Japan City Guides: Niigata 新潟
Niigata City, with a population of over 800,000, is the largest port on the Japan Sea coast, and the capital of Niigata prefecture, famous for its rice, sake, seafood, and cut flower industry, especially tulips.
Niigata connects to Tokyo by the Joetsu Shinkansen, making it very accessible. The prefecture's location on the Japan Sea also means connections to Korea, China and Russia
Sado Island, with a history of gold mining and exile, is a ferry ride from Niigata City.
Things to see and do in Niigata
Things to see and do in Niigata city include the traditional Hon-cho market (10am-5pm); Hakusan Koen Park and adjacent Marinepia Nihon-kai aquarium; Shibata Castle and Gardens; tulip festivals in spring; Bandai Bridge - illuminated at night; the Niigata Festival in August with its huge fireworks display and colorful procession; birdwatching, hiking, hot springs and beaches, and watching sports at Niigata 'Big Swan' Stadium, south of Niigata Station in Toyano Lagoon Park - host to J-League soccer team Niigata Albirex.
Hakusan Park & Shrine is a beautiful place for cherry-blossom viewing in spring and is the venue for the culmination of Niigata's portable shrine festival (part of Niigata Festival) from August 7-9. The last day of the Niigata Festival has a huge fireworks display over the Shinano River (Japan's longest river at 369 km) and visitors can join in the Folk Dancing Parade (daiminyonagashi) over the Bandai Bridge with around 20,000 fellow participants. Hakusan Park is one of Japan's first city parks having opened in 1874.
The former Niigata Customs House, dates from 1869 when the port opened up to western trade and is part of the Niigata City History Museum (Tel: 025 225 6111) - Minatopia, which also includes the the Former Daishi Bank Sumiyoshi-cho Branch built in 1927 and the former Niigata City Hall built in 1909.
Other historical buildings in Niigata include the Niigata Prefectural Government Memorial House built in 1884, the European-style Niitsu House built by local oil baron Tsunekichi Niitsu in 1881, Enkikan Hall, a merchant house relocated to Hakusan Park and the Former Ozawa Family Residence (Tel: 025 222 0300).
Bandai Bridge is a symbol of the city of Niigata and the six-arch bridge was opened in 1929. Bandai Bridge is illuminated at night.
Bandai City Rainbow Tower is a multi-colored tower near Bandai Bridge and has an observation deck at 100m and a revolving restaurant with great views over the city. Rainbow Tower forms part of the Bandai City (Tel: 025 246 6424) entertainment and shopping complex and bus station with a hotel, Isetan department store, movie theater, restaurants and shops.
The Japan Sea Tower (Sea of Japan Tower; 日本海タワー) to the south of Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium also has a revolving restaurant and offers fine views.
The office and retail skyscraper Next 21 is another of the city's tall buildings situated at the Nishibori intersection with an observation deck for views over Niigata. The 125m-tall, 31 floor Befco (Tel: 025 240 1511), which is part of the Bandaijima Building, is out near the Sado Kisen Ferry Terminal and Toki Messe (Niigata Convention Center).
Niigata has some pleasant beaches in summer and the Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium (Tel: 025 222 7500) on the coast near Niigatakengokoku Shrine has a popular dolphin show and over 450 species of sea creatures. The Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium is 20 minutes by city bus or Loop Bus from Niigata Station.
Sasagawanagare is the name of a section of coastline north of Niigata city, which is famous for its wild waves, sandy beaches, unique geographic formations, seafood, and sunsets. Unfortunately, plastic pollution is spoiling the natural atmosphere. Nonetheless, people from many parts of Niigata Prefecture love to go there in summer to play in the sea and watch the sunset. A boat tour of the coast starts from Murakami city.
Museums of note in Niigata include the Northern Cultural Museum Niigata Branch housed in a traditional Japanese residence, the Niigata City Art Museum (Tel: 025 223 1622), the Aizu Yaichi Museum showcasing the work of the local poet, calligrapher and historian, Aizu Yaichi (1881-1956), the Tsurui Museum of Art (Tel: 025 247 3311) displaying the porcelain and ceramics collection of Eikichi Tsurui, a wealthy local businessman and the Niigata Bandai Jima Art Museum on the 5th floor of Toki Messe Convention Center.
Ryutopia (Niigata City Performing Arts Center; Tel: 025 224 5622) is a modern concert and arts facility on the Furumachi side of the Shinano River in Hakusan Park.
Niigata's most iconic shrine is Minato Inari Shrine which has received the prayers of sailors and their families since the Edo Period.
Fans of horse racing can enjoy Niigata Race Course while enjoying a picnic and enjoying local sake. Niigata Race Course is a short bus or car journey from the center of town.
In winter, Niigata is a good point of access to ski and snowboard resorts in nearby Yuzawa Kogen, Tainai and Shibataninoji Ninox Snow Park all reached by local train from Niigata Station.
There are also a number of onsen resorts within easy reach of Niigata city including: Sakihana Onsen reached on the delightful SL Ban'etsu Monogatari steam locomotive, Senami, Tsukioka, Deyu, Murasagi, Shirone, Odate, Iwamuro and Yahiko.
Senami Spa, north of Niigata, has views of the sea and is set close to a pine forest. 10 minutes by bus from Muraki Station. Senami Onsen has a number of foot baths, called ashinoyu in Japanese, and they can be enjoyed while taking a circuitous walking tour. If you like hiking, ask the locals for directions to the hiking trail that leads up a ledge parallel to the Senanami Onsen area. The trail provides ocean views and dips down into leafy valleys with two secluded ponds. If you are lucky, you might see herons, woodpeckers, and even the endangered Japanese serow.
Shirone is known for its fighting kite-flying festival (tako-age) held in June.
In Yahiko, south of Niigata city, Yahiko Shrine holds an annual lantern festival in July. Mount Yahiko (altitude 638m) is known for its autumn leaves and views of Sado Island and the Japan Sea.
Toki Messe Niigata Conference Center
Tel: 025 246 8400
Niigata City Ryokan Co-operative
Tel: 025 228 5225
Niigata is the main port of access for Sado Island (Sadogashima) - an historic place of exile in medieval times, dotted with fishing villages and noted for its unspoiled nature, rich heritage of performing arts, and lively festivals featuring ondeko, or 'devil drumming'. It is home to the world-famous Kodo Drummers, a taiko drumming troupe (not, however, directly related to the local ondeko) recruited from throughout Japan based in Kodo Village on the southern Ogi peninsula. They form the core of the annual mid-summer Earth Celebration that invites indigenous acts from all over the world to Sado in August.
Access to Sado Island
There are flights to Sado from Niigata airport and ferries and jet-foils from Niigata to Ryotsu (the main town on Sadogashima).
Tel: 025 245 1234
There are also ferries to Ogi on the south-west of Sado from Naoetsu-ko (car ferry is 2 hours, 40 minutes) and a high-speed ferries from Akadomari (on the southern coast of Sado) to Teradomari (1 hour). Naoetsu-ko and Teradomari are both south-west of Niigata on the JR Shinetsu Main Line from Niigata. The Jetfoil takes 65 minutes to reach Ryotsu from Niigata Port, whereas the slower but cheaper car ferry takes 2 hours and 30 minutes.
Niigata Nightlife & Eating Out
Entertainment district: Furumachi area.
Choose your fish live from a pool in Essa in the basement of the WITH Building on Higashibori.
Immigrant's Cafe serves food from Vietnam, Cambodia and all points east, with friendly English speaking staff. Immigrant Cafe's branch restaurant, Immigrant's Med, serves Italian food with the same combination of friendly and bilingual staff.
Pooja Indian Restaurant (Tel: 025 223 9225) serves authentic Indian food at reasonable prices.
The friendly Lone Star has TexMex and Barbecue.
Ikanosumi (いかの墨) is a gourmet Japanese izakaya that serves a wide variety of sake and food specialties from all the regions of Niigata in a beautiful traditional style building. The price is reasonable. Ikanosumi is close to the Bandai exit of Niigata Station. Ask for what is in season.
The best wine bar that also serves delicious Italian food is Faggoto, which is also near the Bandai exit of Niigata Station. Order the garlic bread with the oysters fried in garlic and olive oil. You will not be disappointed.
Sankiyu (in kanji 三鬼遊, in hiragana さんきゆ) is a Japanese restaurant and dog café. Customers are welcome to bring their non aggressive dogs to join the friendly canine staff who greet guests with loving attention. One of the dogs is the largest great Dane that I have ever seen, yet it is a very gentle being. The menu has a wide selection of Japanese dishes. Sankiyu is located close to the Bandai Bridge, but finding it can be difficult, so ask for directions at the Niigata Station information center.
Nature in Niigata
The mountains of Niigata are high, steep, and lush. Yet, Niigata Prefecture is not as famous as its neighboring Prefecture of Nagano. Well-maintained hiking trails stretch across various mountain ranges in Niigata, but they are less popular and less crowded than trails in Nagano.
Some of the most famous peaks are Mt. Gozu, Mt. Myoko, Hakkaisan, and Naebasan. Niigata is very proud to have the smallest mountain range in Japan, which is named Kushigatasanmyaku.
From the top of this range, depending on the direction you face, you can see panoramic views of Niigata Prefecture or Yamagata Prefecture. The trails and peaks mentioned above are accessible all year round, but hiking in the rainy season can be difficult and dangerous. The hiking trails turn to lovely snowshoe routes in winter.
Bears are rarely encountered, but for the protection of yourself and the bears, always travel in the mountains with bear bells.
Bird watching is superlative in Niigata due to its geographical variety: the wide flat plains of Niigata, long coastline, numerous rivers, thick forests, high mountains, and lagoons. Hawks, eagles, owls, herons, woodpeckers, ducks, cormorants, geese, and swans are some of the birds you can spot.
The Japanese ibis became extinct in Japan, but ibises from China are being introduced to Sado Island. Winter is an especially good time to view birds because it is the season when millions of Bewick Swans, Middendorf Bean Geese, and various other bird species migrate to Niigata from Siberia.
The geese and swans often feed in the rice fields and sleep in the rivers, lakes, and lagoons of Niigata. The sight of hundreds to thousands of these birds flying just overhead as they return to their sleeping spots each evening is mesmerizing.
The Lagoons of Niigata
The kanji used to write Niigata in Japanese is 新潟、which can be translated as new lagoon. Niigata has four large lagoons: Fukushimagata, Toyonagata, Uwasekigata, and Sagata. Fukushimagata is the most natural, so it's best for bird watching, but Sagata Lagoon also attracts a lot of wildlife. Toyonagata, being in the middle of Niigata City is a nice place to walk or jog, but it does not feel very natural. Uwasekigata is in a rural rice-farming area of Niigata. Uwasekigata's claim for fame is the annual autumn straw art festival during which huge sculptures are created using dried rice stalks.
Foreign exchange banks on Akashi Dori and Masaya-Koji streets, near Niigata Station.
Tourist Information in Niigata
"i" Information Center (8.30am-7pm; tel 025 241 7914) outside the Bandai exit of Niigata Station has English language information on Niigata city attractions, Niigata Prefecture and Sado Island.
Festivals in Niigata
Niigata Prefecture has some interesting and fun festivals. Niigata city's main festival, the Niigata Matsuri, takes place in the heat of August and includes parades, floats and folk dances on Bandai Bridge in the evening. The festival concludes with a huge fireworks display along the Shinano River as illuminated boats carry the portable shrine of the god of the sea.
The Murakami Dolls Festival in March is celebrated with much openness and panache and includes displays of Hina Dolls, children in period costume and a steam train.
Murakami is well-known for Murakami Gyu, a type of beef that the locals will say is even tastier than the famous Kobe beef, but Murakami Gyu is much cheaper. Salmon dishes are Murakami's other famous food cuisine. As you walk or drive around Murakami, you are likely to see whole salted salmon hanging from the eaves of homes and businesses, where they have been placed to dry in the wind. If you want to learn more about the local customs regarding catching, preparing, and eating salmon in Murakami, visit the Iyoboya Salmon Museum. Iyoboya is what salmon are called in the dialect of Murakami. The museum is a fifteen minute walk from Murakami Station.
The Sakenojin Sake Fair held at Toki Messe also in March allows visitors for a small fee to sample a variety of Niigata Prefecture's renown sake. The Sakenojin Sake Fair also includes traditional theatrical performances and music.
Also on the sake theme is JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station, where a section of the station, named Ponshu-kan, has been set aside for enjoying sake-themed art, tasting sake from all parts of Niigata, eating foods made with sake, and purchasing sake.
In winter the International Snowball Fight Festival takes place in Koide and features participants dressed in wacky costumes enjoying a snowball free-for-all.
The Wakuwaku Winter Festival on the first weekend of February features making mochi (sticky rice cakes), digging snow caves, watching and hearing a crackling bonfire of bamboo and rice straw, playing ball games, drawing pictures, painting bamboo candle holders, and petting and feeding a friendly nanny goat.
Niigata Airport info: tel 025-275-2633.
Flights from Osaka (Itami) (8 daily), Tokyo, Nagoya, Sapporo, and Okinawa as well as Seoul (daily), Taipei, Shanghai, Harbin and Guam. There may be occasional flights to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Check Niigata Airport website for details and flight schedules.
ANA Tel: 025 244 5812
Aeroflot Tel: 025 244 5935
Vladivostok Air Tel: 025 279 5105
Korean Air Tel: 025 244 3311
China Airlines Tel: 025 227 4158
Japan Railways (JR) Joetsu Shinkansen super-express from Tokyo (2 hours) to Niigata Station. Change at Takisaki for the Nagano Shinkansen line. Some trains from Niigata to Osaka and Kyoto. Niigata Station Tel: 025 248 5211
Long-distance bus services from Ikebukuro (Tokyo) to Niigata (6 daily). Niigata also has bus links to Sendai, Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka.
Ferry to Otaru (for Sapporo, 18 hours) run by Shin-Nihonkai Ferry (tel 025-273-2171) Daily, except Mondays.
Getting Around Niigata
The Niigata City Loop Bus consists of two routes: the Inuyasha Bus via Toki Messe and the Dokaben via Hakusan Park. Basically the Dokaben bus crosses Bandai Bridge and goes clockwise around Niigata's main sites, whereas the Inuyasha crosses the Shinano River over Ryuto Bridge and goes anti-clockwise around the city. A single fare is 200 yen and a one day pass 500 yen and includes reductions on entry to many of Niigata's museums and places of interest. Both buses start as the Niigata Bus Terminal just outside Niigata Station.
Bicycles can also be hired at various places around Niigata and there is also a Velotaxi service. The Shinogawa Water Shuttle offers cruises along the Shinano River from Toki Messe.
BSN I- Net "Ke-Ya-Ki Club"
Yoneyama 2-4-1, Niigata
Tel 025-243-0211, free
Mandai 2-2-2, Niigata
Tel 025-243-6500, free
View Sado & Niigata Map in a larger map