Experience Japan's Countryside at Ryokan Chitose
The outside of Ryokan Chitose.
If you’re looking for unique accommodation during your stay in Japan, a ryokan or traditional Japanese-style inn may be a good choice for you. You’ll get to try sleeping on a futon in your tatami mat room and enjoy delicious Japanese course meals. A personal must for me when deciding on a ryokan is that the facility has an onsen, particularly a rotenburo or an open-air bath. A stay in a ryokan just isn’t complete without soaking in a hot spring while gazing up at the night sky. One ryokan that I would award a full score to in each of these areas is Ryokan Chitose in the Matsuyama Onsen area of Tokamachi, Niigata Prefecture. Not only will you experience first-rate hospitality, traditional Japanese accommodations, and the soothing waters of Matsuyama’s natural hot springs, but you’ll also discover the unique charms and delicious local cuisine of Niigata’s gorgeous countryside.
The staff will inform you of the hours of operation for the onsen as well as ask you when you'd like to have dinner and breakfast when you check in.
The staff will tell you about the facilities when you check in. They will also ask you to choose at what time you would like to have dinner and breakfast. The staff will then show you to your room and serve you tea and a sweet to help you get settled in. If this is your first time staying in a ryokan, you might be wondering where you’ll actually be sleeping as there are no beds in sight when you enter the room. In traditional Japanese houses, futons were folded up and stored in closets when not in use, freeing up the bedroom to be used for other purposes. Ryokan follow the same custom. A staff member will lay the futons out for you while you enjoy dinner.
The inside of the 10 tatami mat room.
I stayed with my coworker in a 10 tatami mat or 30 square meter room. It had a lovely yukimi shoji—a window covered by a sliding paper screen—as well as a sunken kotatsu. A kotatsu is a table frame covered by a thick quilt on top of which the table top is placed. There is usually some heating element built into the table frame, making it toasty warm under the quilt. There was no quilt as we stayed in early August, but I could only imagine how great it would be to sit at the kotatsu during the winter and look at the snow-covered landscape outside.
Enjoying the greenery outside, dreaming of snow.
When you come back from dinner, you’ll find that the staff has laid out the futons.
The first courses of dinner. On the leaf is a sampling of appetizers showcasing the unique flavors of the region. In the upper left hand corner is a special hotpot called Tanada Nabe.
Kazunari Yanagi, Senior Vice President at Ryokan Chitose, decided to make local produce and cooking techniques the focus of the food offered at Chitose rather than importing ingredients from other prefectures. The result is a simple, satisfying kaiseki dining experience that is both delicious and healthy thanks to the abundance of local mountain vegetables as well as Niigata’s delicious rice. Ingredients are only used when in season so the exact menu will depend on the time of year, but there are a few dishes that you can count on enjoying during dinner. The first is a platter of original appetizers that feature the unique flavors of the region. The star of this lineup is the Tojibuta. This delicious bite of the prefecture’s famous Tsumari Pork is cooked using the heat of the hot spring waters (92°C!), making the meat deliciously tender. The other appetizers include a dumpling made with a daikon radish leaf filling called an anbo, tofu fermented with local miso paste, and stewed vegetables.
Clockwise from top left: tofu, seasonal sashimi, a huge slice of watermelon, Tanada Nabe.
Another dish to look forward to is the Tanada Nabe hotpot (pictured above bottom left). Depending on when you go, you might enjoy more tender pieces of Tsumari pork or perhaps locally raised chicken along with fresh vegetables in addition to the dish’s namesake ingredient: rice grown in the region’s tanada, the terraced rice fields that add to the beauty of the local scenery. The rice is prepared like a dry rice cake and is added to the hotpot, giving the dish a savory-sweet flavor. Lastly, there is the local sake. Niigata is famous for its sake, and Ryokan Chitose has a stock of varieties that are difficult to find outside of the area.
Toasting a great day with a cold beer after a dip in the onsen.
A close up on Niigata's famously delicious rice.
Breakfast at Ryokan Chitose features many of the staples of a traditional Japanese breakfast like natto (fermented soybeans), rice, and miso soup, as well as local seasonal specialties. During the summer months, you can enjoy a colorful vegetable salad called yatara (pictured above top left corner).
Relaxing in the outdoor bath Tsukimi no Yu.
Of Japan’s many onsen, there are three in particular that are considered to have certain extra health benefits thanks to the mineral content of the water. One of these is Matsunoyama. The high sodium content in the water is said to be particularly effective at warming the body as well as beautifying the skin and healing small cuts or skin irritation.
The entrance to Tsukimi no Yu.
Ryokan Chitose has three public baths. One is located indoors and the other two outside. The water that flows from the source of the hot springs is 92°C, so it’s mixed with cold water to bring the temperature down. Still, the baths are extremely hot, so be careful not to stay in too long!
Tsukimi no Yu from above.
I recommend heading to the outdoor bath called Tsukimi no Yu. The word tsukimi means “moon viewing” in Japanese. While soaking in the onsen, you can enjoy a view of the sky as well as the woods surrounding the ryokan. The trees were bright green when I went, but my favorite time of year for enjoying outdoor onsen is winter. If you’re lucky, you can watch the snow fall as you warm up in the bath.
Sightseeing with EVs
The terraced rice fields of Hoshi Toge.
The Tokamachi region of Niigata has truly incredible scenery year round that can’t be found in typical tourist destination cities such as Tokyo or Kyoto. Even for people who live in Japan, Tokamachi is a very different, very special region. The tanada that are built around the mountains are stunning when bright green during the summer or when they turn gold with mature rice in the fall.
Tsumari in Bloom by Yayoi Kusama, one of the permanent art installations in the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field.
Tokamachi also is home to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, which is the site of the Echigo-Tsumari Triennial, the world’s largest outdoor art festival. Although the Triennial is held only once every three years (the next one is in 2018!) there are plenty of other events held in the area year round such as the Snow Fireworks Festival in the winter. Speaking of snow, Niigata is also a great place to enjoy winter sports. The Matsunoyama Onsen area of Tokamachi gets more than three meters of snow in the winter; not surprisingly, there are many places to enjoy skiing and snowboarding.
Mr. Kazunari Yanagi explains the EV car share program.
However, Tokamachi is the same size as the twenty-three wards of Tokyo without any of the subways, which can make getting around a bit challenging. This is why Ryokan Chitose has joined several other ryokan in the region in partnering with Nissan Rent-a-Car and the Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) to offer car-sharing services. All of the cars used for the program are electric vehicles (EVs), a good fit for a region that prides itself on the beauty of its nature. Guests can charge their vehicle at Ryokan Chitose or at several other charging stations throughout the region.
Ryokan Chitose is located about three hours from Tokyo with JR Joetsu Shinkansen access as far as Echigoyuzawa Station, making it a great destination for travelers using a JR Rail Pass who are looking for areas not usually covered by guidebooks.
InformationRyokan Chitose | ひなの宿 ちとせ
Address: 49-1 Yumoto Matsunoyama Tokamachi Niigata, Japan #942-1432
Languages spoken: Japanese and English
Have you ever stayed at Ryokan Chitose? Would you like to? Let us know in the comments!
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THIS ARTICLE IS BASED ON INFORMATION FROM 01 12,2015 Author：Rachael Ragalye