Living in central Tokyo, it can sometimes be easy to forget that Japan is not just an endless metropolis full of bright lights, flashing neon signs and convenience stores. I for one am guilty of getting wrapped up in big city life. Having felt a yearning to get out into the countryside for a change of scenery, I decided to go on a mini adventure. My goal was a road trip to the Tunnel of Light, an art installation in Niigata Prefecture.

The Tunnel of Light is in Kiyotsu Gorge, a remote area in Tokamachi. With a rental car, travel companions and the finest road trip snacks that the convenience stores of Japan could provide, we hit the road. The journey took us through picturesque and beautiful scenery. For anyone deciding to follow in our tire tracks, here are the highlights.

First Stop – Kawaba Denen Plaza

Chichibu-Tama National Park

Chichibu-Tama National Park

Heading north through Tokyo and up into Saitama Prefecture, the flat rice fields suddenly gave way to a looming range of mountains on the horizon. While Saitama is much maligned as boring, the edge of the prefecture is in fact home to some spectacular scenery. Most notably, the Chichibu-Tama National Park which offers visitors some amazing hiking trails and spectacular views of Mount Fuji. However, my quest to find the Tunnel of Light took us north into Gunma Prefecture. The scenery shifted and suddenly we were driving through the mountains.

Deciding it was time for a lunch break, we stopped at a roadside rest area (Michi no Eki) called Kawaba Denen Plaza. Scenic stops are a great element of any road trip and Japan’s Michi no Eki rarely disappoint. Kawaba Denen Plaza is more hidden and a true marvel. It has won many awards for best roadside rest area and it’s obvious why.

It’s located some way from the main expressway that cuts through Gunma but offers an amazing outdoor plaza area with many different shops, cafes and restaurants. There’s even a farmers market selling local produce. Depending on the season, Kawaba Denen Plaza offers activities such a blueberry picking or pottery making among others.

We opted for a bakery serving fresh bread and locally made cheese. That was followed by a small restaurant that specialized in smoked meats.

If you can’t get enough from this Michi no Eki, there is a hot spring and accommodation nearby. However, our road trip to the Tunnel of Light was just starting, so we drove on.

Overnight Stay – Takaragawa Onsen

The place where we spent the night is a true treasure. Takaragawa Onsen is an old hot spring ryokan in a hidden river valley close to the ski resort of Minakami Kogen. They have several traditional ryokan-style rooms for guests, as well as an outdoor mixed rotenburo bath.

Mixed bathing is such a rare opportunity that it is enough of a reason to visit. But to top that, the ryokan also has superb cuisine. They serve a kasikeki course dinner of seasonal dishes made with local ingredients. If you visit, don’t miss the fantastic vegetable tempura.

Takaragawa Onsen

Takaragawa Onsen

Granted, Takaragawa is not as much of a hidden gem as it once was. Numerous TV appearances have brought it a degree of national and international fame. There has been an increase in visitors as a result. However, the onsen resort is still a magical and unique place that is worth a visit. Every season offers a different experience, with the changing landscape around the hot spring.

takaragawa onsen Gunma

Takaragawa Onsen in winter

Final Destination – The Kiyotsu Gorge

From Takaragawa, it was a two-hour drive through the mountains and into Niigata Prefecture. We arrived at a parking area at the end of the road with a sheer drop beneath it, leading down to the river below. This is Kiyotsu Gorge, location of the famed Tunnel of Light.

A short walk along the riverside led us to an entrance of a tunnel drilled into the side of the mountain. This is the opening to the installation. The tunnels were originally dug for tourists to view the gorge safely following a deadly avalanche in the 1980s. However, by this time the popularity of the area had waned and the crowds had left in favor of some of the bigger and more easily accessible spa towns and resorts nearby. This left the tunnel all but deserted.

Niigata Kiyotsu Gorge road trip to the Tunnel of Light

Kiyotsu Gorge

Inside the Tunnel of Light

In 2018, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial purchased the tunnel and set about restoring it. Designed by Chinese architect Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, the result is breathtaking. The 750-meter underground tunnel walkway is illuminated by different colored lights. It’s also serenaded by different sounds as you walk.

The exhibits that line the tunnel are true showstoppers. As you progress up the tunnel, there are several openings that reveal a different art installation, all set against the breathtaking backdrop of the gorge below.

Niigata Kiyotsu Gorge road trip to the Tunnel of Light

“Light Cave”

The final piece named “Light Cave” is where the tunnel opens to a wide atrium with a shallow pool of water. The water is so shallow that you can walk across to the edge and look at the gorge and river below. However, the installation’s true genius lies on the roof of the atrium above as you walk. The entire roof is covered with an angled mirror that reflects the view of the gorge below. This makes it appear that you are walking across a dream-like landscape. It’s one of the most breathtaking scenes from the whole Tunnel of Light installation.

Niigata Kiyotsu Gorge road trip to the Tunnel of Light

Our road trip to the Tunnel of Light ended there, but the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial boasts more splendid art. So, you can stay a few days in the area and visit different spots. We are definitely thinking of going back again.

For more travel inspiration in this area check out the following articles:

A Walk Through Time: A Guide to Five Days on the Nakasendo Way
Nasu: Explore the Many Landscapes of Tokyo’s Northern Neighbor
A Hiker’s Guide to Japan’s Northern Alps