Outside the train station, the tone is set: Here, locals live with the rhythm of nature and the seasons. As winter approaches, the atmosphere becomes quiet. Visitors arriving at the JR station cannot miss the tourist information center immediately to the left of the main exit. With a map of the city and an explanation of its main attractions, visitors can walk around and discover this charming old town.
Road 230 serves as the heart of Murakami’s tourist district. The road is narrow and lacks sidewalks, but walking beside the buildings allows travelers to progressively rediscover the architecture of old Japan: a gathering of small, dark wooden houses arranged beside one another. Restaurants and businesses that are open to the public display their traditional storefronts with noren curtains, which are reminiscent of the samurai era, when the Murakami clan ruled these lands.
Yamakichi is one of the first art galleries travelers encounter among these old houses. Inside, visitors can discover an exhibition about local products. The owners are quite welcoming and enjoy receiving foreign tourists. A few hundred meters down the same road stands Matsumoto-en, a Japanese green tea shop founded at the end of the Edo era (1603 - 1868) and currently owned by friendly Matsumoto-san, the current heir of this father-to-son lineage. Most of the tea sold here is locally produced. In the back of the store, visitors can discover an ancient room, styled as an old machiya, in which one of the walls is decorated with a wooden staircase that doubles as a chest.
The Salmon Capital
To the west, travelers can make their way down Road 286, which is dedicated to the city’s specialty: wind-dried salmon. Salmon hang in front of stores, and visitors quickly notice their peculiar smell. An obvious stop is きっかわ Kikkawa, the magnificent and district’s most famous workshop. The actual store is only 13 years old, but the Kikkawa family uses and improves upon 400-year-old techniques.
Within these walls, the process is still traditional: the fish’s intestines and gills are removed, and the fish is cleaned and salted before being hung up to air-dry. This process involves an interesting tradition: Those preparing the fish are careful not to totally open the salmon’s stomach to avoid association with hara-kiri or seppuku, the ritual suicide by disembowelment practiced by the samurai. We recommend visiting the store’s back room to see and smell hundreds of salmon drying as they acquire their unique taste.
Kikkawa also supplies Izutsuya, one of the best restaurants in town, which is located only a few meters away from its purveyor. In a beautiful and authentic setting, the restaurant offers at least 21 salmon dishes, all equally good. Moreover, besides salmon, the region is also well-known for its succulent beef, Murakami-Gyu.
Visitors who continue to explore the town’s local specialties should visit Masuda Jinbee, a local sake brewery. The region, surrounded by mountains and rice fields, offers excellent conditions for sake’s main ingredients, rice and water. Finally, in the city center, visitors can explore the temple district, or teramachi, where it is pleasant to wander around when the weather permits.
A little outside the city center, only a few minutes away by taxi, amateurs of Japanese lacquer are invited to visit Urushi Ohtaki. This shop houses a museum, store and workshop, and visitors can try the artistic technique of Kibori Tsuishu, which consists of lacquering an item that has already been engraved. Guests who try this technique create a beautiful and unique present to bring home.
Murakami is also home to Senami Onsen, a Japanese hot springs station on the west coast along the Sea of Japan. This thermal resort is popular within the prefecture and is appreciated by amateurs for its water quality, as well as its ocean landscapes, which are enhanced when the sun sets.
How to get to Murakami
By train -- ~2h from Tokyo by Shinkansen Joetsu bullet train to Niigata Station terminus, then a change: ~ 45 minutes by local train, Inaho Line to Murakami Station (¥12,450 / ~US$ 115.30 or covered by the Japan Rail Pass)
Location reachable with the JRP : order your Japan Rail Pass (from ~US$ 281)
Urushi Ohtaki Lacquer painting workshop: ¥2,500 / ~US$ 23.20
Get your Japanese Yens free of charge
Variable hours depending on establishments
How long / when to visit
Allow one to two days
Accomodation in Murakami
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