Itoigawa, Niigata: Day 2 in Japan’s Jade-Studded Global Geopark
Day 2 ・ In the Mountains: Exploring Jade Gorges & The UNESCO Global Geopark
Onward from the pebbly beaches and precarious cliffs of Itoigawa’s coast, the second day brought us further inland, to hike into the jade realms of the mountains, and the core of the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark.
The Takanami-no-Ike Pond & Mount Myojo Campsite
Reaching 1,188 meters above sea level, Mount Myojo was once a coral reef below the ocean waves, but after 300 million years of changes in the earth’s crust, the now towering peak has become one of the standout attractions at Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark. The harsh rock walls of the mountain reveal the lingering memory of hundreds of millions of years through a wealth of fascinating fossils, but on a plateau about 540 meters above sea level, the placid Takanami-no-Ike Pond reflects a more serene vision of the mountain and surrounding greenery. Between the glassy pond and the surrounding vegetation, this fantastic view shifts throughout the year to show the changing of the seasons, but Mount Myojo reflecting in the water is always the star of the show!
The area around Takanami-no-Ike Pond is a popular campground, and nearby there are also walking trails, golf courses, some restaurants and shops, and places to go boating or fishing. Whether you have time to stay the night, or can only spend an hour or two strolling around the lake and enjoying the view, it’s a wonderful place to enjoy the mountain air.
Kotakigawa Jade Gorge
Below Mount Myojo, the clear waters of the Kotaki River slip between banks made of rough boulders — huge chunks of jadeite. This is the Kotakigawa (or Kotaki River) Jade Gorge, at the very heart of this City of Jade. Most of Itoigawa’s jade comes from two areas, Kotakigawa Jade Gorge and the Omigawa Jade Gorge, but this area along the Kotaki River is thought to be the very first jade production site in Japan, and possibly the world. As such an important part of the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, the gorge is also an officially-recognized Japanese natural monument, and travelers come from near and far to see the magnificent scenery.
It’s hard to resist the cool, clean water of the Kotaki River, so visitors often wade into the shallows, affording an even better look at the beautiful variety of jadeite ore as well. The rare stones gleam in the sunlight, under the crystal clear water. Of course, Itoigawa takes the protection of the Kotakigawa Jade Gorge very seriously, hoping to preserve this beautiful local landmark (and national natural monument) for generations to come. Visitors are asked to take care not to damage the local wildlife, and collection/removal of any stones is outright forbidden. (Head back to the ocean for that!)
Fossa Magna Park & The Border Between East and West Japan
Constructed in 1991, Fossa Magna Park is in many ways the predecessor to Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, and it’s still a major geological attraction in its own right. Heading down the stairs through the middle of the park, visitors’ eyes are met with a rock wall split down the middle into different colors on the right and left, which mark the geographical dividing line that splits the east and west sides of Japan. The Itoigawa-Shizuoka tectonic line, as it’s called, is a major geographical feature, which not only divides the two halves of Japan, but also the boundaries between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates!
To help visitors understand the awesome importance of the geographical landscape found at the park, there are quite a few written explanations and visual depictions of how this geological formation came to be, which also makes it a popular destination for school trips and family excursions. Plus, on the other side of the rock wall, you can look out on a picturesque view of Itoigawa.
The Fossa Magna Museum
At Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, not only can you see some fascinating geological features, but there are also ways to dive much deeper into the mysteries of geology! The Fossa Magna Museum at Miyama Park is the place to go for all kinds of information on the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, with exhibitions that make the local landscape interesting to visitors of all ages. There are signs, videos and animations, plus plenty of real specimens on display to help you learn just what’s going on in and above the earth’s crust, and how this land became the unique formation it is today.
The museum also has a large collection of unique stone specimens, from ragged hunks of jadeite ore to rocks from around the world. Seeing the jade in its rough form, as it comes out of the ground, and also taking a look at some of the works of art that humans have made with the rock, it’s not hard to appreciate the magic of nature. If you picked up your own jade rock on the Jade Coast that you think might be real jadeite, you can actually take it to the museum to get it identified for free, or even use the samples provided to try to identify it yourself!
While jade might be the biggest focus in Itoigawa, an area called “Fossil Valley” can be found right near the Fossa Magna Museum, full of coral reef fossils from 300 million years ago. Museum guests can actually rent excavation tools and head out to the valley to take a look for themselves! If you try your hand at paleontology and come upon some interesting finds in the valley, you can take these rocks to be identified at the museum too (up to five per person). Between the museum’s clean architecture, the excellent design and exhibits, and the knowledgeable experts, a trip to the Fossa Magna Museum adds a new level of interest to the whole Itoigawa region.
Fossa Magna Museum (フォッサマグナミュージアム)
1313 Ichinomiya, Itoigawa, Niigata
Hours: 9:00–17:00 (last entry: 16:30)
Closed: days following public holidays, New Year’s holidays (12/28 ~ 1/4), also Mondays in Dec ~ Feb
*Please check the official website for any other temporary closures.
Admission: 500 yen (free for high school students and younger)
Official Website (en)
Tanimura Art Museum & Gyokusuien Gardens
Itoigawa is home to one very unique art museum, with unusual architecture, an interesting internal layout, and just ten major items on display inside — ten Buddhist statues. The one-of-a-kind Tanimura Art Museum was designed by Japanese Order of Culture recipient Togo Murano, as a location for the private collection of sculptor Seiko Sawada, another Order of Culture recipient. The surprising shape of the building is meant to resemble desert ruins rising from the sand along the Silk Road, while the cave-like interior is shaped to make visitors feel like they’ve entered into a stone grotto. While the collection of Buddhist statues inside is small, each one is artfully placed and lit with the utmost care. In much of the structure it’s hard to find obvious windows, but hidden skylights and artificial lighting work together to bring light to the cavernous rooms, shifting with the seasons and the position of the sun.
Outside, away from the Tanimura Art Museum’s mysterious interior, the grounds also contain an ornamental garden designed by Kinsaku Nakane, former president of the Osaka University of the Arts. The Gyokusuien Gardens teahouse has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the greenery, and inside are elegant tables made from huge, polished slabs of jade, reflecting the garden view. After exploring the Tanimura Art Museum, we recommend stopping by to walk through the garden, and enjoy a cup of coffee or green tea by the windows in the teahouse.
Tanimura Art Museum & Gyokusuien Gardens (谷村美術館･玉翠園)
2–1–13 Kyogamine, Itoigawa, Niigata
Hours: 9:00–16:30 (last entry 16:00)
Closed: days following public holidays, New Year’s holidays (12/29 ~ 1/3), also Tuesdays in Dec ~ mid-March
Official Website (jp)
Itoigawa: A City of Jade, From the Inside Out
On this trip through Itoigawa, we climbed from beautiful beaches dotted with jade to high mountain peaks and rushing rivers filled with the semi-precious stone, seeing all the ways that this natural gift brings out the beauty of this important geographical destination. With its blue sea, blue sky, green mountains, and crystal clear water, perhaps it’s no surprise that Itoigawa has long been a valued source of jade for Japan. From our point of view, the gentle blue-green of real jade, made from the jadeite mined from these mountains, looks just like the landscapes it came from. But to see what we mean, you’ll just have to go see it for yourself!