Rural Japan: Yahiko Now and Then in 40 Photos

It’s a truism that some things change, and some just don’t. What makes each place unique is what goes into the basket of stays. I wasn’t thinking history when I slid into the cab at 7:00am in the morning. I was just thinking breakfast(!) at Teradomari Fish Market a quick drive away from Yahiko.

Some of you already know that I default to walking, even if it takes an entire day to get somewhere. Thanks to Odigo Japan, I could experience a different way of travel for my Yahiko Weekend Getaway Day 2: car convenience. You can see my itinerary at the end of the post.

Teradomari Fish Market 寺泊魚市場

After cruising about 20 minutes through the rice fields, we wound through a small set of hills that rolled down into Teradomari town. Even though we (my colleague Delilah came along, too) arrived early, the shops were already half setup and early birds were already savouring their skewers.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood-6743

My jaw dropped when I saw the sizes of the skewers. One was effectively half a meal and is best shared if one wants to sample enough! As with most seafood, the highlight is the delicate freshness, accentuated with simple sauces or garnish. Fresh octopus is chewy instead of rubbery, soft instead of mushy, and sweet with a smokey tentacle finish.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Massive fresh scallops
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Whole fishes,in skewers and fillets
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Filleted and grilled

A whole fish is around ¥600-800 depending on the type. If I had a few days here, I’d work my way there, but that day, I just oogled at the silver crisp skin and imagined what the white moist meat would taste like with salt sprinkled lightly over. (PS: Fish skin is a popular menu item in Shantou, China, where my paternal side is from)

上げ持ち Agemochi
Grilled mochi
Octopus Tako Skewer
Huge chunks of octopus
Agemochi 揚げもち
Agemochi 揚げもち

The 3 shots above were so good they deserved undignified snapshots. Agemochi, fried mochi, is apparently a specialty in the area. Another option is grilled mochi and comes with thin smokey skin enveloping the soft, chewy interior. A thin soy sauce and syrup glaze is brushed on top, while the octopus skewer is given a in a light savoury dip before serving.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Shrimp – you’re supposed to eat the heads! Mini crabs also available too!
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Teradomari’s fish market in full swing

The food stalls are at the front, but the real good stuff is inside. Of course, the seafood on sale here needs to be prepared, but it’s worth going in to look. The large shells that look like snails (don’t ever call them snails to a Japanese friend) are called kai, and grow on rocks by the shore. Also, they have a softer or crunchier texture to snails depending on the preparation (as someone who eats both). Other things to look out for are the scallops, abalone, and various types of fish.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Freshly prepared fillets

So, this photo might gross people out, but it’s the already cleaned-up version (internals removed). The seafood industry starts early. Fishermen head out to sea at in the morning dark hours, returning shortly after sunrise. The fish stalls usually get to work around 4 or 5am to prepare fish (like the ones above) for the market to open at 7 or 8am. By noon, some places get too hot to leave the pieces out.

My earliest childhood memories are of butchers and fishmongers in Chinatown, so what interests me when I go down the isles is whether pieces look fresh or not. You can tell by how moist the flesh is, or how glazed over the eyes are. Fresh seafood places like this do not have that ‘fishy’ smell.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Early morning set-up.
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
This gentleman will spend a good hour filling these two shelves with crab.

I’m glad we arrived before the official opening of the market to watch how the stalls set up. This gentleman examined the crabs before he placed them in a massive pile in front of the shop.

Homing in on him, made me think of how shop setup probably hasn’t changed much in the past decades. Teradomari is part of inaka –, the countryside – still an hour’s walk from the closest train station. Places like this are slow to reap the benefits that Tokyo took for granted even 50 years ago. In the past half-century, these shops probably got their first freezers, air conditioners, and grills. Even now, someone needs to spend an hour wheeling the crates to the front and loading the shelves.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Grilled scallop

Back to food. I asked the grill-master running around if he’d mind me taking a photo. He said, ‘Dozo. Go ahead.’

Then, I asked him, here too? He nodded, so I went behind the counter and shot the scallops as their juices bubbled and their colours ripened.

Eventually, I got yelled at by the elderly lady manning the crab soup side of the shop. ‘Abunaiyo! It’s dangerous, yo!’

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Holding down the fort grilling skewers systematically in anticipation of orders.
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood
Crab soup

When the crab soup lady walked off to help someone, I stuck my camera in her shop too and took a photo of the heavy-duty traditional soup cauldron that was sizzling and guzzling.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Seafood

After troubling the people at the stall so much, of course, we got more items. The sea-hued shell fresh abalone shell caught our eye and was also one of the most expensive items on offer. Before cooking, they have a flat, dusty texture. With one score down the middle and patient grilling with some juice, they take on this beautiful curved shape.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟
Custard buns fresh out of the oven!

Yakitate means freshly baked. Yakitate Japan is a Japanese anime that makes a pun on freshly made bread (pan). When I saw the obaa-san pulling one home-made set out of the oven, I was sold.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟
Toto’s Cafe at Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Actually, that was a lie. I was first sold by this view when I looked up from the kitchenware section into this cut-out in the same building.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟
Toto’s Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Such coffee equipment here, in a seafood market, of all places. Truth be told, my rural Japan has been a minefield of such out-of-place discoveries that delightfully blast out my expectations.

Toto's Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟
Toto’s Cafe Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

Of course, paired with the open, down-to-earth kitchen just behind.

Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟 Crab Seafood
Niigata Terodomari 寺泊 新潟

By the time we finished, the fishmonger had finished his stacking too. I wondered how long the ice would last as the sun continued to climb.

Japanese Rural Village Life

Flatlands are rare in Japan, so it’s no wonder that Niigata Prefecture’s plains are dotted with villages, connected like constellations against the tapestry of rice fields that feed much of Kanto down south. Teradomari may once have seemed a day’s journey from Yahiko, but with the advent of the car, it’s become an easy breakfast excursion.

Yahiko 弥彦村-6818
The mini torii with a disproportionately thick rope (i.e. super important).
Yahiko 弥彦村-6824
Sakurai Jinja

The shrine I ended up at was an unusual destination right by the side of the main road, sandwiched in between vegetable plots. I came to the Sakurai Jinja because it was on Odigo’s spot list and marched through a tilled garden to get to the small stone torii gate.

In Shinto, the shimenawa rope and paper shide are believed to attract spirits within a sacred vessel. The emphasis isn’t on a human object, but the marked natural form. In the same way, this modest torii gestured to the half-hollow gigantic tree. Walking through, I found a secluded grove with yet another modest shrine. This green bubble in the middle of fields, houses, and concrete is easily overlooked, too still, naturally invisible to the modern eye trained by flashing lights and whizzing sights.

The shrine’s size may seem unimpressive, but walk closer, and the protective tree above it is. This spot is one of the contenders for the former Ichinomiya Shrine of Echigo Province. I paused on that thought and extended the village houses still left to imagine a lively town with kids playing on unpaved dirt roads while horses clattered by.

Yahiko 弥彦村-6833 旧武石家住宅
The bell tower, storehouse, and former Takeishi residence behind the trees

The remaining nondescript cluster of houses hugging the hills had other stories to share. My next treasure hunt item was the former Takeishi Residence. Again, it was one of those places that I was perfectly prepared to move on from after a quick poke-around.

Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
The fireplace is kept alive with embers, that are knocked into a fire for visitors.
Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
Smoke fills the open barn-like house if the doors are closed.
Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
Smoke also prevents insects and mould in the thatched roof.
Former Takeishi Residence 旧武石家住宅
The house, dismantled, moved, and returned, still has the original hardwood beams.

I was probably the only visitor that day. I paid the ¥200 admission and the caretaker took his time giving me a receipt. He stayed in a small modern cabin to the side that was decked with a kitchenette and stove. In the middle, a chair and small table were arranged for afternoon tea and napping.

Since we struck up conversation, he took it upon himself to show me the grounds, explaining the traditional interiors that have been preserved for centuries, the use of the fire, the miso out-house, and the settlers that came from Ishikawa Prefecture down south.

School Time!

The caretaker also directed me to the elementary school, saying it was free and a must-visit because it showed traditional village life. Having been to other such museums, I told myself I’d take a 5-minute peak and call it a day.

Former Elementary School
Former Yahiko Elementary School downstairs hallway
Yahiko Former Elementary School
An elementary school classroom

The unattended museum was kept in immaculate condition. Visitors are to take off their shoes and use the one pair of slippers provided if they wanted. The wooden planks and furniture looked as if they’d been used (and cleaned) yesterday – a yesterday five decades ago.

Yahiko Former Elementary School
A traditional woven basket
Yahiko Former Elementary School
Straw slippers
Yahiko Former Elementary School
Former Yahiko Elementary School

The sandals, laced with colourful modern cloth, were likely the result of a modern elementary school project. They sat neatly under the windows in the hallway, conjuring the voices of students racing through, sweeping up their shoes, and laughing as they headed home.

Yahiko Former Elementary School
Themed information sessions on the villager’s daily lives and homes

The rooms had displays of the daily items probably last picked up only a century ago: farm tools, a village hearth, cooking utensils, and public infrastructure. Woven baskets and straw sandals showed off the austere beauty of workmanship that had a direct impact on comfort. These items seemed as though they could be picked up today for the plots still growing rice.

The cool air in these rooms sat a little thicker, as if stirred delicately by the fresh breeze blowing through the open windows left open during public hours.

Yahiko Former Elementary School
Former Yahiko Elementary School classroom – colour.
Yahiko Former Elementary School
Upstairs hallway
Yahiko Former Elementary School
Upstairs math classroom
Yahiko Former Elementary School
Former Yahiko Elementary School

Needless to say, I spent much more than 5-minutes walking the halls conjuring decade-old memories that belong to others. The smell of crisp tatami mats waft out of the classroom as I slide open a door. Daylight streams in through the windows in tandem with the light breeze. There are rooms to imagine, then there are neatly arranged corners to learn.

Historical appetite satisfied, I marched down the rest of the village to a resort onsen. Even though it was fast approaching noon, a good outdoor soak with the mountain breeze wouldn’t go amiss!

Modernity: The Reach of Coffee

After floating like a prune from pool to onsen pool, I finally extracted myself and napped (Sakura no Yu was a modern onsen resort complete with yukata options, restaurants, and lounge areas). And when I finished that, I hopped in a cab that whisked me off to coffee and cake.

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
My coffee ad moment.
Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
Scandinavian-inspired interior

Tsubame Coffee seems like it wants to stay hidden behind its garden, as if it were worried the whole town would flood in if they knew such a great indie coffee shop existed. I spent a good hour or two here enjoying the Scandinavian lounge chairs, typing up notes on my phone and Bluetooth keyboard. One section was the cafe bar, which was half a storage area. The cafe’s black shiba dog lounged in air condition comfort by the semi-open door and trotted outside whenever benevolent-looking guests opted to dine in the lawn instead.

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
Tsubame Coffee’s counter

A lifestyle store section sold handmade goods and crafts that seemed like they were from the area. This unabashed mish-mash was all camouflaged in a modern, round glass building in the middle-of-what-seemed-like -nowhere!

Tsubame Coffee ツバメコーヒー
The greenhouse entrance into the main seating area.

When the time came, I phoned another cab and headed back towards the train station. The heat had killed my appetite, so I bought snacks at the gift shop instead. Soon after boarding the train, I passed out.

Another thing about rural life: not much seems to be done, yet one never feels like anything is left undone.

Thanks for checking this out!

My itinerary was made with Odigo Japan, and I’d highly recommend you rent a car or at least budget a few taxi rides to enjoy all this! By the way, things I didn’t make it to, but also highly recommend are the sake sampling at a local brewery (reservation required) and making your own letter opener at a metal gallery.

You can check out my Yahiko Village Day 1 photos.

Athena Lam

A content marketing strategist and consultant.

6 thoughts on “Rural Japan: Yahiko Now and Then in 40 Photos

  1. Omg, I was definitely drooling lol. The food looks so good. The countryside of Japan is a must visit for me, at least once. It’s a different way of life, in a good way!

    I can’t get over how nice your photos are. Can I ask what camera and lenses you typically use? And it’s not just the quality of your photos the composition is awesome too!

    Thank you so much for sharing! Your pictures and tidbits of knowledge are interesting. Can’t wait to read more about your travels! =)


    1. I’m glad these little moments have enticed you! Honestly, many small villages in Japan have their own regional charms. I’ve volunteered on farms and I miss it quite a bit. It’s definitely one of my most ideal ways to have a vacation!

      I use a mix of tools, but the ones you’ve been looking at for Yahiko were shot with the Fujifilm X100 (OLD model – from around 2012).

      My tools are:
      Panasonic LX100 (courtesy of the company I work at PT)
      Fujifilm X100
      Asus Zenphone (I think V1? forgot)
      Nikon D90 + 60mm Macro Prime / 24-50mm old-school metal version

      For the cameras, I shoot in RAW and process in Lightroom 5. For my phone, it’s just JPG and Snapseed. 🙂

      Flickr tracks the technical specs for photos quite well, so you can also have a look at that:

      Impact Hub Tokyo-9879

      Tools are important because they capture what I want, but ultimately, what matters for me is composition first.

      Thank you! I’m finishing a big collection from Gujo Hachiman in Gifu! 😀 I hope you enjoy those too!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes that sounds like an awesome vacation! Thanks for sharing your many tools! I have just my one camera (Nikon D3300) and phone lol. I’m still a newbie to photography so this helps! I never tried shooting in RAW but I heard that the amount of control you have when editing is much more than if it was a JPG. I bought a book to learn how to use photoshop just have to keep at it!

        And OMG your flickr photos are amazing. I can’t wait until I’m in Japan. I’m applying for jobs now =) Looking forward to more of your photos and posts! Thanks again Athena!


      2. RAW has 3-4 colours layers that are isolated.
        JPG is one flattened image, and the way you see a composite colour like purple is having lots of red and blue dots together rather than overtop each other. That’s why, when you edit a JPG, colour distortion is immediately blotchy and obvious. 🙂

        That principle is the most important one to understand. The rest is learning to edit. 🙂

        Good luck with your job applications!

        Liked by 1 person

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