Deep Snow an Hour From Tokyo: Relishing the Midwinter Bounties of Niigata
Dubbed as “snow country,” the mountainous inland Yuzawa region of Niigata Prefecture is jam-packed with ski resorts taking full advantage of the abundant powder snow. Despite being just over an hour from Tokyo, the formidable conditions and terrain of Yuzawa have cultivated a distinctive way of life revolving around surviving the heavy snow and making the most of its bounties. In this article, we’ll introduce eight places, activities, and foods within Yuzawa and surroundings to uncover the secret charms of this winter paradise!
Feb 17 2022 (May 30 2022)
*This article was written in collaboration with Niigata Prefecture.
Where Is Niigata Prefecture?
Niigata Prefecture is a part of the Chubu region of Japan, sitting roughly 200 km northwest of Tokyo. Being Japan’s 5th largest prefecture, it is characterized by sweeping coastline alongside a far-reaching inland terrain of rugged mountains with heavy snowfall in winter. The Yuzawa region is particularly renowned for its ski resorts, winter activities, fresh produce, and unique culture. This area borders the prefectures of Nagano and Gunma and can be easily accessed via the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station to Echigo-Yuzawa Station in approximately 79 minutes.
When Is Winter in Niigata Prefecture?
Peak winter conditions generally arrive in the Yuzawa region of Niigata between mid-December and late March. However, this can change depending on the year, so always confirm the latest information before making any plans.
The places introduced below were also visited by YouTuber Currently Hannah! Check out her video to discover more about the wonders of Niigata!
8 Winter Sights and Activities to Try in Yuzawa, Niigata
1. Experience Workshop Daigenta: Traditional Niigata Confectionery Making
Traditional “wagashi” Japanese confectionery like mochi, manju, and dango have been enjoying a surge in popularity recently. However, no quest to conquer all of Japan’s old-school goodies is complete until you’ve sunk your teeth into one of Niigata’s quirky “sasadango.”
Sasadango is a type of steamed sweet “dango” dumpling made from rice mochi flavored with “yomogi” (Japanese mugwort plant) filled with sweet red bean paste. This dango (pictured above) is then wrapped inside “sasa” bamboo leaves and steamed, yielding a moderate sweetness with an earthy, organic flavor, leafy aroma, and firm yet supple texture. To enjoy, simply untie the grass string, unwrap the sasa, and eat the dango nestled inside.
While sasadango can be purchased throughout Niigata, there’s no better way to enjoy this local delicacy than by making it! A 15-minute drive/20-minute bus ride away from Echigo-Yuzawa Station is Experience Workshop Daigenta, a kitchen studio hosting cooking classes and more.
Over the course of roughly an hour, you’ll be taken through the entire sasadango-making process under the guidance of a renowned local sasadango confectioner. This includes rolling the dough into circular dango, encasing them around the anko beans, wrapping them in sasa leaves, and finally tying them together with a piece of “suge” sedge grass. While the initial stages are simple, the wrapping and tying is a little tricky, so be sure to watch the demonstration carefully and take your time! You’ll be able to make up to 20 sasadango between your group, giving you plenty to practice on!
After finishing, the instructor will steam and serve your sasadango in a warm, comfy Japanese tatami room. If you can’t finish them all, feel free to take the rest back to your accommodation. However, keep in mind that sasadango won’t last more than a few days, so it’s best to finish them sooner rather than later.
Experience Workshop Daigenta also hosts several additional cooking classes showcasing local recipes and ingredients. Most popular is soba making, which uses local buckwheat fused with seaweed in the “hegisoba” style unique to Niigata. Reservations are required and can be made via email in English (see below).
2. NASPA Ski Garden: Glide on Niigata’s Luscious Powder Snow
Skiing is naturally the best way to make the most of Echigo Yuzawa’s renowned slopes and exceptional snow quality. Thankfully, the skiing facilities at NASPA Ski Garden are state-of-the-art, with the added bonus of direct bullet train access from Tokyo. Whether you’re an experienced adventurer or absolute beginner, you’re bound to find a slope at NASPA Ski Garden meeting your needs.
And don’t fret if you’re unsure about skiing, there’s plenty of fun snow-based activities to enjoy at NASPA Ski Garden and the surrounding Echigo-Yuzawa township too. This includes more casual winter frolicing like snowman-building, sledding, and snowtubing to one-of-a-kind experiences like snowmobiling and snow rafting.
NASPA Ski Garden is directly connected to the NASPA New Otani hotel, accessible after just 3 minutes on the shuttle bus from Echigo-Yuzawa Station. Both hotel guests and day-trip visitors are welcome to use the slopes, which range from advanced to beginner. Being a skiing only resort, it’s also a great place to take children to let them play or teach them how to ski. Apart from goggles and gloves, which can be purchased at the skiing store, all ski gear such as clothes, boots, skis, and poles can be rented for both adults and children at full or half day rates, with discounts available for hotel guests.
Lessons aimed at both beginners and seasoned skiers looking to improve are also held most days of the season, including private English and Chinese lessons bookable via email (see below). If you’re happy to take lessons in Japanese, group ski lessons run both in the morning and afternoon and are available to book on the day at the ski school counter.
The snow at NASPA Ski Garden is lush and plentiful and the slopes are easily accessed from the hotel. There are a total of 8 courses branching from the summit, with the longest being 1600 m plus two non-groomed snow courses for experienced skiers seeking a challenge. There are also safe, enclosed play areas to help familiarize young children with snow, plus several rest spaces and chalets to get warm and relish a meal by the slopes.
One of these rest spaces is Cafeteria Aurora, which offers both western and Japanese lunches, desserts, and drinks with an English menu displaying ingredients for those with allergies. Meals include burgers with Niigata wagyu along with an array of nourishing curries, beef bowls, ramen, and vegan-friendly options like onigiri rice balls and oden. You can enter Cafeteria Aurora in your ski wear, allowing you to recharge your batteries without the trouble of redressing.
As stated, NASPA Ski Garden is a skiing-only resort and snowboarding is not permitted. There is an ample selection of alternative snowboarder-friendly resorts all across Yuzawa to visit instead, such as the renowned GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort, so don’t be put off visiting if you prefer snowboarding! As the NASPA Ski Garden is located on a steep hill making access on foot difficult, it’s best to travel by car (free parking) or via the dedicated NASPA shuttle bus service that runs between JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station and NASPA New Otani (free for guests, check information below).
3. NASPA New Otani: Spend the Night in Luxury by the Slopes
Aside from the high-quality slopes, one of the most appealing reasons to choose NASPA Ski Garden is the direct access to NASPA New Otani. Spending the night at NASPA New Otani saves the hassle of having to drive or take a bus between your accommodation and chosen ski resort, which can be particularly burdensome with your own gear. There are no other skiing resorts matching this level of convenience in Echigo-Yuzawa, making it the perfect fit for those short on time looking to hit the slopes without a fuss.
NASPA New Otani is a 4-star hotel with stellar facilities complementing its ski slopes. At O’s Dining, guests can gorge on lavish buffet dinners and breakfasts of a whopping 70 menu items suiting all palates. This includes ubiquitous Japanese classics like sushi, tempura, and sashimi, the local Niigata delicacies of aburaage fried tofu and koshihikari rice, and Western-style stews, hamburg, roasted beef, and much more. All this is complemented by a tantalizing dessert lineup with plenty of soft drinks and alcoholic beverages to wash it all down, along with a kid’s menu for families.
To ensure the safety of guests, stringent hygiene practices are in place during the buffet and throughout the hotel, including the compulsory wearing of plastic gloves when serving food, readily available disinfectant spray, and the placement of air sterilization machines across facilities.
Other highlights at NASPA New Otani include a pool and fitness room, hot springs with saunas and open-air baths, and even private spas available for reservation. The rooms themselves warmly accommodate a diverse range of guests with ample space to thoroughly spread out and unwind. The room windows frame the surrounding scenery like a work of art, allowing you to appreciate the beauty of Yuzawa from the comfort of your own private space.
4. Snow Activities at NASPA Ski Garden: Take a Break From Skiing With Snow Country Adventures
To capitalize on its phenomenal snowfall, NASPA Ski Garden also runs several riveting snow-based activities for a quick break from skiing. The most thrilling of these are the Snow Rafting and Snow Night Buggy Tour, which can be reserved at the NASPA Ski Garden Free Rest Space Snow Activity Counter on the ski grounds.
Snow rafting sees passengers pulled along at breakneck speeds by a snowmobile in an inflatable raft. The raft glides seamlessly across the powdery snow, providing the same blood-pumping adrenaline rush of skiing without the effort. You’ll feel your stomach drop and knuckles clench with each electrifying turn as the daredevil driver spins you round again and again!
While the lifts may close after dark, the adventures at NASPA Ski Garden are far from over. For those willing to brave the bone-chilling night cold, the Snow Night Buggy Tour provides an authentic off-road escapade through the frozen heart of snow country. The powerful vehicle zooms up the steep, winding slopes to the mountain summit, effortlessly smashing its way through the fresh piles of snow. After trudging up the mountain, it hurdles back down giving passengers the thrill of a lifetime. Without any windows, you’ll quickly become covered in snow, so remember to dress in full ski gear with goggles and gloves. If the weather is clear, you’ll also be able to enjoy breathtaking night views of the surrounding towns!
5. Yuzawa Strawberry Village: All-You-Can-Eat Strawberry Picking!
One of Niigata’s lesser known delicacies is the “Echigo-hime” strawberry. Plump, juicy, sweet, and fragrant, these strawberries are a must-try for anyone visiting the region. However, finding them in supermarkets or greengrocers can be difficult, which is why we recommend heading straight for the source at one of Niigata’s bountiful strawberry farms.
Yuzawa Strawberry Village is open to visitors all throughout the strawberry season of mid-January to late June (depending on the year, may close temporarily if strawberries are all picked). After paying the entrance fee, you’ll be free to explore the greenhouse to find, pick, and devour some of the biggest, reddest, and ripest strawberries you’ll ever see.
There are two picking plans available: paying by weight or all-you-can-eat. The first costs 280 yen per 100 g of strawberries, which can be eaten immediately after paying or taken home. There’s no time limit, so you can thoroughly scrutinize each strawberry to ensure you’ve got the cream of the crop (just refrain from touching ones you won’t pick and eating before you’ve paid). For those visiting on an empty stomach, the all-you-can-eat plan allows unbound reign of the greenhouse for 30 minutes to pick and eat as you like for a set price (see below).
While there were plenty of delicious, bright-red strawberries begging to be eaten during our visit in January, the best season is generally considered a bit later on in April. As it’s warmer, the strawberries will be more fragrant and sweet, filling one’s palate with nourishing aromas and a gentle acidity.
6. Shiozawa-Juku Bokushi Street: Stroll Through an Edo Period Inn Town
Despite the action-packed activities and exciting cuisine, life in rural Niigata during winter is generally relaxed and quiet. With the snow impeding virtually every facet of day-to-day life, it’s impossible to get anything done in a hurry.
A 20-minute drive from Yuzawa lies Bokushi Street in Shiozawa-juku, a charming road lined by old-fashioned buildings making for one of the best places to absorb this rustic serenity. Sitting on the former Mikuni Kaido Highway, this ancient transport vein once connected Echigo Province (modern-day Niigata Prefecture) with the Kanto region (Tokyo, etc.) and was home to a prospering community of businesses most famous for the weaving of renowned Echigo-jofu and Shiozawa-tsumugi fabrics.
Bokushi Street is named after the legendary Japanese writer Suzuki Bokushi, who detailed life in Echigo during the late Edo period (1603-1868) in his encyclopedic work Hokuetsu Seppu (translated as: Snow Country Tales: Life in the Other Japan). Nowadays, Bokushi Street and much of Shiozawa-juku is characterized by faithfully reconstructed traditional architecture exhibiting the culture of the region. This includes the symbolic plain yet charming wooden townhouses along with their wide “gangi” eaves and undercover walkways protecting residents from snow.
Inside the buildings are businesses specializing in regional crafts and produce, including sake, rice, fabrics, and confectionery. Despite the antique exteriors, many shops are stylish and modern inside, earning a reputation amongst younger locals as a trendy hangout to grab a coffee and shop.
Nearby Bokushi Street is the Suzuki Bokushi Museum, which displays a first edition of Hokuetsu Seppu, his most famous work, alongside other materials exploring the acclaimed author’s life, work, and notable peers. Closer to Shiozawa Station is the Shiozawa-Tsumugi Museum, an exhibition of the extraordinary weaving techniques developed in the area, which can be traced as far back as the Nara period (710-794).
Alongside these ancient crafts and cultures, Bokushi Street now flaunts the pinnacle of modern snow removal technology. Fountains of water constantly run down the streets and eaves to melt the snow while state-of-the-art plowing machines keep the streets clear and safe despite the relentless winter onslaught.
7. Okome no Gakkou: Savor a Variety of Niigata Rice and Pound Mochi
Niigata, particularly the Uonuma region encompassing Yuzawa, is Japan’s leading producer of rice. The main strain here is “koshihikari,” which is cultivated by numerous farmers into their own unique brands. Grown in lush, fertile soil bursting with moisture from the heavy snowfall, the rice of Niigata is fluffy, sweet, and valued highly for its stickiness, gloss, and aroma.
Offering a comprehensive encounter with this surprisingly complex grain is the Okome no Gakkou rice school on Bokushi Street. Alongside adorable rice-based souvenirs, including those made from discarded paper rice bags, Okome no Gakkou allows visitors to get up close with local rice varieties and cooking methods through sampling and mochi making.
The 45-minute rice sampling course is 300 yen per person plus the cost of the rice. Participants will select bowls of two or more Niigata rice brands to be steamed in traditional flame-heated “kama” iron pots right in front of your eyes. This ancient cooking technique yields fresh, plump rice bursting with luscious sweetness. If a particular brand takes your fancy, full bags to cook at home can also be purchased from the Okome no Gakkou store (not all varieties are available for purchase).
Being the same or similar strains, the differences between each sample can be difficult to detect at first. However, if you take the time to concentrate and thoroughly savor each one, there’s no doubt you’ll begin to notice the unique textures, moisture levels, and tastes of each. For example, the koshihikari rice “Kojumai” has a distinctive richness and puffy texture, which is worlds apart from the firm, savory character of the Sekikeno Kodawarimai variety, both of which are served at Okome no Gakkou.
Also at Okome no Gakkou is a mochi-making course transforming Niigata’s own “kogane mochi” rice into scrumptious mochi desserts by pounding it with a giant mallet. The finished mochi will then be served with sweet anko beans and roasted soybean flour to eat and relish the fruits of your labor.*
These experiences need to be reserved in advance and are generally aimed at groups due to the rice and mochi being difficult to bring home if one person can’t eat it all. English support is limited, however, reservations can be made on the official website in Japanese (see more below).
*Mochi-making is currently suspended due to COVID-19. As resumption is still undecided, if you’re interested in this experience, please contact the store first to see if it’s available.
8. Ponshukan: Everything Niigata in One Place
Ponshukan is a sake mecca stocking all the best local brews coupled with snacks, sweets, delicacies, handicrafts, and more. The most popular attraction here is the Sake Tasting Room, where visitors can plunge into a world of more than 100 different sake varieties from over 80 Niigata breweries served via automatic vending machines. For 500 yen, you’ll receive five tokens and a cup to use for the brews of your choice.
During winter, the sake experience is enhanced by the installation of a self-service sake warming machine to make your own hot “kanzake.” Along with warming the body, kanzake serves to expose additional flavors unseen in chilled or room temperature sake. Even the act of heating itself is surprisingly complex, with various subtleties coaxed out at each temperature range. Thankfully, Ponshukan has a list of temperatures and corresponding warming times displayed in English to help you find the right one.
Of course, not all sake will necessarily taste better warmed, and the benefits are all in the eye of the beholder. Experimenting with different temperatures and brews to see the effect is half the fun of kanzake! Generally speaking, aromatic “ginjo” sake is less suited to being warmed, while hot “junmai” or “honjo” sake usually goes down a treat.
Complementing the sake is a selection of delectable Niigata snacks highlighting local tastes and ingredients. This includes a cream cheese tart made from Sado Island cheese, a financier cake of mouth-watering sake lees mixed with butter and almonds, a rich and chewy sake-flavored chocolate brownie, and the “sake manju,” a twist on the traditional flour-based pastry imbued with sake aromas. At the “Koji Latte” section, you can also pick up a coffee, soft-serve ice cream, or drink mixed with “koji,” the delicious fermentation mold used as a key ingredient in sake brewing. There are also several beauty products made from sake ingredients utilizing the natural moisturizing properties of rice through creams, face masks, balms, and more.
Culture and Cuisine Born From Snow
From fun activities like skiing and snowboarding to a wealth of delectables like fruit, rice, and a hoard of sake, the culture of Yuzawa is not only about surviving the grueling winter conditions, but using them to thrive and prosper. Next time you’re seeking a convenient place for winter sports in Japan with a side of food and fun, board the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train and dive into snow country!
The places introduced here were visited by YouTuber Currently Hannah! Check out her video to discover more wonders of Niigata!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.