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4 Days or More in Japan’s off the Beaten Path

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4 Days or More in Japan’s off the Beaten Path

From Tokyo, we took the “Toki” or “Max Tokishinkansen (bullet train) of the JR East’s Joetsu Shinkansen line in the morning.

You can easily access this train from Tokyo Station, Ueno Station, or Ōmiya Station (you can check Google Maps to map out your route in order to reach one of these 3 stations depending on where you are located in Tokyo).

Upon arrival…

◘◘ Eat hegisoba for lunch

This is one of Niigata’s local dishes and it’s basically a soba (Japanese buckwheat thin noodles) that is made of funori (seaweed) which is unlike the typical soba that uses wheat. Because of this, hegisoba has a smooth yet ‘al dente‘ texture that is well-known among the Japanese.

This is typically served on a rectangular wooden plate in which the noodles are already sectioned into individual mouthful portions, thereby making it very easy to consume. How to best eat hegisoba? You could either eat it as is, or dip it in the mentsuyu (black-colored soup base that will be provided to you) which you can further flavor with sesame seeds, radish, wasabi, or green onions.

Recommended: Kojimaya CoCoLo Niigata (one branch is located in Niigata station)

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◘◘ Visit Saitou Villa (includes a geisha show and snacks)

This is a summer villa that was built back in 1920 by a wealthy merchant in Niigata. Today, it is a place used to welcome honored guests in the city such as public figures, and celebrities; but more commonly, it is a place that’s preserved and revered as a valued cultural building.

And for just about $26, you can explore Saitou Villa’s room and gardens, taste some Japanese sweets and matcha (green tea), AND be entertained by Furumachi geigi (geisha of Niigata). This is a steal of course, especially if you compare it to the expensive fee that you need to pay just to meet a real geisha in a dinner banquet program (which will almost be similar to what you’ll experience here!).

So I say, this is a MUST to do in your Niigata itinerary!

Transport & Travel Guide: Niigata Hanamachi Chaya
The Furumachi district of Niigata is considered one of the three most prestigious areas in Japan for geisha, along with Gion in Kyoto and Shinbashi in Tokyo. Hence, witnessing Niigata’s geisha is a must-do!

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◘◘ Drop by Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery

Niigata is well-known for producing the finest sake or nihonshu (Japanese liquor). Why so? Simply because of the snow. With the prefecture’s bountiful snowfall on its mountains, it has constantly yielded conditions that are perfect for making sake: purified air from constant snowing and snow-melted waters (great for growing rice paddies and brewing sake).

To best enjoy this, head on ever to Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery because you can then go on a FREE tour of their establishment as you learn more about the making of sake. What’s more, you can even taste some of their products! (My favorite sake bottles are: Moto, Karyu-kai, and Junmai).

Transport & Travel Guide: Imayotsukasa Website

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◘◘ Grab dinner at an izakaya

Prolong your enjoyment of Niigata’s high-quality sake by visiting a typical Japanese gastropub that’s called an ‘izakaya‘.

Other Drinks to Try: umeshu (plum wine), biiru (Japanese beers), shōchū (distilled beverage) Dishes to Try: yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), karaage (Japanese fried chicken), sashimi (raw fish)

TRIVIA: Apparently, the Japanese typically like to grab ramen (noodle dish) after a long night of drinking since it is said to help them handle the alcohol, as well as help them deal with a hangover later on!

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◘◘ Check in to a hotel in the city

To cap off your first day in this Niigata itinerary, choose from…
Luxury: Hotel Nikko Niigata
Mid-Range: Art Hotel Niigata Station or AirBnB
Budget: APA Hotel Niigata Higashinakadori

On this day of my Niigata itinerary, we headed over to Sado Island which is a part of the prefecture. In order to get here, we took the Jetfoil jet boat with the route Niigata – Ryotsu and it departs every hour at a cost of ¥6,520 yen. It takes about an hour to get to Sado Island from Niigata port with a fast boat like this.

If you want cheaper options, there are the other ferry routes:

  • Naoetsu–Ogi: ¥2,720 yen, 2.5 hours, 4-5 times daily
  • Teradomari–Akadomari: ¥2,960 yen, 2 hours, 2-3 times daily

Once you arrive at Sado…

◘◘ Play at Sado Island’s Taiko Centre

A ‘taiko‘ is a traditional Japanese percussion instrument, and one of Japan’s most popular taiko groups that are also known internationally is called Kodo. Hailing from Sado Island, they have built this fun Tatakokan (Taiko Centre) so that visitors can have a hands-on experience with Kodo instructors on how to play the taiko.

This was an experience that I truly enjoyed and it will surely be an even more fun activity if you come with a number of friends or family!

Transport & Travel Guide: Kodo Taiko

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◘◘ Try a tarai-bune (tub boat)

YES, you read that right! As seen in the lower-left photo above, these cut-off barrels are a kind of tub boat that was practical to use in the olden times in order to collect shellfish and seaweed from rocky coastal waters. Today, however, they are mainly used to amuse travelers on Sado Island.

Riding this boat actually made me anxious (well yes, it is a ‘tub boat’ after all); rest assured, it’s perfectly safe and a totally fun and interesting thing to do!

Transport & Travel Guide: You can acquire this service for your Niigata itinerary from Ogi port or at Yajima-Kyojima area (which has more scenic surroundings). They are open daily throughout the year (8:30AM to 5:00PM), spans for 10 minutes, can hold 3 persons on one tub boat, and costs ¥500 for adults and ¥300 for children.

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◘◘ Pick up and bring home some gold dust at Nishi-Mikawa gold park

If you head over to this hands-on museum for your Niigata itinerary, you will not only learn more about Sado’s famed gold activities but also about the process of mining and refining it. The special thing about this museum though is its epic gold-picking activity!

For only ¥800 yen, you can try gold panning for 30 minutes in the beginners’ course area. Furthermore, you can keep the gold dust that you will find within that time frame! YES, you really can take it home.

Transport & Travel Guide: Nishi-Mikawa Website

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◘◘ Walk around Senkakuwan Ageshima Yuen-Park

This is a park that provides glorious coastal sights over Senkaku-wan Bay. For the best 360 views, go to the vicinity’s Ageshima Observatory and Yusenkyo Bridge.

Transport & Travel Guide: Ageshima

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◘◘ Tour Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine)

Financed by the Tokugawa shogunate for 388 years from 1601 to 1989, this is the island’s most important historical site — in fact, because of its rich history (being Japan’s largest gold mine in that era) it is now actively promoted for nomination as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Once inside the tunnels, you’ll see several exhibitions of robots that portray the miners during the Edo period (as a way of recreating the past atmosphere or look).

Transport & Travel Guide: Sado Kinzan Website

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◘◘ Check in to a hotel or ryokan on the island

A quintessential trip to Japan is NOT complete without a trip to a ryokan (Japanese traditional inn).

Some of the bucket list things to do once booked inside one: sleep in a tatami-matted room, try the onsen (hot spring baths), wear a yukata, and eat kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese dinner)!

Other choices are…
Luxury: Hotel Azuma
Mid-Range: Kohan no Yado Yoshidaya or AirBnB
Budget: Sado Bellemer Youth Hostel

On the 3rd day of this Niigata itinerary, I rode a jet boat to get back to Niigata port and city.

◘◘ Go see the Hoppō Bunka Hakubutsukan (Northern Culture Museum)

This is an open-air museum that features the famous mansion of Ito Bunkichi who was one of the greatest landowners in Niigata during the Edo Period. Other than the mansion, it also houses a picturesque garden, artwork, calligraphy works, ceramics, and so much more.

You could also eat lunch here in the former kitchen of the Ito family so that you could taste typical local dishes that were served back in those times!

Transport & Travel Guide: Northern Cultural Museum Website

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◘◘ Welcome yourself into Niigata’s Senbei Okoku (Kingdom)

Rice is made all over Japan, but it is in Niigata where you can find the BEST-tasting rice that there can ever be in the country. Naturally, senbei (rice cracker) production is a hit in Niigata with Kuriyama Beika Group as one of the most popular brands.

It is here in Senbei Okoku where they then offer its visitors the chance to taste freshly-baked crackers, buy several souvenirs, and see the actual cooking process up close. They even offer the chance for people to make, roast, and design their own rice crackers! It’s an enjoyable activity for sure, especially for families.

Transport & Travel Guide: Senbei Website

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◘◘ Make sasadango at Tanakaya Minato Kobo

Dango (sticky rice cake) is a popular traditional snack in Japan and in Niigata, they have their own unique version called ‘sasa dango’. Basically, these are made from steamed and pounded glutinous rice with red bean paste filling which is then wrapped and tied using sasa (bamboo leaf).

As a final touch, it will be steamed altogether.

If you head over to Tanakaya Minato Kobo, apart from tasting and taking it home as a souvenir, you could also go through a mini cooking class in order to learn how to make sasadango!

Transport & Travel Guide: Koubou Website

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◘◘ Walk around Minatopia

If you’re interested in the history of Niigata’s metropolis, visiting Minatopia is a must. Apart from the museum and building structures (such as the Niigata Customs House) in the area that explains the past of the city, this spot is also a great place for admiring the Shinano River.

Address: 2-10 Yanagishima

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◘◘ Stroll through the city’s main shopping street

Make your way towards the Bandai and/or Furumachi area to take your time in picking the places you’ll eat and shop in — besides, they have an array of wonderful selections for you to choose from!

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◘◘ Check in to Hotel Nikko

I recommend Hotel Nikko because it has a superb 360 view over Niigata’s cityscape which can be easily seen not only from inside your room but also from its topmost floor!

We made our way out of the city for this day of my Niigata itinerary to do the following:

◘◘ Explore and pick fruits at Shirone Grape Garden

This establishment is full of greenhouses that organically grow several types of fruits such as kiwis, persimmons (a must to try because it was soooo good!), grapes, peaches, strawberries, and more. And depending on the time of your visit, you can pick fruits for FREE!

To cap off your visit, make sure to try their popular gelatos which are all made from natural ingredients.

Transport & Travel Guide: Kudamonogari

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◘◘ Stop by Yahiko Shrine

Smacked in the middle of a lush forest and at the foot of a mountain, Yahiko Shrine in Yahiko Village is widely adored and worshipped by the Japanese.

Experience and observe the different shrines or Shinto practices here! One interesting thing you can also do is buy an omikuji which is a randomly written divination about your near future. These are left out on a wooden box near the shrine with a price label on it (it’s typically self-serving like this). Pay the price, pick a folded paper from the box and see your fortune!

For the first time, I drew a daikichi which meant ‘excellent luck’. My guide said that I should make full use of it and do things like buying lottery tickets, etc. haha!

Travel Directions Guide: Go over to Niigata station, take the Echigo Line that goes to the direction of Yoshida (各停). Stop at Yoshida station (14 stops total) and change to a different line, Yahiko Line that heads to Yahiko (各停). Stop at Yahiko Station (2 stops total).

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◘◘ Dine at Cave D’Occi Winery

Set in the plains of Kakudahama, Cave d’Occi Vinespa is a multipurpose winery resort that includes not only a restaurant but a spa, an onsen (hot spring bath), and a guest house (for visitors who want to spend more time exploring the vineyards).

Make sure to buy or try their wines since they taste really good!

Transport & Travel Guide: Docci Website

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◘◘ Look through TsubameSanjo Regional Industries Promotion Centre

If you want to buy more souvenirs from Niigata to take home, making a stop by this center should be up on your travel itinerary.

Basically, Tsubame-Sanjo is one of the most sought-after Japanese brands when it comes to metalworks or items due to their high quality and craftsmanship; so, it’s definitely worth your time to take a peek here.

Transport & Travel Guide: TsubameSanjo Website

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◘◘ Walk around Minamiuonuma

This city is a popular winter destination due to its superb location. Once there, you’ll have a choice of over 10 ski and snowboard resorts which are a mix of large and small establishments that are suitable for all levels of skiers and snowboarders.

Rest assured, if you’re coming on a month with no snow for your Niigata itinerary, there are various things to do here still, and one of my favorites is exploring Bokushi Dori (street) which is also called Shiozawajuku. Walking through this area is like stepping back in time given how it is speckled with Edo Period houses and shops.

Transport & Travel Guide: Minamiuonuma Website

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◘◘ Check into a ryokan such as Hotel Futaba

If you want the best ryokan (Japanese inn) stay that you can ever experience, check out Hotel Futaba!

If you’ve got some more extra time for you Niigata itinerary, I highly recommend the following:

◘◘ Go to Ponshukan

Ponshukan can be found at Echigo-Yuzawa station and it is a hall that features several attractions:

  • Sake vending machines: it’s exactly what the name implies! With over 96 different brands available, you just have to buy a cup worth ¥500 only, put a plastic token in the machine’s coin slot, slip in your cup, and then it will be filled to the brim with sake. If in doubt, there are staff people who would gladly assist you!
  • Sake shop: are you rather looking for bottles of sake? Next door is a sake shop that has over 96 varieties.
  • Shopping area: there are various small stalls around the Ponshukan hall that offer various goods from sweets to souvenirs.
  • Onsen: if you want a unique kind of onsen experience, next door is also an onsen but what sets it apart from typical onsens is that you can dip here in sake!!
  • Guinness World Record: If you go deep inside Ponshukan, you will find a shop that has the largest display of handmade stuffed toys (11,655) that are tied through strings. This was achieved by Incorporated Non-Profit Organization Japan Tsurushi-bina Association and Akira Kitano last 2012.

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◘◘ Drop by Niigata Furusato Village

This is technically NOT a village as it is more of a tourism facility that houses a HUGE array of products that are perfect for souvenirs: soba, crafts, goods, dairy, sake — you’ll find it all here. You will even find some exhibits here that depict Niigata’s history, and when you want some nature, just step out and you’ll see a massive field full of 60,000 tulips!

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◘◘ Take Instagram-worthy photos at Hoshi-Toge Rice Field

Dubbed “Japan’s 100 best rural spots”, these rice-terraced fields have their own unique look that is best visited either during sunrise or sunset. I assure you that the view from this area will take your breath away!

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◘◘ Visit Yahiko Park (Maple Valley)

Best to do in Autumn. When in the Yahiko Village area, make sure to drop by Yahiko Park. Here, you will find great sceneries that beautifully express every 4 seasons. Autumn season is actually the best time to come here because the vermillion-lacquered Kan-tsuki Bridge perfectly blends in with all of the hot colors.

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◘◘ Ski at one of the prefecture’s ski resorts such as Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa

Best to do in Winter (December to May). This resort is said to be the first in Japan to be designated as an international ski resort. You can do a lot of activities here: snowboarding and 11 trails (longest at 4km among many others. There is even a special area called the Chibikko Hiroba which is for children who are too young to hit the slopes.

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◘◘ Attend at least one (1) Niigata event or festival

Some of the most interesting ones are…

  • Sake no Jin (Niigata Sake Festival): Held mid-March, as the land of sake, this is one of Niigata’s major events. At this festival, you can sample over 500 varieties of sake from approximately 90 local brewers! Just purchase a tasting ticket and you’re sure to have a great time through and through!
  • Tokamachi Snow Festival: Sapporo might be the most famous snow festival, but Niigata’s is actually the oldest and probably the most laid-back and authentic snow celebration as well. Furthermore, with the heavy snowfall in the area, there is no shortage of sculptures that are dispersed all over town! If you’re interested in witnessing this spectacle, you should come on the 3rd Saturday of February.
  • Oiran Dochu Courtesan Procession: Oirans no longer exist in Japan, but as a way of commemorating their unique beauty and culture as high-rank courtesans and entertainers, processions like this are often held in Japan. Niigata has its own and it’s usually held in the middle of April in Jizoudouhonchoudoori, Tsubame (Ookouzu banks, near Bunsui station).
  • Niigata Hanae Project: Since Niigata is one of Japan’s major tulip producers, this event that’s held from April 29 to May 2 is where participants will create giant “flower paintings” using tulips that were discarded in the process of bulb cultivation.
  • Nagaoka Festival: As per usual, you would expect float parades and folk dance processions in festivals like this; BUT the main highlight of this affair held on August 1 to 3 is its large-scale fireworks display that happens over the Shinano River. Helpful to note is that it is considered one of the top 3 fireworks shows in Japan since you would often witness insane stuff like 650-meter giant sanshakudama fireworks, waterfall shapes, volcano-like formations, and 20,000 smaller shakudama fireworks.
  • Niigata Festival: Lasting for 3 days starting on August 7, you will see a lot of float parades, firework displays, and dance processions (that customarily involve around 20,000 people)!
  • Earth Festival: Held on Sado Island in August, the highlight of this festival is the performance of the world-famous taiko drummer group, Kado. This festival lasts for 3 days and includes various events in an open-air concert style.

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