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Immerse in the local culture and nature: 6 spots for sustainable tourism in Niigata

Immerse in the local culture and nature: 6 spots for sustainable tourism in Niigata

All over the world, many countries are finding their age-old cultures passed down over many generations, as well as their beautiful lands, eroded little by little as globalisation and modernisation encroach on these areas. Amidst all this, a movement is currently making headway in Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken), where people are actively working towards preserving such traditions and nature and ensuring they get passed onto the next generations. 

 

In this article, we would like to introduce some of these spots, where you can enjoy beautiful snowscapes as well as nostalgia-inducing farmland scenery, all of which have been preserved through the dedicated efforts of many. By visiting these spots, you will not only be able to experience the rich culture and nature rooted in the local communities up close, but also gain new knowledge and insight through your experiences.

 

1. Snow Peak HEADQUARTERS Campfield: Outdoor experiences that can be enjoyed in a town of manufacturing

The exterior of the Snow Peak headquarters. (Image credit: yutacar / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

While Sanjo City (三条市 Sanjō-shi) has made its name as a town of manufacturing and is well-known for its high-quality metal products, it is at the same time the birthplace of the famous outdoor brand Snow Peak loved by many all over the world. 

 

It is in this city that one can find Snow Peak HEADQUARTERS Campfield. Sprawled over 50,000ha of fields in a hilly area, this camping ground offers visitors grand views of grassland in spring, and white worlds blanketed with snow in winter. On days with good weather, one can view amazing sunsets, and at night the star-studded night sky is a delight to behold, without any lights distracting from its beauty.

 

Part of the camping grounds immediately behind the Snow Peak headquarters. (Image credit: yutacar / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

At Snow Peak HEADQUARTERS Campfield, which is well-stocked with camping equipment, visitors can come bare-handed and enjoy a night’s stay, with various plans available to cater to all sorts of users, including a “tebura CAMP” (手ぶらCAMP) plan where all required equipment is provided. One can enjoy a high-quality outdoor camping experience with Snow Peak’s camping goods, made using technology and heritage passed down from its birthplace, the land of manufacturing that is Sanjō City.

 

In addition, there is also a plan where one can stay in “JYUBAKO” (住箱-JYUBAKO-), a mobile house co-designed with world-famous architect Kuma Kengo (隈研吾), as well as many other plans that allow each and every guest to find something that suits them.*

 

Communal facilities at the camping grounds. (Image credit: yutacar / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

Close to the camping grounds, a resort facility FIELD SUITE SPA HEADQUARTERS was opened in April 2022. Containing a hot spring, various F&B outlets, as well as hotel facilities, the spa is also open for day use, meaning that people who are not here to camp can also enjoy a soak in the baths.

 

Snow Peak HEADQUARTERS Campfield
Address: 46 Nakanohara, Sanjō-shi, Niigata 955-0147
Nearest station: JR Sanjō Station (三条駅)
Access: 20-minute drive from Sanjō Station / 30-minute drive from Tsubame-Sanjō Station
Opening hours: 9am–7pm (Closed on Wednesdays)
Tel: +81 120-010-660
*Some of the plans are unavailable for booking in winter when the snow builds up.

 

2. Niigata Furumachi: One of the Big Three geisha streets in Japan that retains its 17th century atmosphere

Geishas walking in Furumachi. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Furumachi (古町), which translates to “old town”, refers to the area around Furumachi-dōri (古町通) in the heart of Niigata City (新潟市 Niigata-shi). This area used to flourish as a port town where ships from both the rivers and the seas would meet, and was a place where many people, objects, as well as cultures crossed paths.

 

Buildings in Furumachi. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

During the Edo Period (江戸時代 Edo-jidai) (1603-1868), Niigata City grew prosperous as the port of call for Kitamae ships (北前船 Kitamae-bune), trading boats that connected Hokkaido and Osaka. When you step into Furumachi, your eyes are immediately drawn towards the streets and its buildings, many of which were done up in the 17th century and still remain even today.

 

In addition, Furumachi used to flourish as an entertainment quarters, and was one of the “Three Great Geisha Streets of Japan”, together with Gion (祇園) in Kyoto and Shinbashi (新橋) in Tokyo. Back then, this place was the to-go to entertain guests like litterateurs and prominent political and business figures from the capital, and the parlors were alive with geisha singing and dancing in their vividly patterned kimono.

 

The streets of Furumachi. (Image credit: yutacar / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

 

At the same time, Furumachi also became known as a street of good food, where one could indulge in dishes representative of Niigata and imbibe delicious sake. Even today, there are still many old Japanese restaurants in the area that are well-loved by the locals.

 

Currently, there are 12 locations in Furumachi where one can enjoy a meal while being entertained by dancing geishas. In addition, the Furumachi Ryūto Café (古町柳都カフェ) that opened in 2018 allows visitors to interact with the geisha in a more casual manner—here, not only do actual geisha serve guests with tea and snacks, there are also programs held once a week where one can watch geishas performing.

 

Niigata Sangyō Co-op (新潟三業協同組合)
Address: Furumachi-dōri, Chūō-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-9063

 

Furumachi Ryūto Café (古町柳都カフェ)
Address: 9-1462 Furumachi-dōri, Chūō-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8063
Nearest station: JR Niigata Station (新潟駅)
Access: 10-minute taxi ride from Niigata Station
Opening hours: 1pm–3pm (Weekdays, closed irregularly)
Tel: +81-25-222-2237

 

3. Yahiko Shrine: A breath-taking shrine with over 2,400 years of history

The main temple of Yahiko Shrine. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

For those who wish to get more deeply in touch with Japan’s culture, our recommendation would be to visit a few of the many shrines all across the country that are treasured by the local communities.

 

Yahiko Shrine (彌彦神社), in Yahiko Village (弥彦村 Yahiko-mura) of Niigata, is said to have a history that dates back by over 2,400 years, and is one of the spots you definitely have to visit when in Niigata. Within walking distance from JR Yahiko Station (弥彦駅 Yahiko-eki), access is easy, and around 1.4 million people visit it each year.

 

Within the grounds of Yahiko Shrine. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association) 

 

The deity enshrined at Yahiko Shrine is Amenokagoyama-no-Mikoto (天香山命), the great-grandson of Amaterasu-Ōmikami (天照大御神), who is in the deity of the sun and said to be the highest-ranked deity in Japanese mythology. It is said that Amaterasu-Ōmikami had a say in helping the first ever emperor of Japan, Emperor Jinmu (神武天皇 Jinmu Tennō), consolidate the lands of Japan and brought them together under his rule.

 

Within the grounds of Yahiko Shrine. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

 

It is believed that Yahiko Shrine was first built in 392BC by the children of Amenokagoyama-no-Mikoto. Since then, the shrine has received much protection from the imperial court, as well as the feudal lords and rulers of each era.

 

Currently, there are forests within the shrine grounds that span more than 40,000ha, and it is possible to enjoy a forest bath while being surrounded by beautiful nature. Behind the shrine stands Mount Yahiko (弥彦山 Yahiko-yama) at 634m high, and wonderful views of the Sea of Japan (日本海), as well as the Echigo Plains (越後平野 Echigo-heiya), can be had at the summit. For those who are not fans of hiking up mountains, fret not—a ropeway station can be accessed via a 10-minute walk from the shrine, making it easy to get up the mountain!

 

Yahiko Shrine, Yahiko Park, and the surrounding forest in autumn and winter. (Image credit: 雷太 / CC BY 2.0 & Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

There are many things to be enjoyed all year round within the shrine grounds— the nearby Yahiko Park (弥彦公園) is also a popular spot for viewing the autumn leaves—but the place is especially beautiful in winter, with fantastic views of the shrine clad in snow, and the reverent atmosphere of the place, coupled with the glimmer of the snow lanterns and the mysterious atmosphere of the shrine, is something you have to experience for yourself. 

 

Yahiko Shrine (彌彦神社)
Address: 2887-2 Yahiko, Yahiko-mura, Nishi-Kanbara-gun, Niigata 959-0323
Nearest station: JR Yahiko Station (弥彦駅)
Access: 10-minute walk from Yahiko Station
Opening hours: 24 hours (The office and other related facilities are open from 8:30am to 4pm)
Tel: +81-25-694-2001

 

4. Kiyotsu Gorge: The perfect harmony of nature and art

The entrance to the tunnel at Kiyotsu Gorge. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)

 

Kiyotsu Gorge (清津峡 Kiyotsu-kyō), in Tokamachi City (十日町市 Tōkamachi-shi) of Niigata, is known as one of the three big gorges in Japan, along with Kurobe Gorge (黒部峡谷 Kurobe-kyōkoku) in Toyama Prefecture (富山県 Toyama-ken), as well as Osugi Gorge (大杉谷 Ōsugi-dani) in Mie Prefecture (三重県 Mie-ken).

 

Over at Kiyotsu Gorge, a rare geological phenomenon known as “columnar jointing” (柱状節理 chū-jō-setsuri) can be observed, with many rock pillars lined up one after another. This happens when magma that flows up from underground cools and solidifies, contracting to become stone pillars that are columnal or hexagonal. The contrast of these grand rock formations against the emerald green of the stream that flows is truly a sight to behold, and Kiyotsu Gorge has also been designated as a national place of scenic beauty, as well as a natural monument.

 

The dramatic rock formations at Kiyotsu Gorge. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)

 

However, this has not always been the case—incidents of falling rocks, amongst other things, meant that there was a period where such beautiful scenery could not be viewed. It was only in 1996, when the 750m-long Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel was opened, that people could once again experience the amazing sights the place had to offer.

 

©Tunnel of Light, Ma Yansong / MAD Architects, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)

 

In 2018, MAD Architects, a China-based architectural firm, reworked the entire interior of the tunnel as one of the exhibitions for that year’s Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale (大地の芸術祭 Daichi no Geijutsu-sai), and this brought an enhanced enjoyment of the spot to visitors, who were enchanted by the views and space brought about as a result of the blending of ancient natural beauty and art.

 

At the panorama station. ©Tunnel of Light, Ma Yansong / MAD Architects, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. (Image credit: JR Times / Sue Lynn)

 

While the tunnel proves popular with tourists, it is the spot right at the end, the panorama station, that is the most popular. Reflections of Kiyotsu Gorge in mirror-like waters make for breathtaking views, which change depending on the seasons, as well as the weather and time of day, and is something that can only be enjoyed in Niigata, where so much dynamic nature remains even today.

 

Kiyotsu Gorge (清津峡)
Address: 2119-2 Koide, Tōkamachi-shi, Niigata 949-8433
Nearest station: JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅)
Access: 25-minute bus ride from Echigo-Yuzawa Station, followed by a 30-minute walk from the Kiyotsu-kyō-iriguchi (清津峡入口) bus stop
Opening hours: 8:30am–5pm daily (Last entry: 4:30pm)
Tel: +81-25- 763-4800

 

5. Snowshoe experience with a local guide: Enjoy a trekking tour in snow-covered beech forests in winter

Satoyama Snowshoe.jpeg (388 KB)

Trekking with snowshoes on. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Located in the snow-deep mountains lining the prefectural border between Niigata and Nagano Prefectures (長野県 Nagano-ken) is Matsunoyama Onsen (松之山温泉), a hot spring area with a long history of over 700 years, and said to be discovered by a lumberjack who discovered an injured hawk resting its wings in the waters of the spring.

 

Around the Matsunoyama area, one can find beech trees that are over 100 years old lining the area, and the view is so scenic, people have taken to calling the forest Bijin Bayashi (美人林), or “Forest of Beautiful People”, because of the posture of the trees.

 

At the end of the Taisho Period (大正時代 Taishō-jidai) (1912–1926), all the trees here were cut down in order to process them into coal, leaving the mountains bare, but the following year the beech seeds that were lying in the ground sprouted and started growing all at once, and today the mountain is once again preserved as a habitat for wild birds. 

 

Matsunoyama Onsen. (Image credit: Kentaro Ohno / CC BY 2.0)

 

In the winter months, Bijin Bayashi receives up to 3m of snow on average, and it is here that you can enjoy trekking with snowshoes, something that can only be done in winter. The majestic sight of the forest, silver with snow and with snowflakes reflecting the sunlight and glimmering as they fall, will surely take your breath away.

 

The equipment, wear, and snowshoes can all be rented, which makes it easy for inexperienced first-timers to participate. With a local guide with good knowledge of the area accompanying you, you can enjoy your walk through the snow with peace of mind, as well as find out new things you never knew about the snow country.

 

Access to Matsunoyama Onsen is also easy, with a direct bus, the Yukiguni Gōsetsu Liner (雪国豪雪ライナー), heading straight to the place from JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅 Echigo-Yuzawa-eki), serviced by the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線).

 

Showshoe Experience (スノーシュー体験)
Address: 49-1 Yumoto, Matsunoyama, Tōkamachi-shi, Niigata 942-1432
Nearest station: Hokuetsu Express Matsudai Station (北越急行まつだい駅)
Access: 20-minute drive/bus ride from Matsudai Station
Fee: Varies
Snow trek timings: 9:30am–11:30am (Winter season, daily except Tuesdays)
Tel: +81-25-595-8588

*Please take note that the snowshoe experience is carried out by various operators.

 

6. Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE: A luxurious stay at a renovated old folk house with spectacular views for one group a day

Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE.jpeg (265 KB)

Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association)

 

Uonuma City (魚沼市 Uonuma-shi), situated in the southeast of Niigata Prefecture, is known as being a heavy snowfall area, as well as being the area of production for made-in-Uonuma Koshihikari rice (魚沼産コシヒカリ Uonuma-san-Koshihikari), said to be the most delicious type of rice in the whole of Japan.

 

It is in Uonuma City that a project, called “Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE” (里山十帖 THE HOUSE), is currently being carried out. In this project, traditional buildings that date back to more than 100 years are being preserved, with the aim of ensuring that they remain for another 100 years as part of the local history. One of the buildings preserved in this project is the former home of the village headsman that has stood for 150 years, and visitors can experience staying in this home, now fully renovated and serving as an old folk house lodge.

 

Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE. (Image credit: 古峰 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

The interior of the folk house, at 182m2, retains its former atmosphere, even while incorporating modern features such as thermal insulation, making it a very comfortable environment, and modern art pieces are displayed together with designer furniture, giving it an elegant feel.

 

The thick wooden pillars and beams, made from zelkova wood, are hard to come by today, and the craftsmen who can build such old folk houses are decreasing in number too, making it all the more important that such houses are preserved for the next generation.

 

The mountains of Uonuma, capped with snow in winter. (Image credit: 金城 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Around the lodge, views of idyllic rice terraces and majestic mountains stretch for as far as the eyes can see. In Uonuma, it is not uncommon for snow to pile up as high as 3m in winter, and on clear, sunny mornings from autumn to spring, cloud seas appear frequently. There are many ways to enjoy this environment abundant with nature, be it from within the old folk house, or while enjoying a dip in the open-air hot spring bath.

 

When it comes to dining options, meals can be enjoyed at Satoyama Jujo, which earned a star in the 2020 edition of the Michelin Guide Niigata. In addition, one can also purchase fresh local ingredients of high-quality from the shops and supermarkets in the area, and enjoy cooking in the kitchen of the lodge.

 

Satoyama Jujo THE HOUSE (里山十帖 THE HOUSE)
Address: 671-1 Iemoriyama, Amanozawa, Minami-Uonuma-shi, Niigata 949-6433
Nearest station: JR Jōetsu Kokusai Ski-jō-mae Station (上越国際スキー場前駅)
Access: 10-minute drive/welcome ride from Jōetsu Kokusai Ski-jō-mae Station
Tel: +81-57-000-1810

 

For more information on these exciting experiences to properly immerse yourself in Niigata’s nature and local culture, visit Niigata Prefecture Tourism Association’s official website “Enjoy Niigata”. If you wish to find out more on the different travel packages that will allow you to visit and experience some of the spots above, click HERE

 

Getting around with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

 

JEPN_New.jpg (751 KB)

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 (~¥21,000). 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

 

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

Header image credit: Sue Lynn / JR Times & ©Tunnel of Light, Ma Yansong / MAD Architects, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

 

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