Niigata Prefecture is situated on the west coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu, and the region is well known for being a popular ski and snowboard destination during the colder months. Easily accessible from Tokyo via the Joetsu Shinkansen, there are plenty of reasons to pay this part of the country a visit – and not just for the bucketloads of winter activities! Wondering what Niigata has to offer? Here are 15 of the best things to see and do in this part of Japan.
1. Shred the slopes at Kagura Ski resort
Photo by senngokujidai4434 on FlickrNiigata has a number of great ski resorts, which may not be all that surprising given that the prefecture gets some of the highest volumes of snow on the planet. One of the best resorts is Kagura, which boasts 23 different trails and perfect powder. Best part of all? Their snow season runs from around November until May, so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy a Niigata winter wonderland.
2. Try a brew (or five!) at the Ponshukan
In a prefecture known for their great rice, another thing is a certainty – fantastic sake. You’ll find three Ponshukan locations throughout the prefecture, at Echigo Yuzawa, Nagaoka and Niigata City stations respectively, where you can try some of the best brews the region has to offer. 500 yen gets you five tokens, which you use to make your selections from an entire wall of sake vending machines. If you find something you particularly like, you’re able to buy full-sized bottles in the adjacent shop front to take home with you.
3. Enjoy the beauty of nature at Oze National Park
Photo by C.K. Tse on FlickrIf you want to take in the best of the great outdoors, Oze National Park is the perfect spot to do that. Situated over a wide area that dips into Niigata, Gunma, Tochigi and Fukushima prefectures, it’s a must for hiking enthusiasts or anyone who appreciates fantastic scenery and plant life. It’s particularly popular during the fall months as a spot to view the koyo, or autumn foliage.
4. Pray for love and good fortune at Yahiko Shrine
Photo by boy wakanmuri on FlickrDating back around 1300 years is Yahiko Shrine, which ticks all the boxes for a historic spot with aesthetic appeal. Surrounded by mountains and cedar trees, the shrine was designated as an Important Cultural Property back in 1998. It’s an even more photogenic spot in the spring months, with cherry trees featuring at the entrance to the shrine itself. Many people come here to pray for love and good fortune, which have to be two things in life that none of us can get enough of.
5. Experience the fireworks at the Nagaoka Summer Festival
Held from August 1st to August 3rd every year is the Nagaoka Summer Festival, which boasts everything from parades to folk dancing, fantastic festival food and the main drawcard – the incredible fireworks. The displays here are often touted as one of the best not just in Niigata but in all of Japan, with about 20,000 fireworks being let off on the last two days of the festival. It showcases the city at its vibrant, beautiful, colorful best.
6. Get your culture fix at the Echigo Tsumari Art Fields
Photo by Yuya Tamai on FlickrCulture vulture? Situated in the Tokamachi area is the Echigo Tsumari Art Fields, a perfect addition to any modern art lover’s itinerary. Utilizing nature as a backdrop, the project has seen art installations pop up everywhere from terraced rice paddies to abandoned buildings in the local area. It redefines what contemporary art can be, and has helped revitalize tourism in this part of the prefecture. The artworks span a range of approximately 760 square kilometers, and include pieces by big names like Yayoi Kusama, perhaps better known for her Red Pumpkin piece in Naoshima.
7. Take in a bird’s eye view of Niigata City for free at Toki Messe
Photo by Daichi Yue on FlickrToki Messe is a prominent building on the Niigata skyline, and consists of various convention halls and exhibition rooms. Outside the business realm, one of the best things Toki Messe has to offer is a free observation deck that gives you a look over Niigata City from 125 meters up. On a clear day you can get quite the view, seeing all the way over to Sado Island. Budget friendly and beautiful – winner!
8. Sing along with all your favorites at the Fuji Rock Music Festival
Photo by t.kunikuni on FlickrMusic lover? The annual Fuji Rock Music Festival is something to add to the travel itinerary, and each year the lineup features some massive local and international names. Previous years' events have included the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ed Sheeran, Foo Fighters and Coldplay, and the annual turnout is often over the 100,000 mark. The event is held at the Naeba Ski Resort, which has a host of other reasons to visit in the summertime – not least of which is some respite from the intense humidity in other parts of the country.
9. Snack on some senbei at the Niigata Rice Cracker Museum
Photo by s.abe [GFDL or CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia CommonsJapan has a host of moreish rice crackers available to enjoy – check any convenience store or supermarket and you’ll find the shelves are loaded with all manner of different varieties. If you’ve ever wondered how one of Japan’s favorite eats is created, the Niigata Rice Cracker Museum gives you the chance to learn about the history of the tasty snack as well as an opportunity to make some for yourself. Oishii!
10. Sample some Hegi Soba, a famous local dish
Photo by nubobo on FlickrThink soba is a fairly standard noodle dish you can find all over Japan? Well, Niigata puts their own spin on this much-loved Japanese staple, adding a secret ingredient to the buckwheat mix – seaweed! The noodles are served up in a wooden dish (that’s the hegi part of hegi soba) and wound into bite-sized mouthfuls. A great place to try it is Kojimaya, close to the Tokamachi Station.
11. Check out the Naked Pushing Festival, one of Japan’s quirkiest events!
Japan has many incredible festivals that take place year round – and some of them definitely have an element of quirkiness that draw in the crowds! One of the best is the Naked Pushing Festival, held in the town of Urasa. Men dressed in little more than a loincloth push and jostle their way to be first in line to worship Bishamon, the God of War and Warriors. The climax involves those men jumping into a fountain of ice cold water, which isn’t for the faint of heart in the middle of snow country in winter.
12. Soak your worries away at Tsukioka Onsen
Photo by 663highland [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], from Wikimedia CommonsNiigata Prefecture has the third highest number of onsen out of any prefecture in Japan – only beaten out by Hokkaido and Nagano. Tsukioka Onsen is one of the best, having the highest sulfur concentration of any onsen in the country. Sulfur hot springs are said to be excellent for all manner of health conditions from skin conditions to arthritis, making for the perfect relaxation spot for both the body and the mind.
13. Embrace island life on Sado Island
Photo by puffyjet on FlickrNiigata Prefecture also consists of Sado Island – the sixth largest island in Japan. Ferries run to the island with multiple departures daily, and once you arrive there are a host of fascinating activities to enjoy. Water activities in particular are popular here – a must-do are the tub boat rides (known as tarai-bune) in the Ogi area. There are also plenty of options for swimming, snorkeling, SCUBA diving, jet skiing, wakeboarding and more.
14. Bring out your inner sommelier at Echigo Winery
It’s not just sake that gets produced in Niigata – there’s quite the wine scene in the prefecture as well. Echigo Winery is one of the most well known, and only uses grapes grown within Niigata itself. As well as picking up a bottle or two of your favorite tipple, there’s a delightful restaurant on the premises that pairs their menu items with the perfect locally made vino.
15. Throw a snowball at the International Snowball Fight
If you like checking out unique sporting events when you travel, Niigata has a fun festival held each February called the International Snowball Fight. Held in the town of Koide, teams are registered who then battle it out no holds barred – from kids to adults. Many teams dress up in wacky costumes which makes for an enjoyable and light-hearted atmosphere, and there are a large number of food stalls to grab a bite to eat or even some sake to warm up with.