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Savour the flavours and explore the culture of Niigata City

Savour the flavours and explore the culture of Niigata City

Hello! We are Natsumi and Miho from JR East Niigata Branch Office. Although Niigata City (新潟市 Niigata-shi) is not yet well-known overseas, it is truly a wonderful place where you can enjoy history, culture and food. In this article, we will introduce usome of our recommended places for your next visit here.

 

Map of Niigata City. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Niigata City is easily accessible from Tokyo via a 2-hour bullet train on the Jōetsu Shinkansen Line, and is strategically located where Japan’s longest river, the Shinano River (信濃川 Shinano-gawa), flows into the Sea of Japan (日本海 Nihonkai). Niigata City is a historic port city located along the Kitamaebune (北前船), a major shipping route used in the Edo Period (1603–1868). The Kitamaebune went from Osaka in western Japan to the northern island of Hokkaido, and Niigata City was an important hub for the buying and selling of goods. In the center of Niigata City, relics from its past as a port city remain, and you can still feel the history and culture.

 

Bandai Bridge, a symbol of Niigata City. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

A symbol of Niigata City’s resilience, the Bandai Bridge (萬代橋 Bandai-bashi) spans across the Shinano River, and connects the new, vibrant town of Bandai (万代) in the south with the old, historic town of Furumachi (古町) in the north. The bridge was originally built out of wood in 1886, but was destroyed in a fire in 1908. Although it was rebuilt after the fire, the bridge still fell apart after about 20 years. Finally, in 1929, the current version of the Bandai Bridge was completed, made out of reinforced concrete and surviving a major earthquake in 1964. 2004 marked the 75th anniversary of the bridge, and in commemoration, its name in kanji was reverted back to 萬代橋 (original, older kanji) from 万代橋 (newer, simplified kanji).

 

In recent years, the area to the east of Bandai—the Nuttari area—has increasingly become popular among the local people. In this article, we will introduce some of our favourite places in the Nuttari and Furumachi areas.

 

Nuttari (沼垂)

Strolling along Nuttari Terrace Street. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

The Nuttari area (沼垂エリア) used to be a place where daily necessities were traded, and has over 40 traditional storehouses 蔵 kura) which used to keep fermented goods like sake (酒 rice wine), miso (味噌 fermented soy bean paste), soy sauce (醤油 shо̄yu), and nattо̄ (納豆 fermented soybeans). Although the number of storehouses has decreased considerably today, the Nuttari area still retains some of the nostalgic atmosphere, and is a fun place to visit and go sightseeing. There are so many things to do and places to visit, so to narrow it down we will introduce some of the recommended shops we visited in the Nuttari area.

 

Kiwami sushi at Sekaisushi

Beautiful golden rice fields in Niigata. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

When you hear “Niigata”, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is rice or sake (rice wine). Within Niigata Prefecture, the most famous is the Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) variety of rice. Did you know? Niigata City has a rice planting area of 24,200ha, and is ranked first in Japan by municipality. Koshihikari is cultivated in many of the rice fields in Niigata City, creating beautiful scenery—during the sowing season the watered fields are like giant mirrors reflecting the sky, and during the harvest season the fields are covered with brilliant golden crops.

 

Niigata produces quality rice and seafood. Put them together and you get delicious sushi. (Image credit: Sekaisushi)

 

Due to its proximity to the Sea of Japan and the quality rice from the countryside, Niigata is famous for both high-quality rice and high-quality seafood. Put them together and you get delicious sushi. 

 

When in Niigata City, you must try Kiwami sushi! Kiwami sushi is a platter consisting of 10 pieces of seafood sushi, which are usually Niigata’s famous seafood as well as the sushi chef’s recommendations for that particular season.

 

Kiwami platter at Sekaisushi. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

We tried out one of the delicious sushi shops in Niigata City, Sekaisushi (せかい鮨). The most popular item on their menu is none other than the Kiwami (極み) sushi platter, which we highly recommend.

 

Another special thing about this shop is its special soy sauce made with Namban Ebi (南蛮エビ nanban-ebi), a type of Japanese shrimp. When you dip the sushi in this soy sauce, the shrimp flavour explodes in your mouth and makes the sushi even more delicious.

 

Niigata is famous for nodoguro (のどぐろ black seaperch), an expensive fish that is difficult to get outside of Niigata, so this is a must-try when you visit. Nodoguro flesh is tender and fatty, and it was so delicious that we could eat it forever.

 

Sekaisushi (せかい鮨)
Address: 4-8-34 Nuttari Higashi, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0075
Access: 5 minutes by taxi from JR Niigata Station
Opening hours: 11:00–14:00, 17:00–21:00 (Closed on Mondays)

 

The TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA, JR East’s luxury cruise train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

JR East operates a luxury cruise train known as the TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA (TRAIN SUITE 四季島), and depending on the cruise route, you might be served up some tasty sushi from Sekaisushi. It is said that many TRAIN SUITE SHIKI-SHIMA passengers cannot forget the taste of the delectable sushi they had on their trip, so they come to visit the actual store in Niigata.

 

Shopping at Nuttari Terrace Street

Unique shops along Nuttari Terrace Street. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

While traditional Japanese shopping streets (商店街 shо̄tengai) are disappearing, the Nuttari Terrace Street (沼垂テラス商店街 Nuttari terasu shо̄tengai) was created in the Nuttari area, by renovating old buildings of the historic town.

 

Currently, there are about 30 unique and charming shops, including cafés, izakaya (居酒屋 Japanese pubs), jewelry stores, second-hand bookstores, Scadinavian miscellaneous goods stores, and more. Regardless of age, anyone can enjoy a leisurely stroll along this street.

 

nemon, a jewelry store along Nuttari Terrace Street. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

While walking along the street, we passed by nemon, a cute jewelry store, and decided to go inside. Each piece of jewelry has a different design, and the store was filled with so many unique and cute choices. The accessories here seem to be hand-made by the shop staff. It was tough deciding what to buy, but we finally chose this pair of earrings. If you come to Nuttari, do drop by nemon to find your own unique accessories!

 

nemon
Address: 3-5-18 Nuttari Higashi, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0075
Access: Take a bus from JR Niigata Station
Opening hours: 10:00–16:00 (Closed on Wednesdays)

 

The shopping street has a laid-back atmosphere, and even though this was our first visit, it felt very familiar to us. Usually, there is also a once-a-month morning market (currently not operating due to COVID-19) and irregular night markets, which make the area even more lively. We hope to come back again someday.

 

Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery

Niigata is well-known for its quality sake. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Niigata is known to produce one of the, if not THE, finest sake (and rice) in Japan, and this is due to the high amount of snowfall that the mountains surrounding Niigata receives each year. Water is an important ingredient in the production of sake (and rice), and the pure melted snow provides pristine water for the rice fields to flourish and grow.

 

Did you know? Niigata Prefecture has the greatest number of sake breweries in Japan. When you visit Niigata, a sake brewery tour is a must! Many breweries have free tours where you can see how sake is made, learn of the history of sake brewing, and at the end you can sample some sake.

 

The exterior of Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery (今代司酒造 Imayo Tsukasa Shuzо̄) is a well-established sake brewery founded in 1767, and offers free brewery tours which are popular among visitors. The brewery is conveniently located in the Nuttari area, within walking distance from JR Niigata Station.

 

If you are coming in a group of less than 10 people, you can make a reservation on the day itself to join a tour. Groups over 10 people need to make a reservation by 17:00 the day before the visit. At 14:00 on Mondays to Fridays, guided brewery tours in English are also available. You can check the availability of the tours and make reservations here.

 

Touring the Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

When we joined this sake brewery tour, we were shown the barrels that were used to ferment sake in the past, as well as wooden tubs and tanks that are still used to store sake nowadays. As we listened to the guide’s explanation while touring the sake brewery, we enjoyed learning about how to make sake, and the tour will no doubt deepened our interest in sake!

 

To commemorate your brewery visit, how about taking a photo while donning a happi (法被)? A happi is a traditional Japanese straight-sleeved coat that you can wear over your clothes.

 

Sampling drinks at Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

After the tour, you can also sample some of the brewery’s sake and other beverages. We tasted a drink called amazake (甘酒), a sweet drink made by fermenting rice. Amazake has a refreshing taste and is easy to drink, and since it does not contain alcohol, it is recommended for those who cannot or do not drink alcohol.

 

Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery (今代司酒造)
Address: 1-1 Kagamigaoka Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0074
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Niigata Station Bandai Exit
Opening hours: Due to COVID-19, the current opening hours are 13:00–17:00 (weekdays) and 09:00–17:00 (weekends and holidays) until further notice.

 

Minemura Jozo (miso brewery)

The exterior of Minemura Jozo. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Next up, we paid a visit to Minemura Jо̄zо̄ (峰村醸造), a miso brewery. Minemura Jozo was founded in 1905, and has been manufacturing miso, soy sauce, as well as miso-zuke (味噌漬け), which is made by soaking vegetables in miso for a long time. Minemura Jozo takes pride in their fermentation technology, and also offers products like soup stock, vinegar and other seasonings.

 

Made by mixing soybeans with koji and salt and then fermenting it, miso (味噌 fermented soy bean paste) is a unique Japanese seasoning that is indispensable for Japanese dining tables. Miso is used to make miso soup, as well as seasoning sauces.

 

Inside Minemura Jozo’s sales area. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Normally, Minemura Jozo offers twice-daily tours of their miso brewery, but these have been suspended due to COVID-19. However, you can still visit to purchase some delicious miso products. In 2014, an old warehouse was renovated and the Minemura Jozo Direct Sales space (峰村醸造 直売場) was newly opened. Here, in addition to miso and soy sauce, various fermented foods such as sweets made with miso and drinks made with koji are sold. Why not try experiencing the charms of Niigata and Nuttari through traditional Japanese food culture?

 

Minemura Jozo (峰村醸造)
Address: 2-3-44 Akashi, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0084
Access: Approximated a 10-minute walk from JR Niigata Station Bandai Exit. 4-minute walk from Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery.
Opening hours: 10:00–17:00 (Closed during the New Year holidays)

 

Furumachi (古町)

Furumachi was once a flourishing geisha district. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Furumachi literally means “Old City” and it was once a flourishing geisha district during the Edo Period. In fact, Niigata City's Furumachi district was considered one of the three most prestigious areas in Japan for geisha (芸者), or geigi (芸妓) as they are known here.

 

Due to Niigata City’s past as the main port of call on the Kitamaebune route, Furumachi emerged as a lively entertainment district. Here, highly-skilled geigi would entertain the visiting merchants with their dancing and shamisen (三味線 traditional Japanese string instrument) performances.

 

The entrance to Nabedyaya, one of Niigata’s historic ryotei in the Furumachi district. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Now, Furumachi still retains the traditional atmosphere with its temples, ryо̄tei (料亭 traditional Japanese restaurant) and other historic buildings. When you take a stroll here, you might feel like you have stepped back in time. Even today, you can still encounter experience meeting, talking and interacting with the geigi after watching their performances at established ryotei like Ikinariya (行形亭) and Nabedyaya (鍋茶屋 Nabejaya), or the Niigata Saito Villa, a former merchant house certified as a Japan Heritage site.

 

Ikinariya and Nabedyaya also provide the meals for the KAIRI (海里), JR East’s newest restaurant train, which you can read more about here.

 

The Niigata Saito Villa

The Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸 Kyū Saitо̄ke Bettei) is a former merchant house certified as a Japan Heritage site. The villa was built in 1918 by Saito Kijuro, a fourth generation member of the Saito family—a wealthy merchant family who made their fortune by operating cargo ships along the Kitamaebune route. In the past, the Niigata Saito Villa was used to receive honoured guests, who ranged from politicians to businessmen. The villa is located in a quiet residential area, about a 10-minute walk from the centre of Furumachi.

 

Visiting the Niigata Saito Villa. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

The Niigata Saito Villa has a unique architectural style which integrates both the garden and the building, and you can enjoy the beautiful garden from the open tatami room.

 

Gazing at the garden while sitting on the tatami mats was so relaxing that we lost track of time. You can also enjoy a cup of tea while looking out at the garden. In autumn, the leaves of the trees are dyed red and yellow, and you can enjoy the stunning sight of the autumn foliage.

 

Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸)
Address: 576 Nishi-Ohatacho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8104
Access: Take the Niigata City Loop Bus from JR Niigata Station and alight at the Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch bus stop. The Niigata Saito Villa is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop.
Opening hours: 09:30–17:00 (Closed on Mondays)

 

Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch

NCMExterior.jpg (2.08 MB)

Entrance to the Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

A short walk from the Niigata Saito Villa is the Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch (北方文化博物館新潟分館 Hoppо̄ Bunka Hakubutsukan Niigata Bunkan). This Western-style building is a villa built in 1895, which was eventually acquired by Ito Bunkichi, a seventh generation member of the Ito family, who were wealthy landowners. This building is also known as the place where Aizu Yaichi (會津八一), a well-known poet, art historian, and calligrapher, spent his final years, and many of his books and documents are exhibited in the museum.

 

Inside Chо̄ondо̄. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Aizu Yaichi especially liked the room overlooking the garden, and he often wrote his works here. At that time, he named the room Chо̄ondо̄ (潮音堂 a hall that where you can hear sound of the sea) because he heard the sound of the Sea of Japan. Indeed, when we visited, it was so quiet and calm that it seemed as if we could hear the sound of the sea.

 

Exploring the garden. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

The museum also has a rock garden which you can stroll around. The garden does not have any water features, but instead uses a unique Japanese style of dry landscape gardening (枯山水 karesansui), in which dry elements are used to express nature, like stones to represent mountains and raked sand to represent rivers. Here you can experience wabi-sabi (わびさび), a Japanese aesthetic in which beauty is experienced through old and simple things, without luxury and flashiness.

 

Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch (北方文化博物館新潟分館)
Address: 2-562 Minamihama-dori, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8112
Access: Take the Niigata City Loop Bus from JR Niigata Station and alight at the Northern Culture Museum Niigata Branch bus stop.
Opening hours: April–November: 09:30–17:00, December / March: 09:30–16:30 (Closed on Mondays. Closed during the New Year Holidays. Closed January–February)

 

Hegi soba noodles at Suzakaya Soba

Hegi soba is served on a wooden tray (hegi) and laid out in bite-sized portions. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Other than sushi, another famous food in Niigata is hegi soba noodles (へぎそば), which is said to have originated from the Uonuma region. You might be wondering, how is it different from regular soba noodles? Well, the answer lies in the ingredients and serving method. Hegi soba is made by adding funori (布海苔), a type of seaweed, to the soba flour, and served on a rectangular wooden tray known as a hegi, with the soba laid out in bite-sized portions.

 

Hegi soba and tempura set. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Hegi soba noodles have a slippery texture, and are bouncy when chewed. When eaten with a cold dipping soup, it has a refreshing taste and goes well with tempura. We visited Suzakaya Soba, a shop specializing in soba, which has many branches around Niigata City, including one in Furumachi. There is a variety of serving options to choose from, even a 2-hour all-you-can-eat hegi soba noodle buffet!

 

The exterior of Suzakaya Soba (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Suzakaya Soba Furumachi Branch (須坂屋そば新潟古町店)
Address: 7-1002-1 Furumachi-dori, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8063
Access: Take a 10-minute bus ride from JR Niigata Station and walk 3 minutes from the bus stop.
Opening hours: Due to COVID-19, the shop currently only operates during lunch hours. However, this might change in the future, so please contact the shop for the latest information.

  

Hakusan Shrine (白山神社)

Hakusan Shrine. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

Located in Hakusan Park (白山公園 Hakusan Kо̄en), Hakusan Shrine (白山神社 Hakusan Jinja) is a historic shrine with over 1,000 years of history. Here, people come to pay respects to the Shinto deity who looks over Niigata, known affectionately as Hakusan-sama (はくさんさま). The deity is believed to dwell in Mount Hakusan (白山 Hakusan), a 2,702m-high mountain lying between Hakusan City (白山市) in Ishikawa Prefecture and Shirakawa Village (白川村) in Gifu Prefecture.

 

Together with Mount Fuji and Mount Tateyama, Mount Hakusan is considered one of Japan’s three most sacred mountains. Shrines that worship Hakusan as a god are known as Hakusan Shrines, which exists in various places around the Hokuriku region, including this one we visited in Niigata City.

 

Inside Hakusan Shrine. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

The Shinto goddess, Kukurihime (くくりひめ), is enshrined in the main shrine of Hakusan Shrine. The “kuku” in Kukurihime comes from the word “kukuru”, which means “to tie”. It is said that Kukurihime listens to people's wishes to tie the threads of fate, and is famous nationwide for being a god of matchmaking, and managing the relationships between men and women by tying threads. We prayed to Kukurihime to bless us with wonderful relationship luck.

 

Omamori at Hakusan Shrine. (Image credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)

 

End your trip to Hakusan Shrine with a colourful omamori (お守り lucky amulet).

 

Hakusan Shrine (白山神社)
Address: 1-1 Ichibanboridoricho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata, 951-8132
Access: Take the Niigata City Loop Bus from JR Niigata Station and alight at the Hakusan Park bus stop. The shrine is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop. Alternatively, take the train to JR Hakusan Station and walk 20 minutes to reach the park.
Business hours: 7:00–20:00

 

Getting to and around Niigata

JR Niigata Station is approximately a 2-hour bullet train ride from JR Tōkyo Station (東京駅) on the Jōetsu Shinkansen Line (上越新幹線).

 

JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area)

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

 

If you are thinking of visiting Niigata, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains) in the area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥21,000). Free seat reservations can also be made online up 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.

 

NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). For more information, please check here.

 

Niigata City Loop Bus

If you’re going around Niigata from JR Niigata Station, we recommend riding the Niigata City Loop Bus, which stops at many of the places we introduced in this article. A 1-day ticket costs ¥500, and offers unlimited rides along the route.

 

Niigata Station Bandaiguchi Tourist Information Center

Located right in front of Niigata Station, the Niigata Station Bandaiguchi Tourist Information Center (新潟駅万代口観光案内センター) provides general tourism information from sightseeing around Niigata City, to recommendations on special products. In addition, they accept consultations for same-day accommodation booking (only for those who visit in-person). Foreign visitors can come with a peace of mind, as the Center is staffed with personnel who can speak foreign languages, including English.

 

Business hours are from 09:00–19:00. (Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, business hours have been changed to 09:00–17:00 until further notice. The Center is closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

 

Free Wi-fi

You can make use of various free wi-fi services around Niigata Station, like the Niigata City Wi-Fi Lite. This lets you connect to wi-fi for up to 60 minutes per session, and there is no limit for the number of sessions.

 

Header image credits: 新潟県観光協会 and 東北観光推進機構

 

This article was originally contributed in Japanese by JR East Niigata Branch Office, with translations and additional text by Carissa Loh.

 

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