1. The Historic Sights of ‘Water City’
From the mountains to the sea, Niigata prefecture – located in almost the geographical centre of the Japanese archipelago – offers sightseeing, sipping, snacking, sporting and soul-searching opportunities. And every visit to this scenic destination begins in Niigata city. Nicknamed the country’s ‘water city’ due to its history as a trading port, it is the prefecture’s capital and transport hub.
Spend one full day in the city. You can start at the observation deck 125 metres above the Toki Messe convention centre and look down on the city’s busy port and the two rivers – the Shinano and Agano – that wind through the metropolis.
Then, stop by the Niigata City History Museum – also known as Minatopia – and the exhibits will hammer home the ‘water city’ moniker, detailing how early settlers lived along the coast and in the wetlands, plus how the waterways played a key role in Niigata’s development when the port opened to foreign trade in the 1860s.
After taking an obligatory walk along the 307-metre Bandai Bridge, head to the Pia Bandai area for some street food before hopping on a train for a whistle-stop tour of other hotspots, such as the Niigata Prefectural Botanical Gardens and the Hakusan Shrine, a Shinto structure dating back 1,000 years.
Your final stop should be the Saito family villa. Built in 1918 by one of Niigata’s most prominent trading families, the two-storey wooden building is classically Japanese in design, while the well-manicured garden is especially attractive when the main pond is surrounded by earthy autumnal colours.
2. The Sake Brewery Tours (and Tastings)
You can’t really talk about Niigata without discussing sake – known as nihonshu in Japan. If you’re passionate about the Japanese rice wine, then stay for a little longer in Niigata city before heading out across the prefecture in search of its 90-plus sake breweries. The region’s tipples are known for their smoothness and subtlety, said to be down to its sake rice varieties, pure, soft water and centuries of accumulated brewing knowhow.
A good place to start is the Ponshukan ‘sake theme park’ at Niigata Station, where for 500 yen (HK$36) you can serve yourself five shots from up to 100 different brews available from silver vending machines. To go deeper, about a 10-minute walk from the station is the Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery, which runs daily tours of its factory during which a brewer explains the process and then joins participants for a tasting session.
3. The Pioneering Craft Beer Scene
Craft beer has gone from obscure to everyday in Japan over the past two decades. Today, you’ll find microbreweries and specialist bars in Hokkaido, Okinawa and many points between, but it was actually Niigata’s sake brewers who first branched out into craft beer.
The Craft Beer Kan on Niigata Station’s south side has more than 40 brews on tap that represent a mix of domestic and imported varieties. For something local, look out for Echigo Brewing, which was Japan’s first microbrewery when it opened in 1995. Its line-up includes a crisp pilsner made with Saaz hops, a lager that uses Niigata’s Koshihikari brand of rice as an adjunct, and a 7 per cent Irish-style stout for warming up during wintertime.
Niigata Beer Co is the first Japanese craft beer producer to incorporate secondary fermentation inside the can as part of the brewing process. Also worth visiting are Beer Trip Olive and the Nuttari Beer ‘portacabin’ in Chūō-ku ward.
4. The Wildly Scenic Island of Sado
Sado, an island just off the shore of Niigata’s mainland, has for many centuries been considered remote enough to be a place of exile. Zeami Motokiyo, an actor and playwright who formalised classical Noh musical theatre, was banished here in 1434 for upsetting the shogun.
The monk Nichiren, founder of Nichiren Buddhism, was also sent to the island in 1271 for criticising other Buddhist schools. Even the Emperor Juntoku ended up on Sado in 1221.
No surprises, then, that Sado isn’t a sun-kissed island escape. At 855 square kilometres and home to 54,000 people, the island has a wild, scenic coastline that gives way to mountain ranges, terraced rice fields, farmland and the extremely rare crested ibis’ natural habitat.
Thanks to Zeami’s influence, Sado is now home to 35 outdoor Noh stages where local troupes regularly perform. Meanwhile, the island’s Hokusetsu Brewery makes sake for Robert De Niro and Matsuhisa Nobu’s high-end global restaurant chain, Nobu.
5. The Quality Snow for Winter Sports
In 1911, an Austrian major named Theodor Edler von Lerch introduced skiing to Niigata and the rest of Japan. Niseko in Hokkaido is Japan’s current winter sports hotspot but more than 100 years after locals first started to take to the piste, Niigata doesn’t lag too far behind. One reason for that is the quality of the snow, plus the well-developed resorts with runs geared to all levels. There’s also proximity: Echigo-Yuzawa Station is just 75 minutes from Tokyo or 45 minutes from Niigata Station on the bullet train. When you get there you have access to 16 different resorts, like Gala Yuzawa, which caters well to foreign travellers and also attracts younger snowboarders with music on the slopes and floodlit runs at night.
Another option is Naeba, a 50-minute bus trip from Echigo-Yuzawa, where the 2016 Alpine Skiing World Cup was held – and where it’s due to take place again in February 2020. It’s not bad in the summer either, when the Fuji Rock Festival – oddly nowhere near Mount Fuji – comes to town.
6. The Restorative Hot Springs
The water in Niigata isn’t just good for brewing sake and growing rice. It’s also ideal for soaking in. Japan’s high level of geothermal activity yields many mineral-rich onsen hot springs bubbling up across the country, Niigata included. As well as being an extremely relaxing way to unwind, these onsen are said to be able to cure all sorts of ills, from skin conditions to rheumatism.
Myoko Kogen, which also has ski resorts, is a popular choice among visitors. Its seven mountainside hot springs – including the reddish waters of Seki Onsen at 900 metres and the creamy white open-air baths at Tsubame at 1,100 metres – are all worth soaking in.