Drinking Sake and Marveling at the Bishamon-do at Urasa (Shinkansen Diary Series)

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Located only 1.5 hours away from Tokyo by Shinkansen is Urasa, the center of Minami-Uonuma in the heart of yukiguni, or snow country.  
Snow country also used to be known for the difficulty in getting to it.  Once segregated by mountains and snow, a combination of modern engineering and the efforts of one politician and the king of Pork Barrel projects, Tanaka Kakuei, led to the construction of major thoroughfares to Niigata, including the Joetsu Shinkansen (in fact, Tanaka's statue stands right outside Urasa station).  The Shinkansen will take you all the way to Niigata city, a hub for other wonderful sites in the prefecture along the coastline, but a stop to Urasa is definitely worth your time for these two reasons alone:

Sake

Any sake brewer will tell you that the two most important ingredients are water and rice, and what would you know, Niigata is best known for its pure water (snow melt from the surrounding, untouched mountains) and its Koshi-hikari rice, which is the best in Japan.  As such, Niigata is home to the best sake in Japan, and if you want to pick up some delicious sake along your trip, look no further than Minami-Uonuma.  The area surrounding the city is littered with Sake breweries, and if you have the time and the inclination, the breweries themselves can be worth the visit.  Of course, if you are only passing through, be sure to check out the many sake shops lining the street up to the Bishamon-do.  My personal favorite is Tamagawa Brewery that produces the Echigo Yukikura Sake.
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Bishamon-do

Although I am slightly ashamed to admit it, after being to so many temples and shrines throughout Asia, it takes something really special to wow me.  Yet, I could not help but feel in awe of the Bishamon-do in Minami-Uonuma.  It is not a big shrine, but there is something uniquely compelling about its structures that were built to stand the weight of massive amounts of snow, its combination of wood and copper construction, and the beauty of the natural surroundings (even the purification well is fed by a mountain spring). 
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The Urasa Bishamon-do was constructed back in 807 AD, and it maintains its traditional feel.  Accordingly, the town of Minami-Uonuma still holds the Hadaka Oshiau Taisai (Naked Pushing Festival) every year on March 3rd.  While much of the rest of Japan is starting to heat up to welcome Spring, Winter is still alive and well in Niigata, where snow and freezing temps are still common in early March.  During this festival, a procession of individuals wearing nothing but loin cloths carry torches to the purification well, ditch the fire to hop in the water, and then push their way into the main temple to receive a blessing; hence the name, 'Naked' Pushing Festival.
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While the festival can be an interesting sight to behold, the Bishamon-do is beautiful year round, and if you are able to sneak away on the Shinkansen for a 1/2 day or more, the temple and the other sights that Urasa has to offer are worth the trip!


Mike B