One thing is true: there’s more to Japan than the well-known destinations of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka. After all, with over 43 prefectures, there are surely TONS of other hidden gems out there that will be worth any traveler’s while! In fact, there is one stunning place that’s yet to be discovered by foreign tourists and that’s to visit Niigata Prefecture on the west coast of Japan (Chubu/Central Japan).
There are numerous reasons that I can give as to why you should make Niigata a part of your Japan travel itinerary, but for now, let me give you the top 10 reasons why this is an absolute MUST to see!
10 Reasons Why You Should Visit Niigata
» It’s an amazing destination for ALL seasons
Nestled by the mountains and the seas, this prefecture is a treasure trove of sorts when it comes to breathtaking natural wonders. In fact, you’ll find yourself snapping away non-stop when you visit Niigata because first off, in spring, all the beautiful flowers start to bloom in their best.
Of course, the famous cherry blossoms (sakura) are a given but what you probably didn’t know is that because of Niigata’s prime geographical location, it enjoys a longer period of sakura season which lasts for more than one month. A must to visit for this would be Takada Castle’s Sakura Road that is filled with over 4,000 sakura trees that are lit up by 3,000 paper lanterns (come around the first week of April for this).
Other than this, Niigata also takes pride in its carpet of fields that are bountiful with tulips; this is naturally so because the prefecture ranks as #1 in tulip production in the country. Must-see tulip fields are Tanai and Gosen city.
Come summer, Niigata’s long coastline comes into play with its rugged cliffs, clear blue seas, and white sandy beaches. Along with this would be the advent of festivals or matsuri and Niigata is known in Japan as having weekly shows of fireworks. (See point #7 below in this post to know more about this.)
When autumn starts to crawl in, it becomes harvest time for Niigata’s prized koshihikari rice so you’ll find endless golden paddies. But more than this, you will find endless parks that will be cloaked in stunning hues of red, orange and yellow. Make sure that you don’t miss Yahiko Park or Maple Valley, as well as the Dragondola in Mikuni to see a carpet of golden leaves from 5,481 meters high.
To end the year, Niigata turns into a silver wonderland in winter — truth be told, it’s the heart of Japan’s Snow Country that’s why it’s actually referred to as the best destination when it comes to ski resorts in order to do activities like skiing and snowboarding. Aside from this, a must to see would be the Tokamachi Snow Festival on the 3rd Saturday of February as this is the oldest and one of the grandest now celebrations in Japan. The Yasuzuka Snow Festival Candle Road (Joetsu) is also an interesting sight to witness as they list snow lanterns and fireworks at the same time.
» The whole prefecture is a a rice and sake lover’s paradise
When you visit Niigata, trying out their rice and sake is something that you should NOT miss out on!
Besides, Niigata is one of Japan’s major premium rice producers and one important variety they produce, the koshihikari, is very popular due to it’s great quality and taste that is largely attributed to the prefecture’s prime location, temperature, soil, and waters. Naturally, if they produce excellent rice, they produce outstanding sake (rice wine) too.
If you want to enjoy Niigata’s sake, I highly suggest that you visit during mid-March for the Sake no Jin festival. In this 2-day event, 90 breweries all over Niigata Prefecture bring their best sake and you, as an attendee, can taste over 500 types of refined sake to your heart’s content for just ¥2,500 yen!
If you can’t come in March, just head over to Echigo-Yuzawa station’s Ponshukan area to. In here, there are unique sake vending machines that features over 96 different sake brands and you only have to pay ¥500 for a cup! Next door, you will even find a sake shop and even a sake onsen!
» Basically, it is a foodie’s haven!
Amongst the Japanese, Niigata is regarded as one of the country’s best culinary hotspots not only because of its quality rice and sake, but also because of its dishes that are made from fresh and great-tasting ingredients from the mountains and the seas.
Some of the noteworthy dishes are hegi soba (a noodle dish with a smoother texture due to it being made with funori seaweed), noppe (a delicious traditional stew filled with bountiful ingredients), sushi zanmai kiwami (a special 10-piece set featuring kiwami or the best season catches by the chef), sasadango (a dango or dumpling made of mugwort-flavored sticky rice and red bean paste wrapped in bamboo leaf), and so much more!
Niigata and its famed Sado Island also boasts of its goods from the sea: nanban ebi (a kind of shrimp that is sweet in flavor), benizuwaigani (red snow crabs), kamburi (the yellow tail which is Sado’s finest fish), etc.
See here for a complete list of the top Niigata food and drinks!
If in case you want to try some hands-on experiences on food when you visit Niigata, stop by Senbei Okoku (Kingdom) (where you can make your own senbei or rice crackers to take home), Tanakaya Mianto Kobo (where you can make sasadango with your own hands), and Shirone Grape Garden (where you can pick fruits that are grown in Niigata — a must to try would be the persimmons in this region!).
» You can meet and play with REAL geisha at an affordable price
Japan’s geisha are artists who are known for their beautiful appearance and traditions. To meet them, however, comes with a hefty price because booking them for an ozashiki (dinner banquet) can start at about ¥20,000 yen — and that’s only for an hour AND not including yet the dinner costs.
Because of this, a lot of people visit Kyoto instead to to try their luck and catch a glimpse of geisha on the streets as they make their way to work (a rather difficult feat because they choose NOT to be spotted by the crowd; plus, there are even tourists who dress up like geisha so they’re easily confused for the real ones). When that doesn’t work, others just settle into watching them dancing from afar on the stage in Gion Corner for a few minutes.
So, what if I told you that I know of a rare opportunity where you can meet, play, watch, and even talk to a geisha for about an hour for just ¥3,000 yen? If you visit Niigata City’s Furumachi district, you can! After all, it is considered one of the three most prestigious areas in Japan for geisha, along with Gion in Kyoto and Shinbashi in Tokyo.
This program is called as Niigata Hanamachi Chaya and held at Saitou Villa in Niigata City. To find out more about this experience, read my post below:
» One of Sado Island’s gold parks will let you take gold fragments home for FREE
Sado Island is a part of Niigata Prefecture which is commonly called as the “Island of Gold”. The history of gold and silver production here dates back to the ancient times which made the island as one of the major source of revenue for the Tokugawa shogunate.
Today, there are several mining locations that are open to the public. An interesting one is the Nishimikawa Gold Park which is said to be the remains of the oldest gold dust mine on Sado; I say “interesting” because in here, you can try your hands at searching for gold (or gold panning) for only ¥800 yen.
Once you’re done, you can keep the gold dust that you will find within 30 minutes for FREE! Sure, it might not a big gold bar but hey, it’s still gold nonetheless and it makes for a very fun experience. (NOTE: You can have the gold dust to-go in a simple plastic tube, or you can have it put in a necklace, keychain, etc. for an additional small fee).
Another place to check out would be Sado Kinzan which was the biggest and the most productive mine in Japan (they annually produced nearly 400 kilograms of gold!). Today, this mine is converted into a museum with 2 walking courses that leads to the mining tunnels which shows displays and models depicting its olden operations.
» You can sail the sea in a small yet one-of-a-kind tub boat (like the movie ‘Spirited Away’)
When my travel guide asked me if I wanted to try a “tub boat”, I had to clarify what he meant by that — and he told me that it’s exactly what it is: a tub… that is a boat.
Called as tarai-bune, these tub boats or bucket boats were practical to use in the past in order to collect shellfish, abalone, and seaweed from Sado’s rocky coastal waters. Today however, they are mainly used to amuse travelers in the island.
If you’re a fan of the famous Japanese animated movie, Spirited Away, this tarai-bune was featured in one of its scenes. So how’s that for a bucket list thing-to-do?
So when you visit Niigata’s Sado Island, you can acquire this service from Ogi port, or at Yajima-Kyojima area which has more scenic surroundings. They are open daily throughout the year and for 10 minutes you only have to pay ¥500 (for adults) or ¥300 (for children). This service comes with a costumed ‘skipper’ and while on the tub boat, you can even try your hands on rowing and steering it — which was rather difficult because they have a very unique way of doing it.
» Famous in Japan for holding the “Big Three Fireworks Festivals of Echigo”
Every year in the summer, Niigata holds big hanabi or fireworks festivals in 3 famous locations that are known as the “Big 3 Fireworks Festivals of Echigo”. Ask any Japanese local about the best fireworks display festival and they’ll be sure to mention any of the following! Now I’m not sure about you, but the Japanese surely know how to put up an impressive fireworks show so these are quite a spectacle to see as you visit Niigata:
- Gion Kashiwazaki Matsuri Fireworks Festival by the Sea: (Around the last week of July) As the name suggests, the fireworks are set off along the Japan Sea coast and it’s the largest of its kind. What’s notable of this event is the extensive use of huge shakudama fireworks and star mines.
- Nagaoka Matsuri Fireworks Festival: (August 2nd and 3rd) Over 20,000 fireworks lit up the sky during this occasion and amongst the most famous ones that are being set off are: 3-shaku (approximately 90 cm fireworks), Phoenix (huge 1.7kg fireworks) and Kome Hyappyo (“100 Bags of Rice” fireworks where 100 shakudama are fired off). This event is not only a beautiful spectacle but also an emotional event for the locals as it is a memorial for those who lost their lives in the Nagaoka firebombing and Chuetsu Earthquake.
- Katakai Matsuri Asahara Shrine Annual Autumn Festival: (September 9 and 10) This festival dates back to the Edo period wherein fireworks are donated to the shrine. If you come to this affair, you will witness the massive yonshakudama which explodes into a massive flower of fire that is 800 meters in diameter — this is actually listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest firecracker in the world!
» Hands-on experiences with a ‘taiko‘ together with world-famous Kodo instructors
If you’ve been to Japan before, I bet you’ve seen a drumming game in the arcades of Akihabara that the Japanese seemingly love to play — that’s called as Taiko no Tatsujin and the drums are called as taiko.
In case you don’t know, a taiko is a traditional Japanese percussion instrument that has deep roots in ancient Japanese mythology. It has been used in warfare to motivate troops, send out orders, and set a marching pace (apart from it being used in theatre, festivals, and rituals).
Nowadays however, ‘taiko’ is more often used as a term to refer to the drumming performance itself. It’s said that there are over 5,000 taiko groups active in Japan and the Kodo performing arts ensemble, who hails from Sado Island, is one of the most popular taiko groups not only in the country but worldwide too. (It’s expected too that Kodo will be performing in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics! Come watch an example of their amazing performance on this video).
So if you visit Sado Island, you will find the Sado Island Taiko Centre (Tatakokan) and in here, you can experience once of their programs wherein you can learn how to play the taiko as well as learn of its history and origins. The cool thing about this is that you’ll be taught by instructors who are or were Kodo members!
This is a truly enjoyable activity, especially if you’re traveling with family and/or friends so I highly recommend it! Besides, it’s not everyday that you can try a real taiko drum with your own hands together with a famous and experienced Japanese player, right?
» An “onsen kingdom”
After Hokkaido and Nagano, Niigata actually boasts the most onsen (hot springs) of any prefecture in Japan! To date, there are about 150 onsen in the area and each and every single one of them offers a unique spa experience (my favorite would be the rotenburo or the outdoor onsen baths because it lets me enjoy the experience while having a great view of a surrounding terrain).
So what’s the big deal about an onsen? After you get over the initial shock of bathing with other people of the same sex in the nude (I assure you, you will get over this fact in an instant once you’re there and for sure it is totally hygienic due to the cleansing process you have to do beforehand), you will surely find the wonderfully relaxing sensation of sitting in these hot baths whilst gazing at impressive sceneries. To add, onsen are said to give an array of beautifying and therapeutic benefits.
Some amazing onsen places in a ryokan (Japanese inn) that you should experience when you visit Niigata are: Tsukioka Onsen (for its spring rich in sulfur and famous aged hinoki or cypress baths), Matsunoyama Onsen Ryokan Chitose (for its medicinal hot springs), Osado Onsen (for its open-air baths that have stunning views over Sado), and Akakura Kanko Resort & Spa (for its onsen that has panoramic views of Mt. Myoko, giving you a magnificent sea of clouds view in the day).
» A mere 2-hour train ride away from Tokyo
For JR Pass holders, the best reason as to why you should visit Niigata Prefecture is this: it’s just a 2-hour shinkansen (bullet train) ride away from Tokyo! So technically, aside from the fact that traveling here will NOT cost you a thing, it is also relatively near.
Currently, there are several trains that go to the prefecture of Niigata, but your best bet especially when coming from Tokyo is to take the “Toki” or “Max Toki” bullet train on JR East’s Joetsu Shinkansen line. It costs about ¥10,500 one-way ($90~ or Php 4,500~) if you do NOT have a JR East pass or Japan Rail pass for this because if you don’t know this yet, these two passes offer unlimited FREE travel on JR train lines upon purchase.
Anyhow, if you’re not able to attain a JR pass, your train costs can go lower if you take the Moonlight Echigo from Shinjuku — however, this takes 6 hours. It leaves at night and arrives in Niigata early morning for ¥5,900 each way.
If you want to pay even lesser, the train tickets can cost a whooping ¥2,000 only during Seishun 18 promo season which is usually around March 1 to April 10 and July 20 to September 20, as well as December 10 to January 10.
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» Top Niigata Tours «
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Without a doubt, to visit Niigata will be a Japan travel experience that you should not skip out on especially now that you’ve discovered its wondrous activities, culture, events, food, and sights.
I’ve absolutely fallen in love with this place and I hope I have convinced you enough to give this place a try when you’re in Japan. After all, I am sure that you will too be head over heels with it too!
Some few photos above are from Niigata Tourism Board.