A JR EAST Train Trip to Tsubame-Sanjo ②: Cultural Experiences, Handicraft Workshops, and Japanese Souvenirs
Join Japankuru on a trip to this lesser-known JR EAST shinkansen station, in a part of Japan immersed in Japanese craftsmanship. Find out more about the best local spots recommended by the JR EAST staff themselves!
Tsubame-Sanjo: Artisan Workrooms and Hands-On Workshops
Longing for a scenic trip on Japan's shinkansen, headed somewhere a little off the beaten track? Travelers interested in experiencing traditional Japanese culture will want to get off the train at Tsubamesanjō Station, which sits right on the border between two small Niigata cities. Both Tsubame and Sanjo have histories replete with traditional handicrafts and skilled artisans, and not only can you visit the area's open factories to see this still-thriving industry, but you can also try out some of the traditional Japanese handicraft techniques and experience the culture for yourself!
Getting to Tsubamesanjō Station
As a stop on the JR EAST Jōetsu Shinkansen (bullet train), access to Tsubamesanjō Station is extremely convenient for anyone starting in or around Tokyo! Tsubamesanjō Station is one of a dozen along the train line, which starts from Tokyo Station and stops at Ueno before heading into Niigata Prefecture, and finally arriving in the Tsubame-Sanjo area!
The trip is a little under two hours, which makes this an ideal destination for a weekend away, or a little excursion using a rail pass. The "JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)" is especially convenient when heading to Tsubame-Sanjo: for 18,000 yen (tax included), the pass lets you ride all the JR EAST trains you want for five days, including shinkansen and limited express trains, and even some JR buses. From Tokyo to Tsubamesanjō Station, tickets with reserved seats normally cost a little under 19,000 yen round trip, but using the pass means you can freely travel all over Niigata and Nagano during your trip. You don't have to be a short-term traveler in Japan, either. Foreign residents can use the pass too!
Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum: Handicrafts and Workshops
The best place to get hands-on with Japanese handicrafts in the Tsubame-Sanjo area is at the Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum. The museum's main buildings are filled with exhibition spaces focused on the history and development of the area, especially in relation to the area's famous metalworking, and other artisanal crafts. One of the museum's galleries shows off a collection of masterpieces crafted in the area, including "The Beautiful World of Tsuiki Copperware," which might provide some good inspiration when we arrive at our main destination: the workshop hall! The museum's workshop hall offers visitors a chance to try out some of the traditional techniques used by artisans in Tsubame and Sanjo, to more deeply understand how these items are made, and to create some nice keepsakes at the same time.
When the expert craftspeople at places like Gyokusendo make their elegant copper tea kettles, they're actually taking a totally flat sheet of metal and slowly tapping it with a hammer until the sides expand, compress, and transform into one smooth, round shape that makes up the finished product. This particular workshop lets you get your hands on the same kinds of tools, and learn how to use them like how the experts do, but the particular technique is a little bit different. Instead of starting with a totally flat sheet of copper, your base is already a simple cup shape, and so you're actually adding the hammered texture onto the smooth metal, called "tsuchime" (槌目), using a unique hammer that's so smooth it has a mirrored finish.
In just about 30 minutes, with a little bit of guidance from workshop staff and some patterning inspiration from the region's copperware, you'll find yourself with your very own unique copper tumbler. The cups make great gifts for any beer lovers or iced coffee addicts in your life, if you can bear to part with yours!
Hammered Copper Tumbler Workshop
30 min / 2,200 yen
If you're more interested in trying out the techniques used to carefully hammer flat sheets of copper into rounded containers, they offer workshops for that as well. The workshops use tin instead, and it can take a little more time, but you'll walk away with a cute hand-shaped bowl perfect for tiny trinkets.
Tin Sake Cup/Bowl Workshop
30+ min / 2,500 yen
・Bonus!・ Sakaya Yayoi & Yahiko Brewing
Want to put your new cup to use right away? You'll find the perfect place not too far from the museum, at Sakaya Yayoi. With a sake shop downstairs, a tasting room upstairs, and local beer available on tap from a window in the front of the store, it's a fun place to imbibe some local spirits (and find some popular consumable souvenirs). In fact, the shop specializes in local Niigata brews, and sells dozens of different sake varieties from the region, plus fun things like local plum wine, and of course Niigata beers. Available in bottles, but also as draft beer, you can try some pretty interesting beer from Yahiko Brewing, including ales made with edamame or chrysanthemum flowers, and other brews made with acorns or yuzu. The draft beer normally comes in a plastic cup, but if you ask nicely, they might just pour it right into your fancy new copper tumbler!
The second workshop the Japankuru team tried in the Workshop Hall was a little less focused on traditional Japanese techniques, but it was a quick way to get into the region's metalworking spirit! Did you know you can change the color of titanium in a matter of seconds? Choose a titanium teaspoon or a little ice cream spoon, and staff will take you to a special water tank rigged to diffuse an electric current, which can oxidize the top layer of titanium and change the color! Adjusting the current strength, you can change your spoon into any one of 24 different colors, or even slowly drag it out of the water as you adjust the current to create a color gradient. This little workshop is very quick, and it's quite popular with kids, but we recommend it to anyone who enjoys the magic of science!
Titanium Spoon Coloring Workshop
~5 min / 500~700 yen
・Bonus #2!・ Craftsmen's Inn Kaji
To keep the theme of the day going, try staying the night in Craftsmen's Inn Kaji! This little guesthouse is a transformed kominka (古民家), and the building's traditional Japanese architecture is beautifully preserved in each and every room, from the retro Japanese-style bathtub to the tatami mats on the floor. Whether you end up staying at Kaji or not, we definitely recommend a night in a traditional Japanese room to everyone traveling to Japan!
This guesthouse is called a "craftsmen's inn" for a few reasons, most strikingly because of the tools decorating the walls as soon as you enter the building: dozens of chisels, planes, and other carpentry tools, all artfully arranged on shelves around the front door. You can try using some of the items on display for yourself, too. They even have locally made knives, and nail clippers straight from the Suwada factory.
Tsubame-Sanjo is a region of artisans, and thanks to some cool hands-on workshops, anyone can get a little glimpse of what it's like to work with your hands using these traditional Japanese techniques, and make something pretty cool to boot! If you love to try new things, or just love the beautiful handicrafts made in Niigata and the rest of Japan, hop on the shinkansen and take a trip to Tsubame-Sanjo!
For more info and updates from Japan, check Japankuru for new articles, and don't forget to follow us on twitter, instagram, and facebook!
▲ See the cities brought to life in our Tsubame-Sanjo video!
Tsubamesanjō Station Access
▶ JR EAST Jōetsu Shinkansen Line
・Under 2 hours from Tokyo to Tsubamesanjō Station.
▶ JR EAST Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) Recommended!
・5 days of JR EAST trains, including shinkansen and limited express trains, plus some JR buses for 18,000 yen (tax included).
・Available to foreign travelers and foreign residents.