Niigata and Nagano: Secluded Hot Springs, Thrilling Outdoor Activities, and the Symphony of Oceans and Mountains
While Niigata and Nagano are popular winter destinations where visitors can enjoy skiing and snowy landscapes, both prefectures have much more to offer such as charming cities surrounded by the sea and mountains, beautiful seasonal vistas, and onsen hot springs. For this article, our editorial team visited Itoigawa City in Niigata Prefecture and the villages of Otari and Hakuba in Nagano Prefecture—which sadly remain relatively unknown outside Japan—to discover fascinating landscapes and remote hot springs.
Feb 15 2023
*This article was written in collaboration with the North Alps and Sea of Japan Tourism Cooperation Committee.
Itoigawa Area, Niigata Prefecture
Gaze at the Sea of Japan and Admire Benten Rock While Biking Through the Kubiki Cycling Road
A bicycle is a great way to discover Japan as many tourist destinations around the country have bike paths and offer bike rentals at tourist spots and train stations. Even so, a cycling road built on an old Japan National Railways train line with great views of the Sea of Japan is a rare and special treat.
The Kubiki Cycling Road is a 32-kilometer-long track that runs along National Route 8 between Joetsu City and Itoigawa City in Niigata Prefecture. It’s an exclusive bike and pedestrian path built where the Japan National Railways Hokuriku Main Line train tracks used to run.
Parts of the historic brick tunnels and bridges that steam locomotives once passed through have been preserved, so cyclists can imagine how it must have felt like to travel on the old trains. At times, it’s like you can almost hear the train whistles and the chugging of the carts as you bike or walk down the path. The coastal Kubiki Cycling Road passes by many tourist spots such as Nou Hakusan Shrine, the Nou Fishing Port, and Jisso-in Temple, as well as by numerous beaches, giving visitors sweeping views of the Sea of Japan. On clear days, you may even see Sado Island in the distance.
We rented bicycles at the Michi-no-Eki Marine Dream Nou roadside rest area in Itoigawa City, and rather than stick to a schedule, we decided to cycle freely wherever our hearts took us, feeling the sea breeze on our faces and admiring the beautiful sunset. The mirror-like Sea of Japan was so calm and serene at times that we just had to slow down and take it all in.
After about 10 minutes of riding west from Michi-no-Eki Marine Dream Nou, we arrived at one of the area’s most famous tourist spots: Benten Rock, a huge rocky reef off the coast of Nou Beach that was created when an underwater volcano erupted over one million years ago. Today, a lighthouse stands atop of Benten Rock and acts as an important guidepost for boats traveling to and from nearby harbors.
In the middle of the rock formation, visitors will also find Itsukushima Shrine, dedicated to the goddess of the sea. It is connected to the mainland by a bridge with vermilion railings called Akebonobashi. It’s an awe-inspiring experience to walk across this mighty structure towards the sky and sea beyond, feeling the power of the ocean all around you. Every year, the area becomes quite busy and lively during an annual fireworks festival held in early August.
The Fossa Magna Museum Tells the Story of Planet Earth
Located at the boundaries of the Pacific, Philippine Sea, Eurasian, and North American tectonic plates, Japan has long been known for its many earthquakes and active volcanoes. Another way of looking at it, though, is that the country boasts many majestic, volcanic landscapes like that of Mt. Fuji, Mt. Aso, and Sakurajima. Benten Rock, the result of a million-year-old eruption we mentioned earlier, is another example of the kind of beautiful scenery that volcanoes can create.
The story of the creation of the Japanese archipelago cannot be told without mentioning Itoigawa. Much of the rock foundation of the islands was formed when the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line (also known as ISTL or Ito Shizu Sen), which runs from Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture and Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture to Shizuoka Prefecture in the south, was created in the Sea of Japan approximately 15 to 20 million years ago. ISTL divides Japan in half between the east and west and is considered an important fault line, without which there would be no Japan.
Located on the same tectonic line is the nature- and resource-rich city of Itoigawa, which today is also home to the Fossa Magna Museum, established in 1994 to tell the rocky story of our planet.
The museum’s permanent exhibition is organized into six different areas where visitors can learn about everything from jade, Itoigawa’s signature gemstone, to various ores and minerals or the great Fossa Magna rift, intricately connected to the birth of the Japanese isles, through videos and interactive installations. The museum is a wonderful, fun place to discover how our planet and its environment were formed over the ages.
Enjoy the Himekawa Onsen Hot Springs and Outstanding Kaiseki Dishes at Hotel Kunitomi Suisenkaku
Hotel Kunitomi Suisenkaku is located by the border of Nagano Prefecture on the banks of the Hime River, about 30 minutes by car from Itoigawa Station. Blessed with high-quality water and an abundance of fresh produce, the area is the perfect source of the hotel’s kaiseki (multi-course) dishes prepared daily from carefully selected ingredients. The hotel also has an "irori" sunken hearth in its charming Japanese-style lobby where guests can relax and enjoy a cup of tea.
The hotel is situated in a nature-rich valley and offers beautiful views all year round, from cherry blossoms in the spring to fresh greenery in the summer, colorful fall foliage in autumn, and, of course, shimmering snowscapes in winter. The ample waters of the hotel's hot springs are kept continuously flowing, which keeps them warm and refreshing. The water is very soothing to the touch, relaxing the body and mind. Hotel Kunitomi Suisenkaku is the perfect place to pamper yourself with outstanding food, majestic scenery, and a delightful soak in natural hot springs.
Otari Area, Nagano Prefecture
Enjoy Spectacular Fall Foliage at the Secluded Kama Pond
Leaving the mountains and sea of Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture behind us, we traveled to the landlocked Nagano Prefecture. Avoiding well-known tourist destinations like Karuizawa and Matsumoto Castle, we visited the area around Otari Village at the border of Niigata and Nagano.
Otari Village is located high up in the mountains, making it one of the few places in Japan where visitors can enjoy the sight of fresh forest greenery against a snowy backdrop from late winter to early spring. The area offers various activities for everyone, from challenging mountain-climbing to relaxing strolls through a rural Japanese scenery full of rivers and lakes. Otari Village additionally boasts many secluded hot springs and wonderful food made from the local bounty of the earth. There is also the Kama Pond, a hidden gem of scenic delights located at an altitude of 1,190 meters.
The Kama Pond derives its name from its shape, which resembles a “kama” sickle. The body of water is surrounded by forests of Japanese beech, painting the area green in the spring and all sorts of colors in the fall, attracting tourists and shutterbugs from all over. We visited the pond in the middle of fall and were rewarded with breathtaking views of vividly colorful foliage with the blue sky and white clouds reflecting mesmerizingly on the water.
We took a stroll around the pond, following a 2-kilometer-long promenade that took us on a 40-minute walk through a carpet of red and yellow leaves, making us feel as if we stepped into a painting.
If you visit Kama Pond between June and October, be sure to take a break at Kamaike Bunabayashi-tei where you can enjoy a light meal and Japanese pickles. If you’re lucky, you may even get to sample dishes made from freshly-picked local mushrooms.
Take a Scenic Open-Air Bath and Savor the Bounty of the Mountains at Amakazari-so
Amakazari-so is a charming hot spring inn nestled in the mountains at an altitude of 900 meters. Located about a 20-minute walk from Otari Onsen and just a 10-minute drive from Kama Pond, it is the perfect spot for people who enjoy hiking. The surrounding landscape changes with the seasons, with the plants budding with life as they come out of their long winter sleep and turning the surrounding area green as the summer approaches. Then in autumn, when the air feels particularly crisp and clean, the leaves turn vibrant shades of red and yellow.
The lobby has the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese house thanks to the massive pillars and beams made of plaster and other natural materials combined with the antique, wooden furniture decor. The Japanese-style guest rooms and a Western-style room are decorated simply for maximum comfort. All accommodations offer views of the Japanese Northern Alps and other mountains and are surrounded by trees so that guests can soak up the greenery while relaxing in their rooms.
Amakazari-so’s policy is to only use fresh, seasonal ingredients in their cooking. Between the spring thaw and early summer, guests get to enjoy a variety of edible wild plants, while in fall, which is when we visited, the menu consists of an array of dishes made from aromatic fungi and other local produce.
We enjoyed a gorgeous course of kaiseki dishes for dinner. The Japanese char, which was first served raw and later deep-fried, had just been caught that afternoon, so it was as fresh as can be. We cooked the Apple-fed Shinshu beef to our liking on an iron griddle and enjoyed the meat’s rich yet delicate flavors with no seasoning other than salt. There were also handmade soba noodles made from local flour and spring water from Mt. Amakazari. All in all, it was a wonderful meal with numerous dishes that wowed us. For those who enjoy sake, local brews such as Amakazariyama and Otari-nishiki are available at dinnertime and go great with the food.
Amakazari-so is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and enjoy all that this wonderful mountain region has to offer. Warm yourself to the core in hot spring waters while enjoying views of the mountains and starry skies and feel your everyday woes just fade away.
Hakuba Area, Nagano Prefecture
Enjoy a Sauna with Views of the Japanese Northern Alps
We next traveled south from Otari and arrived at Hakuba Village in Nagano Prefecture. Hakuba is known as a ski resort, but it has a lot to offer all year round. Hakuba Mountain Beach, for example, is a new destination that is open in the summer and fall, offering access to a relaxing terrace at Usagidaira located 1,400 meters above sea level on the Hakuba Happo-One mountainside.
A gondola will take you halfway up the mountain, and as you ascend the stairs, you’ll see a spacious, whitewashed open terrace. From here, you can see the entire Hakuba Village, as well as the Yatsugatake mountain range and Mt. Asama, with parasols and deck chairs adding a bit of a “beach resort” feel to the mountain scenery. This is the popular Beach Lounge, one of the main attractions of Hakuba Mountain Beach. The combination of these two concepts that usually don’t go together—mountain and beach—creates an unusual yet fantastic experience.
The Beach Lounge has a jacuzzi, pool, and sauna that can be reserved for 90 minutes at a time. Guests can also rent swimsuits if they don’t have their own. Treat yourself to a jacuzzi, sauna, and cold bath while enjoying the fantastic views and feel your body and mind get revitalized.
Additionally, there is a restaurant serving light fare and drinks on the terrace, so after your sauna and jacuzzi, you can relax on a deck chair with a warm meal and a drink while taking in the surrounding scenery.
Immerse Yourself in the Local Landscape at the Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort Observatory and Yoo-Hoo! Swing
Another great destination in Hakuba is Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort, which operates during the Green Season and the Winter Season. We purchased tickets on the first floor, then enjoyed an 8-minute ride on a see-through gondola with fantastic views of the foliage-covered Iwatake mountaintop.
The gondola lift station at the top of Iwatake is located near Iwatake Green Park, which sits at an altitude of 1,289 meters and offers breathtaking, unobstructed views of the surrounding area. In the summer, wooden decks are constructed on the mountain slope, allowing visitors to sit and enjoy fantastic views of the mountains and the rural landscape of Hakuba. In the winter, the slope is used for skiing.
Another great observation spot is Hakuba Mountain Harbor, which offers views of snowcapped mountains in winter and peaks colored by vibrant fall foliage in autumn. The wooden deck at Hakuba Mountain Harbor has transparent railings that partially jut out above the valley below, making visitors feel as if they're floating in the air among the Northern Alps. The City Bakery, originally hailing from New York, operates an outlet by the deck where you can get fantastic coffees, soups, sandwiches, and cookies that go great with the spectacular views.
In addition to fabulous observation spots, Hakuba offers many outdoor activities for people of all ages, including the Yoo-Hoo! Swing, hiking, mountain biking, and camping.
The giant Yoo-Hoo! Swing is especially interesting as it makes you feel as if you were jumping into and out of the majestic Japanese Northern Alps. Ask the resort staff to take a photo of you from the back so that you can have a memento of this one-of-a-kind experience.
Enjoy Fantastic Mountain Views and Fall Foliage at the Hakuba Royal Hotel
While many of the tourist spots and hotels introduced in this article are more easily accessible by car or taxi, the Hakuba Royal Hotel is located just 3-minute walk from Hakuba Station. Its convenience for people traveling by public transport makes the hotel a particularly popular destination for skiers in the winter.
The hotel has Japanese-style, Western-style, and mixed-style guest rooms. Both the Western-style and mixed-style guestrooms are decorated with retro furniture and fittings such as cute flower-shaped light fixtures and luxurious leather chairs. The cherry on top are the large wrap-around windows showing views of yellow and green trees on one side of the room and majestic mountainscapes on the other, coming together to create a panoramic picture.
The meals are regional kaiseki-style dishes made from local ingredients, with set meals such as yakiniku barbecue and hot pots also available. The hot springs are filled with water from Hakuba Yatsugatake Onsen. When we visited, the open-air baths with views of Mt. Hakuba and the indoor hot springs were both being renovated, but the works were completed in December 2022 and the baths should be available to guests once again.
Traveling Through the Seas and Mountains of Niigata and Nagano
Despite Niigata and Nagano’s Itoigawa, Otari, and Hakuba being relatively unknown to travelers from outside Japan, they all offer fantastic views, from snowscapes in the winter to fresh verdure and colorful foliage throughout the rest of the year. They’re also great places for those looking for fun outdoor activities and relaxing hot springs. So, why not visit Niigata and Nagano outside the typical winter months and enjoy their seasonal beauty, hot springs, and food?
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.