'You are going where?!' 'Niigata.' '.... who goes to Niigata?!'
My colleagues are now resigned to the fact that my vacation destinations are always a far cry from the famous locales we spend our time promoting. Niigata is indeed a bit of an unusual choice, as it is known in the travel industry for its relatively low expenditure on tourism promotion. However this can also be considered a positive point, as it means visitors get a truly local experience and skip the crowds of major destinations like Kyoto, Nara and Okinawa.
When planning the trip, we had three main goals in mind: mountains, sake and fireworks. All three were met in abundance, but we discovered so much more.
Niigata city straddles the Shinano River, and has the cheerful laid back air of a city that knows it isn't dependent on the tourist trade. Almost completely flat, it is a great area for biking, especially on riverside lanes. Renting bikes is cheap and easy, with rental and drop-off locations available all over town. Pedal over the Bandai Bridge, to check out the unusual stores in Ninjo-yokocho (make sure you stop by the 'Peanut Specialty Store' for a pack of the local bean senbei crackers) and then glide down Furomachi towards Hakusan Park. This pleasant spot is one of the oldest parks in Japan, and incorporates Hakusan Shrine (dedicated to the god of teeth!), a lotus pond which bursts with pink flowers in the summer and the wonderful Meiji-era Niigata Prefecture Memorial Hall. Pick up some onigiri (rice balls) made with local Koshihikari rice and a bag of 'poppoyaki' (sweet steamed bread sticks flavored with black sugar) and have a picnic under the trees. Being right on the ocean means Niigata gets top-notch seafood, and a bowl of fresh sashimi-topped rice is a popular dish with visitors, if you want something more substantial.
The Sea of Japan is just another 15-20 minute bike ride away, and was one of the major discoveries of this trip. The clear blue water and golden sand were more reminiscent of Okinawa than expected, and I was truly sad to not have brought a swimsuit. There are more famous beaches further afield (such as Oyashirazu), but for a quick dip between sights you can't beat the quiet stretch near the Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium.
Niigata's aforementioned rice is also used to make sake (rice wine), so a visit to Ponshukan is a must for any trip to Niigata (and worth a quick stop for travelers heading further north on a Japan Rail Pass). Just 2-3 minutes from the station, this cozy wood-lined hot spot boasts an amazing vending machine which allows you to try over 100 different types of local sake for 100 yen a cup! If you are a bit overwhelmed by the selection, the staff can point out a few favorites. Make sure that you have a tray of yummy hegi soba (soba noodles which contain funori seaweed) and some juicy Tochio atsuage tofu before heading in to avoid unpleasant hangovers.
Having (amply) satisfied our sake-tasting needs, next up were the mountains of Myokokogen, for some hiking and a break from the heat of Tokyo. This area is actually easier to access from nearby Nagano, but those making the trip from Niigata can have several different discounted ticket options. In winter it is filled with skiers flocking to enjoy the world-class powder snow, but in summer it is much quieter, a perfect retreat. We chose to stay in the Ike no Taira area, a quick bus or taxi ride from the station. Focused around the lily-filled Imori Ike Lake and right at the foot of Mt.Myoko (also known as the Fuji of Echigo), there are several beginner friendly hiking trails through the forest. Book a ryokan (we recommend the well-appointed Ichinoyado Gen), and enjoy local veggies and (yet more) sake. The cool evening breezes and stress-busting hot springs are a perfect way to relax after a day of hiking. In nearby Akakura Onsen, you can visit the summer illuminations held by the APA Resort, where thousands of twinkling bulbs make the hills come alive with sparkling dragons and colorful light tunnels.
Our final stop was Nagaoka, home to one of Japan's top 3 firework festivals. Sadly, besides Echigo Hillside Park and the Museum of Modern Art, Nagaoka does not have a large number of spots to visit. However, lounging on the grass in the free seating area by the river, taking in the festival atmosphere with a drink and some takoyaki is fun (just make sure you bring plenty of sunscreen!) The fireworks display itself is about 2 hours long and incorporates some of the biggest fireworks in the world, appropriately called Starmines. The highlight of the evening is definitely 'The Phoenix' an unbelievable explosion of choreographed color that fills your entire field of view.
As all hotels near Nagaoka are booked solid for the night of the fireworks, a good option is to book a bullet train seat to your next destination. If you want a really special experience, ride in the Green Car of the Joetsu shinkansen, which is on the second floor of the double decker train and has reclining armchairs that are just perfect for a post-fireworks nap.
Follow in Chiara's footsteps and follow her on her trip around Niigata!