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Gastronomical delights: 4 spots for food and experiences in Niigata Prefecture

Gastronomical delights: 4 spots for food and experiences in Niigata Prefecture

Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken) is known as being one of Japan’s renown heavy snowfall areas, but it is at the same time Japan’s top producing area of rice—being first in both the area of land used for rice cultivation, as well as the amount harvested. Additionally, made-in-Uonuma Koshihikari rice (魚沼産コシヒカリ Uonuma-san-Koshihikari) is said to be the most delicious brand of rice in Japan. In Niigata, many products, such as crackers, snacks, and sake, are made using its beloved rice, and due to the prefecture being surrounded by an abundance of nature like the mountains and seas, agriculture and aquaculture are also thriving industries.

 

In this article, let’s have a closer look at some recommended delicacies and spots where you can try hand-on activities, as well as Japanese restaurants with tradition, all to be found in Niigata—one of Japan’s top treasure troves of gastronomical delights.

 

1. Tanaka-ya Honten Minato Workshop: Experience making sasa-dango yourself!

Freshly steamed sasa-dango, all plump and a vivid green from the bamboo leaves. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Sasa-dango (笹団子) is a specialty of Niigata and a type of Japanese confectionery. They are dark green dumplings made with rice flours, water and sugar, and flavoured with mugwort, filled with red bean paste, and wrapped in bamboo leaves before being boiled or steamed. 

 

It is said that the roots of sasa-dango can be traced back to the Warring States period (戦国時代 Sengoku-jidai) (1467–1615), where they first originated as a portable long-life food, consisting of dumplings made with mugwort and wrapped in bamboo leaves, which have antibacterial and antiseptic properties. At that time, the dumplings were not filled with red bean paste like today's are, but rather with ingredients such as simmered vegetables.

 

Sasa-dango can be bought at various locations all over Niigata, including Tanaka-ya Honten Minato Workshop (田中屋本店 みなと工房 Tanaka-ya Honten Minato Kōbō), located about 2.5km from JR Niigata Station (新潟駅 Niigata-eki). Tanaka-ya, established in 1931, has been in the sasa-dango business for over 90 years, and over at the Minato Workshop, you can watch workers make these dumplings before your eyes, and purchase freshly-made ones on the spot. 


Besides offering the regular red bean paste-filled ones, Tanaka-ya also sells sasa-dango filled with edamame paste made using locally-grown edamame, as well as those filled with simmered vegetables as mentioned above, alongside other items such as dorayaki, onigiri and okowa (おこわ), glutinous rice steamed with ingredients like beans and mushrooms, allowing you to taste many local delicacies that are simple yet filling.

 

Sasa-dango-making begins with mixing rice flours, water, sugar, and chopped steamed mugwort, the herb giving it its distinctive fragrance and slight bitterness. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

If buying freshly-made sasa-dango is not enough for you, why not try your hand at making your own dumplings? During the sasa-dango making experience, the factory staff will carefully teach you how to knead the dumplings, how to beautifully wrap the bean paste, and how to wrap and tie the dumplings, so everyone from children to adults can enjoy making the dumplings! The taste of handmade, freshly steamed sasa-dango is exceptional and very much different from the taste of store-bought ones.

 

Tanaka-ya Honten Minato Workshop offers two choices for the sasa-dango workshop. Opt for the 2-hour option where you will make and wrap the dumplings, including the dough, from scratch, or the 1-hour option where you experience only wrapping the dumplings—the latter is perfect for those of you who want to try your hand at making sasa-dango but are short of time.

 

Learn how to wrap sasa-dango with the friendly locals! (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

The dumplings are hot fresh out of the steamer, so you can eat them on the spot after they have cooled down, or take them home and enjoy them at your leisure! The antibacterial properties of bamboo leaves means that the dumplings can be stored for two or three days without refrigeration, making them ideal as a small trip souvenir. Do try your hand at making Niigata’s famed sasa-dango and tasting them for yourself!

 

Tanaka-ya Honten Minato Workshop (田中屋本店 みなと工房)
Address: 1-2-3 Yanagishima-chō, Chūō-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8013
Nearest station: JR Niigata Station (新潟駅)
Access: 8-minute taxi ride from Niigata Station
Opening hours: 9am–6pm (9am–5:30pm from December to February / Closes at 4pm on 31 Dec / Closed on 1 Jan / Closes at 5pm on 2 Jan)
Fee: ¥1,650/pax (for five dumplings per pax)
Tel: +81-25-225-8822

Writer’s note: The above sasa-dango-making experience has to be booked latest by the day before, and via telephone. Although the ingredients are provided, you have to bring your own apron, towel, and bandanna (to tie your hair up with).

 

2. Niigata Senbei Kingdom: A rice cracker theme park

The Bakauke characters greeting you the moment you approach the Niigata Senbei Kingdom. (Image credit: uka0310 / CC BY 2.0)

 

As mentioned in the introduction, Niigata, one of Japan's leading rice-producing regions, is famous for rice, sake, and rice crackers. Niigata accounts for approximately 60% of Japan's annual rice cracker production. Rice crackers are made using Japanese short-grain rice, and, depending on whether they were toasted or fried, can be enjoyed in a variety of textures.

 

Kuriyama Rice Crackers (栗山米菓 Kuriyama Beika) (Befco), headquartered in Niigata, is known for its hit rice crackers, such as "Bakauke" (ばかうけ) and "Hoshi Tabeyo” (星たべよ). On the grounds of its main factory is the Niigata Senbei Kingdom (新潟せんべい王国 Niigata Senbei Ōkoku), a hands-on rice cracker theme park, where visitors can experience a variety of rice cracker-related activities and observe the process of craftsmen making thousands of rice crackers a day.

 

Be careful not to brush too much soy sauce onto your cracker when toasting it, lest it becomes burnt and bitter! (Image credit: sessa-ngt / CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Especially recommended for those with children is the hand-toasted rice cracker experience, where one can draw pictures and write on the cracker using soy sauce! Visitors can decorate a large rice cracker (about 25cm in diameter) any way they want with soy sauce to make their own unique rice cracker, the only one of its kind in the world. The finished rice cracker can be packaged and brought back as a souvenir.

 

There are also several other programs available, including a miniature rice cracker baking experience and one where you get to make your own original flavours of "Bakauke" or star-shaped "Hoshi Tabeyo" rice crackers.

 

There’s even a Bakauke Inari shrine here, in case you want to pay your respects to rice crackers… (Image credit: sessa-ngt / CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

After the tour, one can enjoy unique foods only available here, such as soft-serve ice cream and croquettes made from rice crackers. Also, at the souvenir shop, you will find many limited edition souvenirs that can be found only at Niigata Senbei Kingdom. Don't forget to buy some original flavoured rice crackers to take home!

 

Niigata Senbei Kingdom (新潟せんべい王国)
Address: 2661 Niizaki, Kita-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-3134
Nearest station: JR Niizaki Station (新崎駅)
Access: 20-minute walk from Niizaki Station / 25-minute drive from Niigata Station
Opening hours: 9:30am–4pm (Weekdays), 9:30am–5pm (Weekends and holidays)
Tel: +81-25-259-0161

 

3. Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery: The nearest sake brewery to Niigata Station

Some of Imayotsukasa Brewery’s lineup. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Niigata is known as the prefecture with the largest number of sake breweries in Japan. Founded in 1767, the Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery (今代司酒造 Imayotsukasa Shuzō) is a historical sake brewery that is conveniently located just a 15-minute walk from Niigata Station, the transportation hub of Niigata Prefecture.

 

When the brewery was first established, it operated a sake wholesale business, inns, and restaurants in the area where the rice warehouse of the Shibata clan (新発田藩 Shibata-han) was located. Later, in 1897, attracted by the quality of water in Niigata, the company began brewing sake.

 

Imayotsukasa Brewery does not add any alcohol, which is usually done during sake production, and instead makes so-called junmai (純米) sake with only rice, koji mold, and water. In addition, almost all of the rice used is 100% Niigata-grown rice suitable for sake brewing, and all of the water used for brewing is natural water from Suganadake (菅名岳), which is suitable for sake brewing. The resulting brew produced, which is the result of this strong commitment to quality, is a gem of a sake, with a full flavour of rice that compliments food.

 

The interior of Imayotsukasa Brewery. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

The brewery, which still retains the building in which it was founded, is open for tours by appointment. The brewery is filled with signs from a time ago, tools used in the brewing process, and other items that take one on a trip back in time. The tour guide will carefully guide you in English so that you can learn about the different categories of sake, and the characteristics and types of sake in Niigata. At the end of the tour, you can enjoy a junmai sake tasting with over 10 different types to whet your thirst. The non-alcoholic amazake (甘酒), made with koji, is also popular.

 

When faced with a giant sake bottle replica, this is the only correct course of action to take. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

There is also a shop that was renovated from a warehouse, offering a wide variety of sake and sweets that can only be purchased here. If you have some time to kill in Niigata and want to learn more about sake, Imayotsukasa Brewery is the place to go to!

 

Imayotsukasa Brewery (今代司酒造)
Address: 1-1 Kagamigaoka, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata Prefecture
Nearest station: JR Niigata Station (新潟駅)
Access: 15-minute walk from Niigata Station
Opening hours: 9am–5pm daily (Closed during year-end and New Year holidays)
Tel: +81-25-245-3231

 

4. Sakana-no-Ameyoko: A lively fish market street in Teradomari

Sakana-no-Ameyoko at Teradomari. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Teradomari (寺泊) is a port town in Nagaoka City (長岡市 Nagaoka-shi) of Central Niigata. Along Route 402, which faces the Sea of Japan, there is a corner of the town lined with seafood stores, commonly known as Sakana-no-Ameyoko (さかなのアメ横).

 

Ameyoko refers to the famous shopping street in Ueno (上野), Tokyo, where a variety of goods can be purchased at low prices. Teradomari's fish market street is called Sakana-no-Ameyoko because it is a place where you can buy fish at low prices, just like Ameyoko in Tokyo.

 

Here, one can find a huge selection of seafood from all over Japan, including the freshest local seafood!

Walking down the street with its pleasant sea breeze, you can hear the laughter of the customers and the lively voices of the stall holders, and the liveliness of the place makes it seem like a festival is being held every day.

 

You can enjoy your purchases as hama-yaki, grilled and seasoned simply with soy sauce. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

The local fresh fish are mainly landed at Teradomari Fishing Port (寺泊漁港 Teradomari-gyokō), or nearby Izumozaki Port (出雲崎港 Izumozaki-kō). Seasonal fish such as sweet shrimp, squid, greater amberjack, horse mackerel, and sea bream are available for sale, as well as some higher-end seafood such as red snow crab and black sea bass! Seafood can be grilled and eaten on the spot, while some shops have eat-in spaces on the second floor.

 

Just look at the size of that oyster! Iwa-gaki, or rock oysters, are available only in summer, and are a delicious seasonal treat. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

Sakana-no-Ameyoko is a place where locals, in addition to tourists, shop on a daily basis. If you want to enjoy shopping at a leisurely pace, you may want to visit during the daytime on weekdays. The entire market is open until 5pm, but many stores close early, so it is recommended to visit at noon rather than in the evening.

 

Sakana-no-Ameyoko (さかなのアメ横)
Address: Shimoaramachi, Teradomari, Nagaoka-shi, Niigata 940-2502
Nearest station: JR Teradomari Station (寺泊駅)
Access: 20-minute bus ride from Teradomari Station / 40-minute drive from Nagaoka Station
Opening hours: 8:30am–5pm daily (8am–5pm on Sundays, closed irregularly)
Tel: +81-25-875-3363

Writer’s note: The telephone number given above is for the Teradomari Tourist Association.

 

For more information on travel packages that will allow you to visit and experience some of the spots above, click HERE! To find out more about these exciting food places and experiences, visit Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association’s official website “Enjoy Niigata”.

 

How to get around

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains like the Koshino Shu*Kura) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥20,500). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

This article is written in collaboration with Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association.

Header image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association

 

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