Known for its mountainous winter resorts and windswept Japan Sea coastline, its rice fields and sake, Niigata prefecture is a complete break from the urban sprawl of Tokyo a few hundred kilometres to the south. That includes the accommodation. You won’t find international five-star brands in Niigata, but you will get places to stay with lots of character, including cosy inns, boutique hotels and family-friendly ski resorts. Read on for the best.
Akakura Kanko Hotel, Myoko Kogen
When the Akakura Kanko Hotel opened its doors in the mountainous hot-spring area of Myoko Kogen in 1937, it was one of the first European-style ski resorts in Japan. Today, there are 21 area ski lifts (six specifically at Akakura Kanko) connecting slopes suitable for all levels of skiers and snowboarders – including one marauding four-kilometre run.
At an elevation of 1,000 metres, there are sweeping mountains views from the Akakura’s open-air communal hot-spring baths and its 52 recently renovated Western- and Japanese-style rooms – the former featuring contemporary dark woods and the latter tatami mat floors. For an added touch of indulgence book one of the premium rooms and suites, some of which have private open-air hot-spring tubs.
These days, Akakura isn’t just a winter resort. The hot-spring bathing is year-round. Once the late December to mid-April ski season is over, spring and summer activities come to the fore: hiking, mountain biking and rounds of golf on the Akakura’s 18-hole course.
Urashima, Sado Island
Sado Island has no shortage of ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and minshuku (rustic B&Bs) – not surprising given how this rugged island is defined by sleepy ports, untamed coastline and terraced rice fields. But with Urashima, Sado also ticks the hip boutique hotel box.
The 20 rooms here range from simple European-inspired affairs to minimally furnished Japanese-style rooms that blend tatami and light woods for a Nippon-Nordic vibe. Packaged in a pair of buildings, designed by architects Koh Kitayama and Hiroshi Naito, the rooms incorporate touches like glass-brick walls and stark concrete spaces for an industrial-chic feel.
The setting in a quiet port village about a 30-minute drive from the larger Ryotsu Port, from where ferries run to Niigata City, means that you also get ocean views and peace and quiet.
For travellers who want to immerse themselves in local culture, Ushidaya offers just that in the farming hamlet of Tamugi. The owners moved here in 2016 to grow organic rice and have turned part of their farmhouse – a lovely old building with dark wooden beams and high ceilings – into an inn, with two tatami-mat guestrooms where guests sleep on futon bedding and common areas where you can enjoy home cooking and chat around an open hearth.
The setting is as bucolic as it gets, surrounded by rice paddies that after planting in April will be a fresh green in early summer and then a ripe-for-harvest yellow by October. And there are minimal mod cons here to disturb the peace – there’s not even a TV in the entire farmhouse, although there is a piano, guitar and ukulele for the musically minded.
Hotel Futaba, Yuzawa
The 78-room Futaba in the ski resort area of Yuzawa isn’t as small and intimate as some traditional inns, but it is still a wonderful example of how a ryokan should be, with guestrooms that combine all the classic elements: tatami mat flooring, low-central table where staff serve a welcoming cup of green tea, sliding paper-screen panels, tokonoma alcove complete with hanging scroll, and yukata cotton gowns for guests to wear during their stay.
About a third of the rooms have attached private onsen (hot-spring baths), while the ryokan also has a collection of gender-separated communal outdoor baths with views into the Tanigawa mountain range. Like all good ryokan, the food is another key part of the experience – the kaiseki dinner features a succession of intricately presented dishes using local, seasonal produce.
And in Niigata City…
There’s enough to do in the city to make it well worth a night’s stay – the sake brewery tour at Imayo Tsukasa and sake tastings at the Ponshukan Sake Museum, the old Furumachi entertainment district and the Saito family house and garden, to call out just some of the attractions. Niigata City is geared far more toward domestic business travellers than tourists. With that, there are well-regarded four-star hotel brands like the Hotel Nikko, ANA Crowne Plaza and Hotel Okura here. The latter is in a great location by the landmark Bandai Bridge, although design-wise the rooms are a little dated. In the three-star range, business hotel chains like Dormy Inn, Sunroute and Toyoko Inn are equally dependable, and the Dormy Inn scores extra points for its public hot-spring baths.