May 23, 2015

Niigata

(Last updated in November 2019)

Niigata(新潟)is in the Chubu(中部)region, located along the coast of Japan Sea. It is famous for rice, Nihonshu(日本酒, more commonly known as 'sake')and skiing.


During my 1st trip there in Spring 2015, visited Takada Castle Park(高田城公園), 1 of the 3 best night sakura(夜桜)spots in Japan, and it was in full bloom! It was indeed impressive, partially thanks to the lighting~




However, the place is not so highly accessible, most locals go there via car or tour buses, while foreigners hardly go there. I managed to find a ryokan-- Kyukamura Myoko(休暇村妙高)that opens to solo travellers and offers package that includes shuttle bus service to and fro Takada Castle Park. Spacious room, good food and service too! 1 night stay was slightly above 10000 yen, very value for money~ It provides free shuttle service from Joetsu Myoko(上越妙高)station, new station thanks to Hokuriku Shinkansen(北陸新幹線)!





Also went to Echigo-Yuzawa(越後湯沢)station at the other end of the prefecture, for Ponshukan, where there is a sake museum and sake bath! I'm a sake lover, so really enjoyed myself there~ There is a section whereby you can pay 500 yen to try 5 from over 100 types of Niigata sake! Also a section to buy lots of rice products like mochi, rice crackers, onigiri and sake. Tried the sake bath, couldn't quite tell there's sake in the bath, but it felt really good as the area was still freezing cold in spring. Ponshukan can also be found in Niigata station.





Went to Niigata a second time in Autumn 2015. Had more time this trip, so I could visit Sado Island(佐渡ヶ島)and spend 2D2N there, which was just nice for me.

The only way to get there is via sea, and car ferry is the cheapest option available. Chose to depart from Niigata City's pier. It costs slightly less than 5000 yen for the cheapest ticket (round trip), and takes around 2.5 hours one way, though there are only 5 departures per day.


The most convenient way of getting around the island is by car. I had to rely on the public buses. The main lines' frequency is fine, but some less common routes have only 3 timings per day. It is very important to plan in advance in order to minimize time wastage and ensure that all attractions can be covered.

For non-drivers, a cost-saving measure would be purchasing the 2D or 3D bus pass that comes with coupons to use at attractions.

The island is famous for its gold mine and Japanese crested ibis. Sado Gold Mine(佐渡金山)was the most productive mine in Japan. There are 2 routes- Edo period & Meiji Period. The Edo period one is more informative with robots reenacting life of the past. It takes less than 2 hours to cover both routes. There are also special tours conducted in Japanese at certain timings.



Other than the gold mine, I took a glass-bottom boat cruise at Senkaku Bay(尖閣湾), experienced taraibune(たらい舟)boat ride at Ogi(小木)Port, and visited Shukunegi(宿根木), a former ship-building village with wooden houses and a canal flowing through it.





If the weather is fine, renting an electric bicycle from the tourist information center near Ogi Port is an enjoyable and convenient way of checking out Shukunegi. A 2 hour rental costs 500 yen.



For both nights, I stayed in ryokan douyu(旅館道遊)in Aikawa Onsen(相川温泉)area. It is located along the coast, so the view, especially during sunset, is beautiful. Although not conveniently located, the ryokan staff drove me to and fro the Aikawa bus terminal daily. Food was delicious and there are different plans, catering to people who prefer a lighter meal. Room is quite spacious and comes with attached toilet with bathtub. Of course, there is an onsen facility in the ryokan. For less than 10000 yen per night, it is highly value for money.


Sado island kind of reminds me of Awaji island(淡路島)near Kobe. There aren't many places of interest, nor are they must-visits for a visitor to the region, but it has a relaxing vibe and is an excellent place to spend a weekend.

During this trip, I also visited Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery(今代司酒造)in Niigata City for a free facility tour (in Japanese) that ended with sake tasting. Was able to go without making reservations, but there is a need to check opening days/timings in advance. They were generous with the tasting, and I found most of their sake really smooth.



The third time I visited Niigata was in early November 2019, when I chased autumn colors in Niigata and nearby prefectures by car. I only had one day in Niigata, so I picked three places that had reached their peak and offer different type of scenery/experience. We first headed for Dragondola, the longest gondola in Japan. This gondola connecting 2 ski resorts is famous for its autumn views, but it does not seem to be that famous among locals (none of my Japanese friends have heard of it). 3000 yen for a round-trip was rather expensive for a gondola ride, however, the seemingly endless autumn colors throughout the ride justified the cost. It was very cold (6 degrees Celsius) and photos were not great due to the downcast weather, but saw a double rainbow on the way down.




Next, we drove an hour to Kiyotsu Gorge(清津峡), one of Japan's top 3 gorges. I was not impressed with the views there, but it was interesting how the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel combined art with natural scenery. The tunnel runs 750m through the gorge and has 4 viewpoints. It would be nice if there was no need to step into the water to see the view at the last viewpoint.


Our last stop for the day was Yahiko Park(弥彦公園), 2 hour-drive northwards. By then, the sun had set (around 5pm), which was just nice as the Maple Valley in the park would be lit up in the evening from late October to late November. It turned out to be rather disappointing, partially due to the lighting. Too few lights, yet the lighting was too strong. The photo below is after touch-up.


Our accommodation for the night was Comfort Inn Niigata Kameda, a business hotel in Niigata city with free parking of course. For dinner we went to an izakaya nearby called Zentei, recommended by the hotel staff. We ordered Niigata specialties (seafood, rice, sake) and the dinner was so good it made me want to return to Niigata for a fourth time.


Other places in Niigata famous for autumn colors include Hakkaisan(八海山)ropeway and Koshiji maple garden(越路紅葉).

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