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A “walk”-through to exploring Niigata on foot

A “walk”-through to exploring Niigata on foot

Niigata (新潟県) is one of the prefectures that make up the Shinetsu Region (信越地方 Shin’etsu-chihō), and its capital city is Niigata (新潟市). The city and prefecture as a whole directly face the Sea of Japan to the west, and uttering the name “Niigata” alone would conjure images of rice and sake for many people.

 

Niigata was one of those places that had eluded me for a very long time even though I have travelled to Japan many times, but earlier this year, I finally got the chance to visit the city. I made a brief stop here while travelling to other parts of Japan, and decided to explore the city the best way possible: on foot.

 

 

My walking route around Niigata city. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

In this article, I will share with you my walking itinerary around Niigata, a city that I eventually learned was rich in history and heritage, and blessed with delicious foods and amazing views. After reading this article, I hope that the city will be on your to-visit list for your next railway adventure around Japan!

 

① From Niigata Station to Bandai district

  • Niigata Station → 10–15-minute walk → Bandai district

Niigata Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My day at Niigata began at Niigata Station (新潟駅 Niigata-eki), a major railway station in eastern Japan. It is also the terminal station on the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線), which is directly linked to Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki).

 

One of the things I love about visiting Niigata is the access. Thanks to the Jōetsu Shinkansen, visiting the city from Tokyo was a cinch, and a one-way shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Niigata would only take around 2 hours. With that kind of travelling time, a day trip to Niigata is possible even from Tokyo.

 

Exploring the Bandai district on foot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After arriving at Niigata Station, I was on my way on foot to the first destination of the day by walking through Bandai (万代), the city’s main commercial district. While walking through it , I realised that Niigata as a whole was a very walkable city, and it was very pleasant to traverse between districts on foot.

 

Niigata Nippō Media Ship. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The one thing I love about exploring new places on foot? I get to make unexpected discoveries that I would not have made if I had travelled in other ways. One discovery I made while walking through Bandai was the Niigata Nippō Media Ship (新潟日報メディアシップ), an imposing skyscraper that I stumbled upon right at the heart of the district.

 

With a height of 105m, the tower was built in 2013 and visitors can go up to the observatory on the 20th floor for a 360-degree view of the city. They can witness wonderful views of the Shinano River (信濃川 Shinano-gawa) and the Sea of Japan, and if the weather is clear, they can even see Sado Island (佐渡島 Sado-shima) in the distance.

 

② Bandai Bridge: A symbol of Niigata’s resilience

  • Bandai district → 5-minute walk → Bandai Bridge

A section of the original Bandai Bridge (left), and an explanation for the current third-generation bridge (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After walking for about 15 minutes from Niigata Station, I made another interesting discovery. It was an original section of the Bandai Bridge (萬代橋 Bandai-bashi), which was part of the first-generation construction when it was built in 1886.

 

Did you know that the Bandai Bridge is regarded as a symbol of Niigata’s resilience? That is because the bridge has been reconstructed twice, first in 1908 after it was destroyed by a massive fire (second generation), and the second in 1929 following the Great Kantō Earthquake in 1923 (third/current generation).

 

I thought it was incredible to see the bridge being rebuilt several times since its first construction over a hundred years ago, and how it had become the symbol of Niigata, continuing to withstand the test of time in an everchanging city.

 

The Bandai Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a few minutes of walking after discovering the original section of the Bandai Bridge, I finally reached the current, third-generation bridge stretching across the Shinano River. It serves as a vital connection for Niigata, bridging the Bandai district to the east of the river, and the Furumachi district (古町) to the west.

 

There are several interesting facts about the bridge that visitors ought to know. For one, the current bridge was constructed using reinforced concrete, unlike its previous generations which used wood that was prone to damage and dilapidation. Because of its reinforced concrete structure, it was able to survive a devastating earthquake in 1964 that otherwise destroyed much of the city.

 

The Bandai Bridge (second bridge from bottom) and the Shinano River running under it. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Another fun fact about the Bandai Bridge: did you know that the first-generation bridge was much longer than the second and third-generations? The bridge’s length was 782m when it was first built, but in 1922, the Shinano River was realigned after the completion of a diversion channel.

 

As a result, the width of the river, especially the part where the bridge was located, became narrower, so the second-generation bridge was rebuilt with a length of 270m instead. When the bridge was reconstructed once again in 1929, the final length became 306.9m.

 

Bandai Bridge (萬代橋)
Address: 2-4 Bandai, Chuo, Niigata 950-0088
Access: 20-minute walk from Niigata Station (新潟駅)

 

③ Toki Messe: A bird’s eye view of Niigata

  • Bandai Bridge → 12-minute walk → Toki Messe

Walking towards Toki Messe. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After visiting the Bandai Bridge, my next destination was Toki Messe (朱鷺メッセ), located near the mouth of the Shinano River. It is named after toki (朱鷺 Japanese crested ibis), the official bird of Niigata Prefecture, and it includes the Niigata Convention Center, the Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, and other facilities.

 

But more importantly, Toki Messe features the Bandaijima Building, a skyscraper that not only houses offices and a luxury hotel on the upper floors, but also Befco Bakauke Observation Deck (Befcoばかうけ展望室 Befco Bakauke Tenbō-shitsu), which offers spectacular views of Niigata.

 

Toki Messe’s esplanade. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I already saw Toki Messe’s skyscraper from the Bandai Bridge, and it took me about 12 minutes to walk over to it. Here’s a tip I learned while transiting between the bridge and Toki Messe: don’t miss the Bandai Terrace Hajimari Hiroba (万代テラス ハジマリヒロバ). It is a scenic open space where you will get to enjoy views of the river and the Bandai Bridge, and sometimes there are even special events held there.

 

View from the observation deck, facing Furumachi district. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Upon reaching the Bandaijima Building, I took the elevator up to the observation deck on the 31st floor, and witnessed one of the most stunning city landscapes I had ever seen. At a height of 125m, the observation deck is the highest viewpoint along the entire side of the Sea of Japan, and it offers visitors an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the whole city of Niigata. Best of all, it is open to the public and entry is free!

 

Sado Kisen Terminal, seen from the observation deck. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I was quite astonished by the view from the observation deck, as I didn’t expect to enjoy something like it. On the western side, I could vividly see the Sea of Japan bordering the city, and the grand Shinano River running through it. On the northern side, I could see Sado Kisen Terminal, where visitors can go to take the ferry to travel to Sado Island.

 

The eastern view from the observation deck, with the Gozu Mountain Range in the background. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My tip to all visitors to the observation deck: take your time to see all the sides in order to fully enjoy Niigata’s city landscape. That includes the eastern view, where you will get to see the eastern side of the city and—if the weather is kind to you—the Gozu Mountain Range (五頭連峰 Gozu-renpō) in the distance.

 

Toki Messe (朱鷺メッセ)
Address: 6-1 Bandaijima, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0078
Access: 20-minute walk from Niigata Station (新潟駅)
Operating hours (observation deck): 8am–10pm daily (last entry at 9:30pm, operating hours may be affected on days with special events)
Entrance fee: None

 

④ Furumachi: Niigata’s historical district

  • Toki Messe → 30-minute walk → Furumachi

The Ryuto Ohashi Bridge (first bridge from the bottom). (Image credit: photoAC)

 

After enjoying the splendid views of the observation deck, it was time for me to proceed to the next destination: Furumachi. The district is located on the opposite side of the Shinano River, so I had to cross the river to get there.

 

As I learned firsthand, Niigata has many bridges connecting the eastern and western sides of the river, one of which is the Bandai Bridge. From Toki Messe, one way for me to reach the other side of the city was to cross the Ryuto Ohashi Bridge (柳都大橋 Ryūto-Ōhashi), which was just a 5-minute walk from the convention centre.

 

Geigi at Furumachi. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Translated as “old city”, Furumachi is a historical district located on the northern side of Niigata. During the Edo and Meiji Periods (1603–1867, 1868–1912), Niigata thrived as a port city, and Furumachi became an entertainment district known for its nightlife and prevalence of geigi (芸妓), who would entertain clients with traditional songs and performances.

 

Traditional Japanese restaurants in Furumachi district. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Furumachi is one of the two major commercial districts in Niigata, and it stretches all the way from Honchō-dōri (本町通) in the north to Hakusan Park in the south. The district still retains its traditional atmosphere, and is lined with several Japanese traditional restaurants (料亭 ryōtei) and geigi teahouses (茶屋 chaya), and it is also said to be the largest of such districts in Japan, along with those in Kyoto and Kanazawa.

 

Furumachi district in the daytime. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I visited Furumachi, I could feel the traditional ambience of the district and imagine what it would look like back during its heyday. It was relatively quiet when I reached there since it was still early, but I imagined that the mood would be much livelier at night. It was the kind of place I would definitely come to again when night fell.

 

⑤ Niigata Saito Villa: A serene retreat into the past

  • Furumachi → 10–15-minute walk → Niigata Saito Villa

The Niigata Saito Villa. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Next up, I made my way to a former residence that was regarded as an integral part of Niigata’s cultural and historical heritage. The Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸 Kyū Saitо̄ke Bettei) is a villa that once belonged to the Saito family, which was one of Niigata’s wealthiest families. The villa now sits quietly in the suburbs, and visitors today can step inside to have a look.

 

The villa’s inner garden during autumn. (Image credit: 旧齋藤家別邸)

 

The villa is prominent not just for its history, but also for its traditional architecture and landscaping, and is highly popular especially during autumn, when the inner garden is covered in the season’s foliage, with vivid shades of red, orange, and yellow.

 

I personally feel that former residences offer a unique peek into the past of a given place, and the Niigata Saito Villa is a perfect example of it. Not only can visitors learn about the influence of the Saito family on Niigata in the past, but they can also relish the sheer seasonal beauty of the villa’s compound.

 

The villa is also located near the Furumachi district, so if you are exploring the historical district, I highly recommend you drop by here as well.

 

Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸)
Address: 576 Nishi-Ohatacho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8104
Access: From Niigata Station (新潟駅), take the Niigata City Loop Bus and alight at the Hoppo Bunka Hakubutsukan Niigata Bunkanmae bus stop (北方文化博物館新潟分館前). The villa is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop. Alternatively, from Niigata Station, take the C20, C21, or C22 bus and get off at the Nishi Ohata bus stop (西大畑), from which the villa is a 6-minute walk.
Admission fee: ¥300 per adult
Opening hours: 9:30am–5pm (closed on Mondays)

 

⑥ Hakusan Park: Niigata’s verdant city park

  • Niigata Saito Villa → 15-minute walk → Hakusan Park

The entrance to Hakusan Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a brief visit to the Niigata Saito Villa, it was time for me to head to the last destination of my day trip in Niigata: Hakusan Park (白山公園). Located on the southern end of the Furumachi district, it is historically one of the first parks in Japan and is a cherished spot among locals for its serene environment and seasonal beauty.

 

Hakusan Park’s scenic pond and surrounding verdant greenery. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I reached the park after walking for 15 minutes from the Niigata Saito Villa, and I was pleasantly surprised by its soothing environment. It was a Dutch-style promenade park, which meant that many of the flowers and shrubs were planted and organised in an enclosed space, so the park felt like an oasis, brimming with vibrant greenery and tucked away from the bustling urban life of Niigata.

 

Hakusan Park is also home to the Hakusan Shrine (白山神社 Hakusan-jinja), a shrine that has a history of more than 1,000 years. Visitors come to pay respects to Hakusan-sama (白山様), who is a deity that is said to reside in Mount Hakusan and pray for various things, including safety for their families, relationship, safe childbirth, and more.

 

Enkikan at Hakusan Park. (Image credit: Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau)

 

Another historical building that Hakusan Park is home to is Enkikan (燕喜館), which used to be a merchant house that belonged to the Saito family, the same one who owned the Niigata Saito Villa. Part of the house was donated to the city of Niigata in 1994, and after it was eventually relocated to Hakusan Park, a tearoom and other facilities were added to the compound as well.

 

Since its reopening in 1997, the building has become a community space where visitors can experience tea ceremonies and flower arrangements, and in 2004, it was designated as a Registered Cultural Property in Japan.

 

Hakusan Park (白山公園)
Address: 1-2 Ichibanboridori-cho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8132
Access: From Niigata Station, take a 10-minute ride on the Niigata City Loop Bus and get off at the Hakusan Park Bus Stop (白山公園前). The park is right by the bus stop. Alternatively, the park is a 20-minute walk from Hakusan Station (白山駅).
Admission fee: None

 

Enkikan (燕喜館)
Address: 1-2 Ichibanboridori-cho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8132
Operating days: Daily (closed on the 1st and 3rd Monday of every month, and New Year holidays)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm

 

BONUS: Hegi-soba, Niigata’s own noodle specialty

Niigata’s hegi-soba. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When it comes to exploring new places, the experience would not be complete without tasting its local delicacies, would it? Niigata is a treasure trove of delicious foods, such as the highly prized Koshihikari (コシヒカリ) rice, and fresh seafood straight from the Sea of Japan. But the one dish that I got to try and fell in love with is a type of soba that is unique to Niigata: hegi-soba (へぎそば).

 

When I tried it for the first time, I noticed a few subtle differences that distinguish it from other soba dishes in Japan. The texture was much smoother and firmer, resulting in a more robust bite that perfectly complements the tempura on the side. Plus, it was served in rectangular wooden boxes (へぎ hegi), making it look very presentable.

 

Hegi-soba (left) with tempura (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Hegi-soba is a dish that can be enjoyed in many places in Niigata Prefecture, including Niigata city, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s simple and comforting, and it’s something that I would definitely not want to miss the next time I travel to Niigata.

 

Closing

Previously, Niigata used to be that place that I had only known through media, but after a day trip of walking around the city, I finally got to know more about it. With scenic views of the Sea of Japan, preserved districts that hearken back to its historical and traditional roots, and delectable cuisines, it is a city that has something for everyone, and best of all, it is conveniently within a shinkansen ride away from Tokyo, making it fairly accessible.

 

If you are wondering where to go for your next day trip, then try Niigata, where wondrous sights and delicious foods await!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Want to visit the city of Niigata and other parts of the Shinetsu Region? Then check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥27,000. 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, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

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.

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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