Simple, Friendly, and Rural Niigata


Niigata prefecture charms visitors with authenticity and kindness. As a result, when you travel through this rustic rural region, you're much more likely to enjoy personal interactions here than in Tokyo and other primary business and tourist centers.

That's because residents of Niigata are incredibly proud of their land and customs and genuinely want to share these with visitors. And, as for now, Niigata is an under-visited location, meaning you'll discover traditional buildings, crafts, and festivals while meeting warmhearted people on the streets, in the stations, on trains, and just about anywhere.

Interactive, friendly festivals

In addition, Niigata festivals, based on rural traditions and lifestyles, invite participation. Try to be in Niigata to join at least one festival or special event for cultural experiences you can't get elsewhere.

One of the most exciting summer festivals to join is the Shirone Giant Kite Battle every June. Even though National Geographic made a video titled the Great Kite Fight, very few foreigners know about Shirone Town's hundreds-of-years-old festival. It involves peaceful combat with hundreds of enormous (5m x 7m) handmade kites painted with ancient Japanese designs. Rival teams gather on opposite sides of the Nakanokuchi River. Between boisterous bouts of drinking and picnicking, the teams fly kites over the river. Each group wants to catch other teams' kites in their lines, initiating ferocious tug-of-war contests. The teams request bystanders like you to help pull on the kite strings. Join the fun. The losing kites break apart or fall into the river, followed by shouts, laughs, and sharing food and sake.

Koide International Snowball Fight could be Japan's most amusing, participatory winter festival. Despite the name, it's a rural event that welcomes everyone. The camaraderie, attractions, and silliness warm the heart in below-freezing weather. Advancing, dodging, and rolling in the snow, teams of five attack with snowballs as judges keep an eye on the games. Costumes (think cosplay) and horseplay are encouraged. The normally self-restrained and shy Japanese get pleasantly wild and social. And they want you to do the same.

Here, group and individual travelers experience Niigata's snow-country hospitality and culture. Children of visitors and locals bond while making Japanese-style snowmen, playing in snow caves, and sliding on the free sled hill. Residents at food stalls or igloo-like snow buildings sell local versions of traditional soba, udon, smoked duck, grilled river fish, boar curry, and other Niigata country dishes. Outdoor bars sculptured from snow and ice become gathering areas for free-flowing conversations among visitors and residents. To taste a unique Niigata drink, try sake heated with a piece of grilled river fish inside. You'll impress the locals.

My friends, relatives, and I have been repeatedly surprised by the openness of Niigata's country folk. Perhaps, nowhere is this more common than in Niigata Prefecture's northernmost city, especially in the older section where rows of centuries-old wooden homes and shops selling local salmon, green tea, sake, and woodcrafts still stand. Many occupants are descendants of the founders.

In spring, these people, so proud of their homes and culture, open their doors to allow strangers to walk inside to view their traditional gardens and collections of ancient hand-carved Japanese dolls, many hundreds of years old and made with actual human hair. Some homeowners served snacks and green tea to my friends and me and asked us about our homes. These people open their houses again in the fall to exhibit their family's traditional folding screens. Unfortunately, I can't imagine similar events happening in heavily touristed areas of Japan or my home country.

Unexpected generosity

Friendly encounters in Niigata happen by chance any time of the year. One early morning on Sado Island, a British friend was taking photographs of seaside terraced rice fields when a passing fisherman greeted him. After a few minutes of chatting, the fisherman invited my friend to his home for a meal of his freshly caught fish, local sake, and vegetables from his garden.

Before the pandemic started, two relatives joined a first-class luxury tour of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Beforehand, I took them around Niigata City and Murakami. After their expensive tour ended, they reported their best memories of Japan were the unplanned and friendly interactions with locals we met in Niigata onsens and izakayas.

The kindness of Niigata's country folk extends to experiences in Niigata city. Last week, for instance, I decided to buy a bag of pears from a grandmotherly lady selling produce out of a tiny stall on a side street of Honcho Street. I told the older woman I was going to make jam. We exchanged recipes, and suddenly the older woman gave me a box of pears for free. The pears were from her orchard. She said she was glad to meet someone who would appreciate them.
After living in Niigata for many years, I have learned the residents are delighted when visitors show respect and appreciation for their land and customs and that their hearts open wide.

Getting to and around Niigata

Rural Niigata and urban Tokyo, separated by vast plains and high mountains, are about 337 kilometers (220 miles) from each other. However, Japan's comfortable bullet trains connect the two distinctly different cities in around two hours. In addition, airplanes from most major Japanese airports fly to Niigata. Short bus, train, or car rides from Niigata City will take you to rice fields, foothills, and ancient villages.

Written by Greg Goodmacher

After living in five countries and traveling to about twenty-five countries, I have settled in Japan. Deep snows, refreshing Japanese sake, ancient customs blended with modern technology, regional cuisines, fantastic arts and crafts, unique traditions, and magical festivals combine to create a country that fascinates me so much that I may never return to my home country, the US. Japanese onsens, in particular, have a hold on me. So far, I have bathed in more than six hundred locations between Hokkaido and Okinawa.