Not too long ago, I was invited up to Niigata for a meeting with the powers that be. The objective of the summit was to discuss how we could assist the prefecture with making the digital leap. Though a producer of many fine products (including some of the best sake in the country), Niigata, like most rural areas, is well behind the curve. Given I know a thing or two about digital marketing, it was a privilege to speak with representatives who could actually effect change for once. Still, despite the fact that I was up in Niigata for work, I simply couldn’t pass on the opportunity for after hours adventures.
While much of my time was dedicated to work related tasks, I somehow eked out half a day’s worth of time to explore Niigata City. Thankfully, my troupe and I also stayed a night at the lovely Tsukioka Onsen which made it a bit more convenient for accomplishing #DonnyThings. Though I definitely would have preferred more time to savor the rustic hot spring town, I did manage to sneak in a stroll between the end of the work day and the drunken revelry that was to follow. All in all, it was a fun few days despite being a work trip.
In the following sections, I’ll highlight the locations I visited and why you, the reader, might want to add them to your Japan itineraries…
How to Get There
Before diving on in, let’s first make a quick pause for some key logistics. Simply put, the trek to Niigata City is as simple as they come. All you need to do is get your behind on one of the Joetsu Shinkansen trains bound for Niigata Station. All in all, the entire journey should clock in at just under two hours or so. As always, refer to Jorudan or a similar service for bullet train schedules. Just note that the Joetsu Shinkansen departures are not as frequent as those bound for Kyoto and Osaka. In fact, there’s only one or two trains rolling out an hour so be sure to plan in advance.
Once you’re in Niigata City, things get a bit more difficult in regards to transportation. Depending on where you’re going, you can either navigate the bus system or hop a train. In either instance, both seem rather inconvenient but there’s little other recourse for those without their own set of wheels. If your license allows it, I highly suggest just renting a car to get around Niigata. Schleps like me though will just need to make do with the existing options for public transportation…
Relax at Tsukioka Onsen
Following in-person meetings with the local government, the team took off for Tsukioka Onsen. As noted above, this lovely hot spring town is located nearby Niigata City. Assuming you’re coming by car, the trip should take you approximately fifty minutes or so depending on the traffic. Originally opened in 1915, Tsukioka Onsen’s waters were discovered unexpectedly by workers digging for oil. Over the years, the hamlet has grown into a popular getaway for those living in the prefecture.
What makes Tsukioka Onsen worth visiting is undoubtedly its peculiar waters. Considered to be some of the most sulfuric in all of Japan, the collective hot springs at Tsukioka Onsen continually emit a definitive scent of sulfur that permeates the air. In fact, the liquid is so sulfuric that it can easily blacken metal pitch over time. Nevertheless, the slightly alkaline waters are said to be invigorating for one’s skin. Due to the mineral content, Tsukioka Onsen’s baths adopt a peculiar emerald green hue that isn’t found anywhere else in Japan.
Should you find yourself in Tsukioka Onsen, be sure to plan for an evening stroll about the exotic townscape. As you meander round the charming streets, you’re sure to encounter a number of yukata-clad guests. Likewise, you may even catch a fleeting glimpse of a geisha off to entertain an important client nearby. What’s more, a local shop where you can grill your own rice cakes. Seeing as Niigata is the king of producing quality rice, this is a must-do experience if you have the time!
If you’re interested in visiting Tsukioka Onsen and don’t have a set of wheels, know that it looks like you can hop a shuttle bus from Toyosaka Station. From what I gather on the hot spring town’s official site, the onsen can be reached from Niigata Station in about twenty minutes via the Hakushin Line.
Niigata's Pier Bandai
After an epic night of drunken revelry with the team I was with (that would put most frat boys to shame), I somehow scrounged up the willpower to crawl out from my futon’s coverings. After hitching a ride back to Niigata City with the rest of the guys, I made my way over to Pier Bandai. Though accessible via buses, I opted to hoof it over from Niigata Station. Though I would come to regret this decision due to a sudden downpour, the walk only took me around fifteen minutes or so. Had the weather been more cooperative, the trek would have been a lovely way to see the city.
Pier Bandai is the largest market on this side of the Sea of Japan. Here, you can find freshly-harvested seafood as well as a miscellaneous host of vendors peddling meat, veggies, and all sorts of yummy treats. Additionally, there’s some amazing coffee and sake merchants strewn about the grounds of Pier Bandai. In fact, I doubt there’s a local Niigata specialty that you can’t find at this quaint seaside market. If you do visit, I highly encourage you to swing by the fish vendor who is grilling a delectable assortment of sea creatures on skewers. You’ll know it when you see it…
Niigata Hakusan Shrine
After consuming more fish than I should have in a vain attempt to cure one of the worst hangovers in human history, I resolved to walk to my next destination. For the second stop of the day, I was heading over to the lovely Niigata Hakusan Shrine. Located in a charming park to the northwest of Niigata Station this sanctum has allegedly stood for over 1,000 years. Enshrining the goddess of Hakusan (a.k.a. Kukuri-hime), this hidden gem is said to be promising for those looking to find their soulmate. While by no means a must visit, Niigata Hakusan Shrine has been a favorite of the locals for time immemorial.
Seeing as it was raining during my visit to Niigata City, I made my way to Niigata Hakusan Shrine via the covered main approach that cuts through the Furumachi District. Once a bustling geisha quarter during the Edo period (1603–1868), this part of the metropolis is now a popular shopping location. While you’ll need to keep an eye out, much of the Furumachi District’s former legacy remains visible today. The area retains numerous temples and historic domiciles as well as exclusive restaurants recognizing the geisha tradition.
Niigata's Boozy Ponshukan
As far as I am concerned, you just cannot visit Niigata without making a stop at one of the Ponshukan. In fact, given that I am basically a highly functional alcoholic these days (#StartupStress), I’d even go as far as saying that these are my favorite attractions in the prefecture. These wonderful establishments invite you to sample an endless variety of locally brewed sake. For the fee of a mere 500 yen, you’ll be given a handful of coins and a small tasting cup. This coinage can then be redeemed for a mouthful of some of the best sake on the planet.
Throughout Niigata Prefecture, you’ll find as many as three Ponshukan facilities. In my treatise on Snow Country, I introduced the branch at Echigo-Yuzawa Station; additional Ponshukan await at Niigata Station and Nagaoka Stations. Given the Niigata City location sits immediately adjacent to the station, a pop into the Ponshukan is the perfect final add on for any trip. Note that there’s also a portion of the Ponshukan where you can purchase bottles of sake. If the mood strikes, why not get some refreshments to share on the bullet train ride back down to Tokyo?
Other Nearby Attractions
While you’d likely need to forgo the visit to Tsukioka Onsen for logistical reasons, the ancient Yahiko Shrine is a stone’s throw from Niigata City and a visit to the mountainside sanctum is a great addition to any adventurer’s itinerary. Should you opt to visit Yahiko Shrine, I’d encourage you to do so first and then head up to Niigata City. Rather than go all the way up to Niigata Station on the bullet train then head south, it’s easier to hop off one stop before Tsubame-Sanjo Station and then take the Yahiko Line over to Yahiko Station.
If Yahiko Shrine doesn’t tickle your fancy, you can instead opt to explore the region collectively known as Snow Country. Nestled in the mountains to the south of Niigata City, reaching Snow Country will require upwards of an hour’s journey from Niigata Station on the bullet train. Should you be itching to visit Snow Country, you’d do well to budget for an extra day or so as there’s really a lot to see. Truth be told, when combined with a trip to Niigata City itself, you’d easily have days worth of exploration to enjoy.
Until next time travelers…