Visiting Niigata: Land of Snow and Sake
Ask most locals around Tokyo about Niigata Prefecture and most likely they'll recall it as a place where there's lots of snow, rice, and sake. True enough, those three things are what make Niigata famous. But is it really all that worth visiting for those things alone? You'd be surprised by how much this provincial area facing the Sea of Japan offers visitors all year round.
While the slopes of Nagano are better known due to their use in the 1998 Winter Olympics, Niigata Prefecture offers its own collection of skiing and snowboarding trails. In fact, a trip to Niigata from Tokyo on the Joetsu Shinkansen takes less time than a trip to Nagano on the Nagano Shinkansen! Compared to 95 to 110 minutes from Tokyo to Nagano, heading to Echigo Yuzawa station and GALA Yuzawa (a shinkansen station that is already connected to a ski resort) only takes about 80 minutes. While the view may not be as scenic as the trip to Nagano, the sudden change from the still-lush plains of Gunma and Saitama in winter to the immaculate white mountains of Niigata once the train exits the Kan-etsu tunnel is a wonder to behold.
Not a skier or snowboarder? Don't let that keep you from exploring Niigata in the winter and even through spring. The snowy season in Yuzawa town spans an incredibly long time, from mid-November to late May. At Echigo Yuzawa station, the first Joetsu Shinkansen stop within Niigata Prefecture, visitors can already enjoy a soak in an onsen or sample local delicacies. Snow play facilities and sledding runs are also available at some of the ski resorts. Those looking to explore the winter scenery will surely find lots to see on the various gondolas that traverse mountains to ferry visitors from one resort to the other. Also, if you happen to be in Japan in February, Niigata has its answer to Sapporo's famous snow festival in Tokamachi.
Rice and Sake
Aside from snow, Niigata is very well-known among the Japanese for its rice. Among all the prefectures in Japan, Niigata ranks second in rice production after Hokkaido. However, Niigata is also home to the highest-quality rice produced in Japan: the Koshihikari variety. Niigata's pride in the quality of its rice also shows in its various rice-related products, particularly its nihon-shu or sake. All the major train stations in Niigata (Echigo Yuzawa, Nagaoka, and Niigata) house liquor shops featuring the prefecture's various nihon-shu brands.
Are you visiting Japan in March and have a taste for nihon-shu? You might want to consider setting some time aside to check out Niigata's annual "Sake no Jin", which brings together all of the prefecture's breweries under one roof in Niigata City. A single ticket provides visitors with unlimited tasting for a day. Just be careful not to overboard with the drinking! Take your time and space out the tasting with savory foods also sold at the event.
Culture and History
Like all of Japan, Niigata also has its own individual charm thanks to the history that colors it. The region was once called Echigo Province and was ruled over by Uesugi Kenshin, one of the most powerful lords of the Sengoku period. Various festivals in Joetsu City and Nagaoka City honor his legacy through battle reenactments, sword dancing, and other activities.
In August, Nagaoka City hosts a spectacular fireworks festival in memory of its wartime past and the Chu-etsu earthquake. While it does get crowded due to its popularity, the incredible sight of these pyrotechnics designed by master fireworks artists lining a whole section of the Shinano River from the Chosei Bridge to the Oote Bridge is definitely worth the trouble.
Niigata Prefecture isn't just all about the past, though. In late July, the prefecture hosts the Fuji Rock Festival in Yuzawa. This festival brings together not just hot local acts from around Japan, but also well-known international artists. This year, 2015, the festival's line-up features the Foo Fighters, Muse, and Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds as its headliners for each day.
Whether you decide to drop in to explore the slopes in winter or beat the heat of summer with fireworks and rock music, Niigata Prefecture is definitely worth a visit! Just take the Joetsu Shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa, Nagaoka, or Niigata station then plan your trip from there.