Niigata: A wonderland in winter, but still a treat in all seasons2022.01.08
The gateway to Niigata is just over an hour from Tokyo station, and you'll find a haven of Japanese pleasures in this northern prefecture. Most know it as one of Japan's premier places to ski, with some of the mountain ranges here having the highest snowfall in the entire country. However, starting with the highest tier of rice and hence sake, Niigata also has incredible seafood from the Sea of Japan, natural scenery to sweep you off your feet, hot springs left and right, and even an active art community, with installations scattered across the countryside.
With how close Niigata is to Tokyo, it's probably the "furthest" scenery-wise you can remove yourself from Tokyo in the shortest amount of time. Many will come just for one night to Echigo-Yuzawa (the first train stop in Niigata prefecture on the bullet train) for a quick refresh at a hot spring hotel, then head back to Tokyo Sunday afternoon for the upcoming work week. However, further up the bullet train to Nagaoka, Tsubame Sanjo, and the last stop of Niigata Station, you'll find a wealth of sights, sounds, and tastes to give you the full spectrum of Niigata's treasures.
SAKE AND RICE
The carbohydrate base of Japanese cuisine, and moreover a provider of amazing flavors through sake and mirin, the importance of rice can't be overstated. You need open land, and massive supplies of high quality water, both of which Niigata boasts much of. The Shinano river, the longest in Japan, runs through Uonuma city, and the "Koshi Hikari" brand of rice here is widely considered the best. You can enjoy the fresh rice harvest at local restaurants in late October, and the local sake breweries, such as the famous Hakkaisan Brewery begin their batches to be enjoyed the following year.
What better way to enjoy rice than with a fresh strip of fish over it? Sushi chefs all over Niigata put this premium rice to good use, using not only the freshest ingredients, but also cutlery from the Tsubame Sanjo area. Some of the sharpest knives in the world are crafted here, giving Niigata sushi that precise cut which can be the deciding factor in flavor for many fish varieties. A dull cut can actually spoil the flavor! And naturally, only premium sake can accompany premium sushi. Niigata's sake breweries are numerous, and all take advantage of both the high quality rice and water of the bountiful rivers here. You really can't go wrong with any sake brand from Niigata.
Niigata offers a more serene and calming experience than compared to say, the buzz and excitement of cities like Osaka and Tokyo. Aside from the light, refined dining experiences, enjoy some of the art museums nearby. In Tokamachi, you'll find the "Museum on Echigo-Tsumari, MonET", featuring art installations both large and small. There's a lovely cafe inside with hundreds of books for browsing, and this is also where they broadcast Tokamachi's public radio station. The souvenir shop within is sensible, selling art pieces, apparel, and local goods.
There are many art installations across the countryside, part of the ongoing "Echigo Tsumari Art Field", making it a sort of scavenger hunt of art that can lead you to some very interesting and local places. It's part of a larger plan to attract visitors and show how "countryside living" still thrives in many areas.
"Matsudai", an open air museum brings a lot of pieces together from various artists, with the Russian modern artists Ilya & Emilia Kabakov making the main pieces. " The Rice Fields" is the most famous one of theirs here, and is a multi-piece installation on the terraced rice fields outside the museum that shows the hardship of rice farming in the distant past of Niigata.
Looking out over the art blending with the landscape along with the tastes and calming sounds of the Niigata countryside is sure to give you a new perspective on Japan. It's not far from Tokyo, so we encourage you to take the journey and treat yourself!