I love the long stretch of highway that connects Minami - Uonuma to Nagaoka City in Niigata. After exiting the Kanestsu Tunnel, one of the longest land tunnels in the world, and the central gateway to the heartland of nihonshu and koshihikari in Japan, I was blessed with beautiful clear skies along with some momentary showers from little rain clouds while cruising at a comfortable 100 km/h.
The weather was a pleasant 24 degrees Celsius. The air was clean and all I could see all around me were miles and miles of beautiful golden premium rice fields and grains swaying in the breeze. The highway was long, empty, smooth and straight, like I was driving towards destiny. The music track I had in the player was called "Faith" by Kelly Howell. A car from behind me sped by in the next lane then disappeared into the horizon. As I continued down the highway I could see farmers scattered about hither and thither, backs bent and pulling grains up out of the ground. I eased off the pedal a bit so as to catch a better view.
A few short kilometers away I pulled over into a rest area to stretch and relieve myself. The air that day was so clean and fresh. Funny, every fifteen minutes or so a light shower would come down for a few minutes then stop. The clouds would then move away and rain somewhere else. The sun occasionally poked its head out just to let you know it was there. I got back in the car and checked over the map just to make sure I was headed in the right direction. Even this far out my laptop PC had excellent signal. I was able to pinpoint my final destination with no problem, even booked a hotel for that night online right there in my car in the rest area.
As I continued my journey down this long, empty, and smooth stretch of highway I was anticipating lunch. The place of choice is located in Nagaoka city, about a five or ten minute walk from the Nagaoka JR station. It's called Kojimaya, which is famous for "hegisoba," a very old and traditional local favorite from this part of Japan. This restaurant came highly recommended by my friend Ichibay over at Sake and Kimono. I had no problems finding the place either, plus there was ample free parking available right behind the restaurant which was nice because after eating I walked around for a few hours searching for a few sake places.
My initial and final impressions of the restaurant was fantastic. The food, sake, hospitality and timeliness of service were all excellent and would highly recommend this place to anyone. There were so many customers coming in and out, especially older people and quite a few out of towners as well. I chose a nice comfortable seat in the back away from plane view, I was solo that day and relished every moment of it. The soba was long and lightly firm just the way I like it. Tempura also came with the set menu, which was perfectly and lightly fried. I can hardly remember the last time I had tempura this perfect before....
After leaving the restaurant I headed over to the station area to pick up a few bottles of seasonal autumn sake. On the way to the station though I didn't notice much about the city. Nagaoka is an old city, and nothing much goes on up here. This isn't my first time visiting this city either. The last time I was up this way was because of a stopover at a love hotel for a rest with my girlfriend, and then the next morning we had continued on to an auto campsite for some rest and respite somewhere further north - Joestu.
One point I'd like to mention about, the kaiten sushi shops in Nagaoka are all exceptional. There are many kaiten sushi places in this area and all are grade A, including the love hotels. The cheapest and largest love hotels I've seen in Japan.
Nagaoka is a good stopover hub for people who want to continue on to Niigata city as there’re many accommodations available for every budget. If you need business hotel accommodations this city has it all. I’ve seen some places as cheap as 4,800 per night that are just walking distance from the station.
In fact, the accommodations I had initially booked was 4800 yen at the Sun Palace hotel which I cancelled on the same day – no penalty either. I need to stay in a place that has an onsen and sauna, so I found another place in Shiozawa called Yung Parunas. Although it cost a little more, the facilities came fully equipped with real onsen water and a sauna. Plus it was closer to the highway.
After leaving Nagaoka, and heading back down south to Shiozawa the rain came! It poured heavily for an hour. The winds also picked up and occasionally huge gusts of wind would force my car to loose control a little. I needed to drive with two hands.
After arriving to my hotel, check-in was very smooth. My room was huge and I had an excellent view of Echigo from my bedroom window. The rains finally stopped and I was able to leave the window open all night, too bad I couldn’t see any stars though.
I briefly stepped out and ran to the sake shop and purchased three bottle of seasonal sake for tonight’s binge drinking and onsen. I also managed to stopover at a local restaurant to try a Koshihikari sushi course menu. Got back to the room and enjoyed the onsen for four hours.
The light cold drizzle on my face and body as I sat there in the outdoor bath was nice. The smell of natural sodium chloride from the 100% onsen source was heaven! There is no smell quite like this anywhere in the world. It is so soothing and refreshing.
After returning to my room I felt perfectly refreshed and relaxed. The sake I had purchased earlier was chilling away in the fridge. I pulled a bottle out along with some fish cake. I drank the night away. Next morning I headed back to Yokohama and made it to work on time by 4pm!