Spotlight: Northern Culture Museum (Niigata)

The days surrounding the New Year are a remarkably difficult time to travel in Japan and yet for some reason last month, I went ahead and planned a trip anyway. I really should have known better but I was certain that something would be open in the city of Niigata, where we were to spend December 29th and 30th. Surely a museum or something, right?

It turns out I was mostly wrong, and Niigata had shut down right after Christmas. But I did manage to stumble across one site outside the city that became one of my favorite places of the entire trip (and not just because the sign said “open”) – the Northern Culture Museum.

The compound was once the home of the Ito Family, one of the largest landowning families in Japan with about 2370 hectares of land under their control, half of that being paddies devoted to rice production. The mansion alone is 60 rooms, and that doesn’t even cover the multiple outbuildings.

The exterior of the main house at the museum
The exterior of the main house at the museum

An English pamphlet gives enough useful information for a tour of the main house, supplemented a tad with the yellowing news articles hung on the walls detailing an American service member’s role after the war in assisting the Ito family in preserving their property. The 1946 Land Reform Act meant that no one could own more than three acres of land, and the Ito family was certainly in excess of that. But designating the area as a museum allowed the parcel of land to remain intact.

One of the tatami rooms inside the house
One of the tatami rooms inside the house

In winter, the house is freezing (wear warm socks or take advantage of the slippers provided) so it’s best to visit in a warmer season. In fall, the stunning on-site garden is awash in reds, oranges and yellows as the foliage changes. You can’t walk around the main garden, but you can walk around the side gardens, where we stumbled across a very unique three-sided tea houses and over 30 lanterns (a great counting project for my daughter 😉 ).

A garden between the buildings
A garden between the buildings
A view of part of the large garden from the veranda
A view of part of the large garden from the veranda

There is also a restaurant on the premises, though it was not open at the New Year. There’s not much else in the area, so if you come by public transportation (about 40 minutes from Niigata city center), it’s a safe bet to eat here.

The website for the museum is here.

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