshoes, Eric wants to follow in his footsteps. He currently works as an apprentice at the Sasuke Blacksmith Works in Sakai, Osaka, producing scissors for gardening bonsai.