20 Must-See Places in Niigata: Uncovering Japan's Rice and Sake Capital
Niigata is a growing destination for travelers seeking winter sports, delicious sake, and delightful scenery. Being one of Japan’s lesser known prefectures, Niigata finds itself far less crowded than many of the country’s more prominent attractions. Despite this, it enjoys much of the same historic sightseeing, cuisine culture, and vibrant landscapes as the rest, with a hefty helping of its own unique charm. Here are our picks for the 20 best places to visit in Niigata, as selected by a well-traveled Niigata resident.
Apr 19 2022 (Jun 03 2022)
What to Do in Niigata
Owing to fertile ground and ample space, Niigata is Japan’s largest producer of rice. From rice comes sake, of which Niigata boasts the most breweries in Japan. There are over 80 sake breweries dotting the prefecture, many of which are open for tours and tastings facilitating a deeper understanding of this historical beverage. Food is equally delightful, with the region’s abundant seafood best relished as sushi atop “koshi-hikari” rice.
There’s also plenty to do in Niigata, from dozens of ski resorts (the 3rd most in Japan) to an expansive coastline filled with beaches for summer swimming. Nicknamed “Snow Country,” most of Japan’s deepest snowfalls are concentrated around Niigata and the neighboring Yamagata, making it the symbol of winter in Japan. After the snow melts, the rugged mountains and vast plains burst with greenery, transforming the land into the ideal outdoor destination. Niigata is also covered by a whopping 147 natural “onsen” hot spring towns, again the 3rd largest concentration in Japan.
How to Get to Niigata
Niigata can be directly accessed from Tokyo Station via the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train, which departs roughly 1-3 times every hour between 6 am and 11 pm. The trip takes around 75 minutes to Echigo-Yuzawa Station and just over 2 hours to Niigata Station. There are also flights to and from Niigata Airport and Haneda (Tokyo), Itami (Osaka), and New Chitose (Sapporo).
20 Must-See Places in Niigata
1. Tsubame Onsen
Standing out amongst the enormous lineup of hot springs in Niigata are the milky turquoise waters of Tsubame Onsen. This remote, high-altitude hot spring village lies deep within Joshin'etsukogen National Park and is most famous for the free open-air baths of “Ougon no Yu” and “Kawara no Yu.” Both sit a short walk from the town and are utterly encompassed by boundless wilderness, allowing bathers to relax and completely forget the outside world.
2. Tunnel of Light (Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel)
Owing to social media, the Tunnel of Light has become one of Niigata’s most recognizable icons. This colossal art installation, a part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field, was repurposed into its current form in 2018 by MAD Architects, framing and enhancing the natural beauty of the surrounding Kiyotsu Gorge. The spooky, atmospheric tunnel leads visitors to several viewpoints, including the famous Light Cave (pictured). Those willing to get their shoes wet can even walk across the shallow water right up to the edge of the Light Cave, allowing an unobstructed view deep into this once impassable valley.
3. Beauty Forest (Bijin-bayashi)
Located in Tokamachi, Niigata’s Beauty Forest is a spectacular grove of picture-perfect Japanese beech trees. The entire forest was originally cut down in the Taisho period (1912-1926) for charcoal, but it miraculously regrew to form one of Niigata’s most precious attractions. This is why there is virtually no undergrowth and the trees are all around the same height.
The Beauty Forest is the perfect place for “shinrinyoku” (forest bathing), a Japanese practice said to reduce stress by immersing the senses in nature. The forest scenery changes dramatically from season to season, with fresh greenery in summer, vivid foliage in fall, and deep snow in winter. The uncanny symmetry between the trees makes it a bounty for keen photographers.
If you’re keen to try winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, but don’t want to venture all the way up to Hokkaido, then Niigata’s Echigo-Yuzawa should be on your radar. Famed for its fluffy powder snow, Echigo-Yuzawa is one of the largest skiing areas in Japan and is easily accessible via bullet train from Tokyo. There are 12 ski resorts in Echigo-Yuzawa attracting over 6 million visitors per year - most notably the renowned GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort.
There are also numerous hot spring facilities to warm up the bones after hitting the slopes. During the hotter months, the encompassing mountains are lively and green, presenting adventurous travelers with ample hiking and camping opportunities.
5. Matsudai Nohbutai
Matsudai Nohbutai is a cultural facility in Tokamachi with a gallery, restaurant, and more. The building was designed as both a museum and meeting place for the local community, artists, and visitors to intermingle and connect. The “art field” encircling the facility cleverly incorporates both international and local artwork into the encompassing nature. The centerpiece of this is “Tsumari in Bloom” by renowned artist Yayoi Kusama, who is known for her striking polkadot sculptures. Every three years during the summer, the Matsudai Nohbutai and surroundings come alive at the “Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial,” one of Japan’s biggest outdoor art festivals.
6. Uonuma no Sato
At the base of Mt. Hakkai is Uonuma no Sato, a spacious outdoor complex amongst the lush nature of Uonuma. The main attraction is the Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, one of the most famous sake breweries in Japan. Here you can tour the brewery, including the all-natural ice room used to age sake; pick up some premium snow-aged Niigata wagyu beef, explore the nearby hiking trails, and hop through a lineup of cafes, beer breweries, bakeries, and more.
7. Hoshitoge Rice Terraces
As Japan’s leading producer of rice, it’s no surprise that many of the slopes of Niigata are covered by cascading rice paddies. The Hoshitoge Rice Terraces of Tokamachi are the pinnacle of this magnificent scenery, consisting of roughly 200 tiered rice terraces all varying in size.
The Hoshitoge Rice Terraces are a sight to behold, drawing in thousands of photographers and tourists throughout the year despite the remote location. Depending on the season and time of day, you can witness a multitude of scenes from misty clouds to sky-reflecting pools, frozen winter landscapes, and more.
Ponshukan is a museum and store showcasing the local sake, produce, and handicrafts of Niigata. They work directly with local producers to source and amass all the best that Niigata has to offer. Ponshukan can be found at Niigata Station, Nagaoka Station, and Echigo-Yuzawa Station.
Here you can taste five different kinds of sake from over 100 brands for only 500 yen! You can also purchase local goods, such as snack foods, handmade traditional crafts, and a range of beauty products made from sake. Weary travelers will also appreciate the sake-infused hot spring bath (only at Echigo-Yuzawa), and the “bomb-sized” onigiri riceballs!
9. Tojiro Open Factory
Tojiro Open Factory invites visitors to tour and witness both modern and traditional Japanese knife manufacturing processes. The factory floor buzzes with fascinating state-of-the-art machines while the Knife Atelier is a sanctuary of authentic, traditional craftsmanship where knives are painstakingly forged by a single blacksmith. The surrounding township of Tsubame-Sanjo also has a long history as one of Japan’s metalworking hubs, and there are more than enough factories, shops, and experiences on offer to make it worth spending an entire day here.
10. Yahiko Shrine
Yahiko Shrine is the highest-ranking shrine in Niigata and is said to have existed for over 2,400 years. Due to its popularity, about a quarter of a million people flock to Yahiko Shrine for their annual New Year’s visit, praying for good fortune and health in the following year.
The nearby Yahiko Park is also particularly well known for both its fall foliage and cherry blossoms in spring. There are many things to do in the area, such as chowing down on local sweets, bathing in hot springs, or taking the Yahikoyama Ropeway to the top of Mount Yahiko.
11. Furumachi Old Streets
Furumachi is a major commercial district of Niigata City and was one of three main geisha districts of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1867). While no longer in its prime, it still retains a deeply traditional aesthetic and rustic charm. Several establishments are well over 100 years old and there are still restaurants boasting authentic geisha entertainment. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a geisha, known locally as “geigi,” strolling the streets!
12. Pier Bandai
The largest fresh food market along the Sea of Japan is Niigata City’s Pier Bandai. Popular with both locals and tourists, visitors can browse through a staggering range of seasonal produce, freshly caught fish, Murakami beef, Niigata sake, and more.
There’s also plenty of dining options, including several sushi restaurants, cafes, ramen outlets, dessert stalls, and more. They even have a BBQ area to grill up the goodies you purchased from the market!
13. Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery
Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery is just 20 minutes on foot from Niigata Station, making it one of the most accessible sake breweries in Japan. They offer extensive tours in English for free with additional paid tastings from 15 kinds of sake along with a stellar lineup of stylish, sleek sake to purchase for a drink back home. They also stock loads of unique souvenirs like beautifying sake-based face masks and more!
Also popular is the Imayotsukasa gacha game, where you can win sake worth over 1,000 yen! While it’s a little pricey at 400 yen a turn, you are guaranteed to win something of at least that value every time you play.
14. Niigata Rice Cracker Museum
Being Japan’s #1 producer, rice crackers are another must-try Niigata specialty. If you long for a deeper encounter with the addictive, crispy crunch of the humble cracker, then head for the Niigata Rice Cracker Museum, where you can grill and design your own gigantic (about 25 cm!) rice cracker with soy sauce.
After testing out your drawing and cooking skills, browse through the assortment of rare, limited-edition crackers and other cute merchandise. There is also a small cafe serving soft-serve rice cracker ice cream and an adorable rice cracker Shinto shrine by the entrance! While a little out of the way, families or fans of Japanese snack culture will undoubtedly want to make the trip.
15. Tsukioka Onsen
A 40-minute drive from Niigata City is the tranquil hot springs paradise of Tsukioka Onsen. Opened in 1915, this resort town is celebrated for its emerald green waters boasting some of the highest sulfur concentrations in Japan. Tsukioka’s natural springs were actually discovered by chance when digging for oil, transforming the region from an industrial hub to a trove of tranquility. The water is slightly alkaline and gentle on the skin, giving it numerous health and beautifying benefits.
Aside from spa facilities, there are also rows of charming, old-fashioned shops lining the center of town, including ones selling fresh “manju” steamed buns - a hot spring classic in Japan!
16. Sado Gold Mine
On Sado Island are the remnants of Japan’s largest gold and silver mine during the early modern period, which permanently closed in 1989. The most distinctive feature of the mine is the iconic V-shape of the “Doyu no Warito” mountain. It’s said that the mountain split when miners dug into a gigantic vein of gold many years ago.
The mine’s equipment and infrastructure have been extraordinarily well preserved, with life-like animatronics set up to recreate the atmosphere during its operation. The mining site and tunnels have been designated Important Cultural Properties and are currently in the running to become a World Heritage Site. Definitely check out the surreal Kitazawa Flotation Plant Remains too (pictured)!
17. Tarai Bune
Paddling along the coast in a wash tub is a 150-year-old tradition on Sado Island! Here women have transformed their washtubs into small boats to help them collect seaweed and shellfish on the rocky shores. While no longer needed, the practice is kept alive as one of the island’s most iconic tourist attractions.
The tarai bune boats for tourists now have glass bottoms to peek at the colorful array of fish and algae under the water. You can also try to row the boat yourself - although you’ll likely find it’s harder than it looks! Tarai Bune boats are available to ride from Ogikou, Yajima/Kyojima, and Shukunegi.
18. Sennensake Kikkawa
The sleepy township of Murakami in far-north Niigata is famous as Japan’s capital of salmon. Here salmon swimming upstream into the Miomote River are caught with traditional fishing methods and used in over 100 different dishes.
Sennensake Kikkawa is a shop specializing in all-natural Murakami salmon salted by hand using painstaking techniques passed down the generations. They offer grilled salmon, dried salmon, salmon roe soaked in soy sauce, and more, with free tastings often available. The most famous sight here is the 1,000+ salmon hanging to dry from the roof - a truly surreal spectacle. You can catch the peak of this dreamlike display all throughout the town from around November to late December.
19. Takada Castle Park
In the heart of Joetsu City is Takada Castle Park, a beautiful, spacious park oozing with history adorned by approximately 4,000 cherry blossom trees.
To celebrate their blooming in spring, an annual cherry blossom festival is held, with the highlight being a natural tunnel of blossoms called “Sakura Road.” At night, this tunnel and surroundings are illuminated by lanterns and lights, earning it the official rank as one of Japan’s top three night-time cherry blossoms spots.
20. Jade Coast
The final place on our Niigata must-see list is the Jade Coast in the Itoigawa region of southern Niigata. These pebble beaches flaunts crystal clear waters and are famous for the small amounts of jadeite that can be found on the shore.
Visitors can use available exploration kits to search for jade in the rocks, with local jade hunters and tourists often spending entire days combing the beach for a chunk of this rare and elegant stone. There is also a jade museum, café, and restaurant on the beach, and it is also a popular spot for scuba diving, fishing, and summertime swimming.
Discover the Gems of Niigata
So that’s it for our list of the 20 must-see places in Niigata. What did you think? Are there any other places that we didn’t mention but you think should be on our list? While not as well known as other regions of Japan, Niigata remains an underrated gem chock full of wonderful places to visit! So next time you have the chance, be sure to check out some, if not all, of the places on this list!
Written in collaboration with Steve Csorgo.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.