The ease of access to Shitada means that there are plenty of places to stay in the region, starting with several convenient modern hotels located near both the exits from the highway and the Shinkansen train stations. But many will want to stay right in the heart of the slower pace found in Shitada itself. One landmark hotel that defines the local style is Rankeiso, set right along the Igarashi River, with a stream running right through the property. Actually a collection of three buildings of different ages, this traditional Japanese inn provides a natural onsen (hot spring), traditional rooms and service, and serves yamasato kaiseki, course meals built around such local ingredients as sansai (wild mountain vegetables), vegetables and meat and especially fish from the local rivers. The hotel’s specialty is ayu sembei, slices of sweetfish cut as thin steaks and cooked until almost as crispy as sembei rice crackers—an ideal partner for the regional saké the hotel serves.
Much of the real local cuisine, in fact, builds on the outstanding local ingredients, both wild and from the fields. A simple, distinctive local item is hikoze (although the locals may say hikozaen—be ready for that local dialect!), steamed rice flavored with egoma, an herb related to shiso, shaped into a wedge, brushed with a miso-based sauce and grilled. Sasadango, little flavored balls of mochi (sticky rice) wrapped in sasa bamboo grass leaves—a popular treat in parts of Niigata—find a unique version here, flavored with burdock and filled not with the usual red bean paste but chestnuts or savory fillings. Curry and rice is a popular dish across Japan; here you’ll find unique versions of this spicy dish based around local vegetables or Sanjo pork. Many say that the curry became popular because of the metal craftsmen, who needed a warming, invigorating dish, especially during the cold winters. Another interesting local variety of a nationwide favorite is the yamashio (salt) ramen, made here using the naturally-occurring salt that gives some local onsen water a high degree of salinity.
This unique inn set right on the Igarashi River; enjoy soaking in the natural onsen (hot spring), set in an historic building, accompanied by the soothing sound of the water. The onsen water, in fact, contains a high quantity of salt and other minerals—so strong that it was once used as a medicine—a combination that leaves the skin feeling moist and comfortable. It’s a place where you can really feel the seasons, from the cherry blossoms and fresh sprouts of spring, to flashing fireflies in summer, brilliant autumn colors and winter’s blankets of pure white snow. It’s just set far enough away to feel like a secret escape spot.
Rankeiso is a unique combination of buildings, including Ryokufukan, built in the early 20th century, brought here as part of the hotel and today a nationally registered building.
Rankeiso is also well-known for its superb meals, with river fish, wild vegetables and the best local produce all prepared using special spring water. The chef also takes pride in varying the menu to make the most of seasonal specialties.
Yamakawa, set right on the bank of the Igarashi River, is a restaurant serving fine handmade soba noodles. The large windows provide excellent views of the Shitada countryside, and of the river flowing gently below. The chef/owner is especially particular about serving items he says must be, “Freshly ground, freshly beaten and freshly boiled.” All the ingredients come from right here in Shitada, ensuring that the soba and other dishes are always fresh and delicious. As with the best of Japanese cuisine, the materials are not simply fresh, but also carefully selected for their compatibility. Along with the handmade soba noodles are the best seasonal items: wild shoots in spring, fresh fish from the river, mushrooms in autumn, and fresh new soba in autumn and winter (but also delicious throughout the year). Also recommended with the meal is saké from Fukugao Brewery, proudly produced in Sanjo.
This name of this brewery, founded in 1890, means “The Face of Good Fortune”—in other words, it’s a saké that will make you happy. Made from locally grown saké rice and the super-soft water of the clear Igarashi River, it goes great with local foods. The brewery also likes to try new variations, such as saké that has been stored in whiskey, bourbon, brandy and other liquor barrels, adding a unique, rich flavor that goes great with cheese, nuts and even chocolate. It’s good whether you’re eating inside, or cooking some local goodies over a campfire.
Shitada has a long tradition of fine metal craftsmanship, from the hand-forged nails that started the industry more than 200 years ago, to today’s high-tech camping gear made by companies headquartered here.
The beautiful staggered rice terraces known as tanada are great destinations for a hike or bike ride. This rural side of Shitada also provides a bounty of delicious vegetables and fruits, while wild vegetables can be found in those forests just beyond the fields.