20 Things to Do in Niigata From the Classics to Hidden Gems
In recent years, more foreign tourists have been making their way to Niigata Prefecture. This article delves into the reasons why by introducing 20 amazing tourist spots in the region that are worth visiting. You’ll find anything from spots with gorgeous scenery to historical remains affiliated with military commanders from the Sengoku period (late 15th to late 16th century) and areas that offer the best regional delicacies!
Where is Niigata?
Niigata Prefecture is situated virtually in the middle of Honshu (main island of Japan), huddled at the edge touching the Sea of Japan. It is part of the Hokuriku and Koshinetsu regions, and is adjacent to the following prefectures: Yamagata, Fukushima, Gunma, Nagano, and Toyama. It occupies a thin strip of land that extends from the northeast to the southwest, and is split up into four different areas: Joetsu, the southwestern part; the center region, Chuetsu; Kaetsu, the northeastern area; and Sado, which refers to the islands off the coast of Niigata Prefecture.
Most people in Tokyo take the shinkansen (bullet train) to get to Niigata Prefecture. From Tokyo, it takes roughly two hours on the Hokuriku Shinkansen to reach Joetsu, and around an hour and a half to two hours to get to Chuetsu or Kaetsu on the Joetsu Shinkansen. People traveling from Osaka or Nagoya will find it easier to take an airplane to Niigata Airport. It will take about an hour if you use a direct flight from Kansai International Airport, Osaka International (Itami) Airport, or Centrair Central Japan International AIrport.
Joetsu is the southwestern region of Niigata Prefecture. At its center lies Kasuga Mountain Castle, which belonged to the famous Sengoku warlord Uesugi Kenshin, and Joetsu City that flourished as the castle town of Takada Castle back in the Edo period (1603 - 1868). Blessed by nature, Itoigawa is another city that is full of things to see and do, all the way from the deep azure of the Sea of Japan to the mountains of the Northern Alps (known as “Hida Mountains”). You can enjoy hot springs, winter sports at highland resorts, historical or cultural spots, and many other activities at Joetsu.
Visit Takada Park and the Site of Takada Castle
Takada Park is situated on the site of Takada Castle, which was built in 1614. The entire area is designated as a historic site, and has a total area of about 500,000 sq.m, making it one of the largest parks to be located in the center of a city in all of Japan. Inside the park, you’ll find a reconstructed three-story turret of the castle that you can actually enter (300 JPY/person). From the observation room, you can get a sweeping gaze of the whole park. This park is also a famous cherry blossom viewing spot. The sight of the turret illuminated along with everything else in the park is so beautiful, it is actually one of Japan’s top three night cherry blossom spots!
Explore the Remnants of Kasugayama Castle
Known as the former residence of the famous Sengoku warlord Uesugi Kenshin, Kasugayama Castle is a well-known, impregnable castle that makes full use of its complex terrain. Several of its structures still remain today, such as the karabori (hollows dug along the ridge) and the dorui (defensive walls created from clumped dirt), both of which are unique features of mountain castles. From the remnants of the main castle grounds, which stands roughly 180m above sea level, you can gaze at the Sea of Japan, Kubiki Plains, and the mountains surrounding both of them. One corner of the castle is dedicated to the reconstructed Bishamon-do Hall, which was where Kenshin would seclude himself in right before a battle to think over strategies and pray for victory.
Visit the Perilous Oyashirazu/Koshirazu
This refers to a roughly 15km strip of land located on the westmost corner of Itoigawa City. Spanning from Ichiburi Station and Omi Station, it consists of cliffs lining the coast that range from 300m to 400m in height. In the past, it was actually the most dangerous segment of the Hokuriku Road, as the only way to get through it was to walk through a narrow beach that bordered the edge of these precipitous cliffs. You can admire the stunning coastline from the viewing platform of Oyashirazu Memorial Plaza. There’s also a stroll path within the vicinity.
The Chuetsu area covers the center section of Niigata Prefecture. As it is one of Japan’s largest rice producers, it offers scenery full of gorgeous rice terraces for visitors to enjoy. Yuzuma and Uonuma, two cities nestled in the mountains that get some of the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan, can also be found there. This makes Chuetsu popular with the locals as one of the top snow resort destinations in the winter, a great place to avoid the heat in the summer, and an amazing fall foliage viewing spot in the autumn. The Big Three Fireworks Festivals of Echigo, which take place in three towns in the Chuetsu area (Kashiwazaki, Nagaoka, and Katakai), is also incredibly famous in Japan.
Take a Snapshot of the Lovely Terraced Rice Fields of Hoshitoge
The terraced rice fields (rice paddies built on sloped land) of Tokamachi, an area that thrives on rice cultivation, are worth seeing. Hoshitoge’s terraced rice fields are the most iconic out of the bunch. Once you get to see what those roughly 200 rice paddies look like, you won’t be able to stop yourself from taking a photo to forever remember their beauty!
In the spring (from when snow disappears to June) and fall (late October to when snow starts falling), the rice fields are filled with water, causing the sky and surroundings to be reflected on the surface. If all the conditions are right, you may even be able to enjoy the spectacle of a sea of clouds washing over the area! If you do decide to visit, make sure to stick to your manners. For instance, please do not enter the farm areas or leave without picking up your trash!
Pay a Visit to Ryugakubo Pond
Designated as one of the top 100 water sources in all of Japan, this beautiful pond lies within Tsunan Town, which is situated at the prefectural borders of Niigata and Nagano. Every day, around 43,000 tons of high-quality water gush from this natural spring. Due to this natural occurrence, it is said that it never gets muddy or murky. The surface of the pond, which reflects the green leaves of surrounding trees like Japanese beech and cedar, has enough mystique to warrant a visit. The local residents use the water from this pond for their everyday needs, which is why it has been protected since long ago.
Stare at the Sunset from Kamomegahana Viewing Platform (Koibito Misaki)
The old love stories of Kashiwazaki have turned Kamomegahana (also known as “Koibito Misaki”) into a popular love spot. Purchase a heart-shaped message plate or key from neighboring cafes and shops (600 JPY/large plate, 400 JPY/key) and then affix them to one of the installed fences in the vicinity. It is said that happiness will come your way if you do all of the above while making a prayer! Another reason for the spot’s popularity is the stunning and iconic view of the sacred Mt. Yoneyama and Yoneyama Ohashi Bridge that it provides. People also love how beautiful and romantic the entire area looks during sunset, when the sun falls down into the Sea of Japan.
Be Impressed by the Fall Foliage at Shouun Sanso Garden
Built in 1926, this garden is famous as an amazing fall foliage viewing spot. It contains around 300 maple trees that beautifully turn colors in the autumn. At night between late October and the end of November, not only do you get to see the trees magically lit up, but you also get special night entry to the Kimura Tea Ceremony Museum, where you get to sip on matcha (powdered green tea) from special tea cups that might as well be national treasures!
Best time to view: Early to mid-November
Outdoor Seating Fee for the Kimura Tea Ceremony Museum (only on weekends and national holidays during the illumination period): 500 JPY (comes with sweets)
Admire the Foliage from Mt. Hakkai's Observation Deck and Ropeway
Mt. Hakkai has a height of 1,778m and is known for its gorgeous scenery that changes with the seasons. Many people especially like to visit during the fall, when the mountain is covered with colorful leaves. Although you need to make use of a ropeway from the base of the mountain, those five minutes of feeling like you’re walking on air while gazing at the burning red tree leaves are worth it! You can get an amazing panoramic view of the fall foliage from the observation deck, which is around a 5-minute walk from the ropeway station at the peak. When the weather is particularly clear, you can see Koshinetsu’s mountains, the Sea of Japan, and even as far as Sado Island!
Ropeway Boarding Fee (depends on the season): 2,100 JPY/Adult, 1,050 JPY/Child, and so on
*Prices are for a round-trip.
Enjoy Winter Sports at Naeba
As a region that gets one of the heaviest snowfalls in all of Japan, Niigata Prefecture is home to many ski resorts. The most well-known is Naeba Ski Resort, which has an incredibly large ski slope that offers something for everyone, from areas filled with powder snow to trails that are separated based on your skill level in skiing. Families love visiting it, as the resort is well-equipped to meet the needs of children, from indoor and outdoor ski slopes to sleighs and snowmobiles that they can play with.
Stuff Your Mouth Full of Seafood at Teradomari Fish Market
Located in Nagaoka City, Teradomari is home to a fish market selling marine products and seafood from not just local waters, but all over Japan. The market is especially crowded on weekends, which is when you’ll be able to hear the vendors’ shouts from every corner. It is known for the freshness, affordability, and variety of products up for sale, made possible by its convenient location facing the Sea of Japan. These products can be seen laid out in full display at the front of each store. Some of the shops even allow you to eat whatever you purchase right there and then! You’ll be able to try seafood in a variety of ways, such as sashimi or hamayaki (grilled and served with sticky sauce). Not only can you purchase a variety of souvenirs such as dried foods or fully processed goods, but there are also places where you can savor sushi and set meals.
Try the Uonuma Specialty, Hegi Soba
“Hegi soba” is perhaps the Uonuma area’s most well-known dish. “Hegi” refers to the square container that the cold soba (buckwheat noodles) are laid in, separated per mouthful. The soba itself is extremely chewy and elastic, which is a result of mixing the buckwheat flour together with funori (a type of seaweed). This idea came about from funori’s original use, which was as a component to improve the quality of textiles, something that Uonuma is a famed producer of. There are several well-known restaurants around Uonuma and Ojiya that serve this dish, so do give it a try!
Savor Sake at Sake Museum Ponshu-kan Echigo-Yuzawa Branch
Since Niigata Prefecture is one of Japan’s major rice producing regions, it makes sense that it would also be known for its sake (Japanese rice wine). You can find this museum within Joetsu Shinkansen’s Echigo-Yuzawa Station. Although the museum is home to many shops selling a wide variety of sake, the most popular corner is Koshinomuro, where you can taste and compare 93 different brands of sake. There are machines lined up against one wall that are filled with sake, and for just 500 JPY, you can try five types of sake. Each machine has a placard that details the characteristics of the sake and contains simple English comments. Why not compare some of them to try and find your favorite?
This is the name for the northeastern part of Niigata Prefecture. The center of Kaetsu revolves around the prefectural capital, Niigata City. As a port town, it opened its gates to the rest of the world over 150 years ago, and is now a flourishing city with commercial districts full of stylish stores. It is also full of spots where you can take in lush nature and culture. From Sasagawa Nagare - one of Japan’s most beautiful coastlines - to the atmospheric castle town of Shibata, you’ll find plenty of things to do and see in Kaetsu.
Visit the Niigata City Aquarium Marinepia Nihonkai (Sea of Japan)
This popular aquarium stands on the vast coast of Kaetsu. It is known for having a wide variety of exhibits and performances. For example, you can watch around 6,000 marine animals (approx. 35 species) that normally inhabit the Sea of Japan swim in giant tanks or focus on jellyfish beautifully floating through the water. Visitors can also interact with animals and even get to see sea lions getting fed! It is also great for families, as it is equipped with a play area for young children, rentable baby strollers, and nursing rooms with hot water for powdered milk.
Entrance Fee: 1,500 JPY/Adult (high school student or older), 600 JPY/Child (elementary and junior high school student), 200 JPY/Toddler (4 years old and above), Free/Infant (3 years old or younger)
Gaze at Niigata's Symbol, Bandai Bridge
This solid stone bridge goes over Japan’s largest river, Shinano River. It has a total length of 306.9m and width of 22m, and is easily recognized by its beautiful consecutive arches. Not only is it known as Niigata City’s symbol and an Important Cultural Property of Japan, but it is also hardy, having withstood the Niigata earthquake of 1964. The bridge that stands today is the third iteration. It was built in 1929 to reflect the city’s modernization. Why not gaze at it while going on a stroll by the river or look at it from a water taxi?
Ride a Pleasure Boat on Sasagawa Nagare
“Sasagawa Nagare” refers to the 11km coastline of Murakami City. It is so beautiful that it has been designated as a place of scenic beauty and natural monument of Japan. Its numerous stunning features - possessing one of Japan’s clearest sea waters, offering a gorgeous contrast between the white sand and green pine trees, and gifting amazing coastal and cliff scenery - have made it popular with many people. One of the best ways to gaze at it in all of its glory is the Sasagawa Nagare Steamboat. Go on a roughly 40-minute round-trip cruise while feeding seagulls (100 JPY) and enjoying the sight! They also have a special cruise for those looking to catch an especially lovely sunset view.
Boarding Fee: 1,000 JPY/Adult, 500 JPY/Child, and so on
*All prices include tax
Buy Senbei at Niigata Senbei Okoku
At this senbei (rice cracker) theme park, which is directly managed by the makers and sellers of the Bakauke (a popular senbei souvenir in Niigata), you can learn about the history of senbei in Niigata Prefecture and see how they are actually made in a factory. On top of that, you can also make your own, giving it whatever design and flavor you want! One of the most popular activities at this theme park is the “Cho Tokudai Ekaki Senbei Taiken” (1,500 JPY), where you get to draw on the surface of an incredibly large senbei. Some other things you can do there include trying out their unique food and drinks menu, such as the senbei-flavored soft serve ice cream, and taking a look at the plethora of souvenirs up for sale at the numerous souvenir stores there. You can even find limited-edition Bakauke goods being sold!
Go Souvenir Shopping at Niigata Furusato Village
Head over to Niigata Furusato Village for some souvenir shopping! It is split up into two facilities. One of them, Bazaar Hall, is home to over 10,000 souvenirs! There is such a wide variety that if you were looking for sake, which Niigata is renowned worldwide for, you would have over 500 different brands of sake to browse through! At the second floor, which is dedicated to food and drinks, you can savor regional specialties like ramen. The other facility, Appeal Hall, is a base for attaining the latest sightseeing information, complete with areas where you can learn about the history of Niigata and events that let you experience the culture of the region.
Sado Island is nature-rich and contains a unique history and culture. Many people know the area for its historic gold mine, famous and thrilling tarai-bune (tub boat) rides, and its Japanese crested ibises, which are one of Japan’s natural monuments. While there, you cannot miss out on trying the super fresh seafood caught from its surrounding waters, such as tuna and Japanese amberjack. You need to take a boat from Niigata Port (Niigata City), Teradomari Port (Nagaoka City), or Naoetsu Port (Joetsu City) if you want to visit the island.
Explore Japan's Largest Gold Mine, Sado Kinzan
In the early modern period of Japan, this was the country’s largest gold mine. Having opened in 1601, it has over 400 years of ups and downs. Its excavated tunnels look like those of an ant colony and extend to a total length of around 400km! Most of the remaining shafts and mining equipment are designated as Important Cultural Properties of Japan, historic remains, heritages of industrial modernization. There are several (paid) sightseeing courses that you can choose from, starting with ones where you can explore as you like without needing a reservation, to guided tours (reservation needed) that take you through the pitch black mine equipped with items like a helmet and flashlight.
Course Price Example: 900 JPY/Adult, 450 JPY/Junior high and elementary school student
*No need to make a reservation. You can explore freely.
Meet the Rare Japanese Crested Ibises at Toki Forest Park
This is where you can view the exotic bird, toki (Japanese crested ibis), up close. There are several facilities right next to the Sado Toki Conservation Center in the park, such as the Toki Exchange Hall where you can observe how the toki live in an area that recreates their natural habitat, and the Toki Materials Exhibition Hall, which has a variety of toki-related materials up on display. Tired of walking around the park? Take a rest at one of the on-site stores and try the edamame (green soybean) flavored soft serve ice cream. Made with edamame grown in Sado, this ice cream is highly recommended by tourists for its deliciousness.
Toki Materials Exhibition Hall and Toki Exchange Hall Entrance Fees (Environment Conservation Cooperation Fee): 400 JPY/Adult, 100 JPY/Child (elementary and junior high school)
Go on a Tub Boat Ride at Sado
The idea of riding a tub boat came about when residents were searching for a way to catch seaweed, abalone, and turban shells from the coast of Sado, which was narrow, complicated to traverse, and had many coral reefs. You can try it out for yourself at Ogi Port, Yajima Island, and Kyojima Island. Made for catching fish in shallow waters, tub boats are quite stable and good for making small and quick turns. Each boat comes equipped with seats and a guide who will maneuver the tub boat for you, so there is no need to worry about anything. The most well-known tub boat ride is the Rikiya Kanko Kisen, which you can catch from Ogi Port.
Rikiya Kanko Kisen Boarding Fee (depart from Ogi Port): 500 JPY/Adult (high school student age or above), 300 JPY/Child (4 years old or above)
There are lots of things to admire about Niigata Prefecture, from its gorgeous scenery to its delicious food. The next time you decide to travel to Japan, pick up this article for some travel ideas! Who knows, Niigata Prefecture just might make it on your travel itinerary.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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