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Beauti-fall Shinetsu Part 2: Niigata’s unbe-leaf-ably lovely fall foliage

Beauti-fall Shinetsu Part 2: Niigata’s unbe-leaf-ably lovely fall foliage

Is autumn one of your favourite seasons? With colourful leaves, stunning scenery, and the crisp and cool air, it sure is one of mine! In Part 1 of this series I introduced some of my favourite autumn foliage spots around Nagano Prefecture, and in Part 2, we shall head over to the other part of Shinetsu (信越 Shin’etsu)—Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken). Shinetsu (信越 Shin’etsu) refers to Nagano and Niigata, and comes from the first characters of Shinshu (州 Nagano's old name) and Echigo (後 Niigata's old name).

 

Map of places introduced in this article. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Niigata is the prefecture with the highest number of ski resorts in Japan, and is blessed with soaring mountains and high snowfall. These conditions are also perfect for producing delicious rice and sake, two products synonymous with Niigata. While winter is a great time to visit Niigata, I would like to share with you that autumn is a beauti-fall season to visit, with cool weather and amazing sights to take in.

 

In this article, I will introduce my top recommendations for catching Niigata’s unbe-leaf-ably lovely autumn colours. Don’t worry, all of these places are easily accessible by bus or on foot from the nearest station. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

① Dragondola

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Dragondola in autumn. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

As mentioned earlier, Niigata is home to many ski resorts—one of them being Naeba (苗場). In winter, Naeba is a skier’s paradise, but during autumn, people flock here for another reason: to witness the dazzling autumn colours from a very special cable car, Dragondola (ドラゴンドラ  Doragondora).

 

Dragondola on a section right above the Kiyotsu River. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

With a whopping length of 5,481m, Dragondola is Japan’s longest ropeway, and a one-way trip on this gondola takes about 25 minutes. During this time, you can leisurely marvel at the surrounding autumn colours, and the vibrant yellow and orange leaves make it look like the mountain is on fire!

 

Looking down you can gaze at the Kiyotsu River lined with golden larch trees (カラマツ karamatsu), and looking up you can see Mount Naeba covered in fiery shades of yellow and orange.

 

Lake Futai in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Slightly past the mid-point of the ride, one of the scenic sights to enjoy is that of Lake Futai (二居湖 Futai-ko), a small lake made by damming up part of the Kiyotsu River. Surrounded by colourful trees on mountain slopes, the lake’s waters shine a beautiful emerald green, though it is said that the water varies between seven different colours depending on the weather conditions.

 

After alighting at the upper gondola station, there is a pleasant 1.5km boardwalk trail where you can stroll through a forest and enjoy the autumn colours. Dragondola’s lower station is located at an elevation of 921m above sea level, while the upper station is 1,346m above sea level.

 

Dragondola (苗場ドラゴンドラ )
Address: 202 Mikuni, Yuzawa-machi, Minami Uonuma-gun, Niigata 949-6292
Access: From JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station, take a 50-minute bus ride (¥670) to the Naeba Ski Resort Schnee Bus Stop (苗場スキー場シュネー前). From there, take the free shuttle bus or walk 20 minutes to the lower gondola station.
Admission fee: ¥3,500/adult for a round-trip ride
Opening hours: 09:00–15:00 (last gondola down from the top is 16:00)

 

② Kiyotsu Gorge

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Views of Kiyotsu Gorge from the different platforms inside the tunnel. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Further downstream along the Kiyotsu River is another unique autumn leaves viewing experience—the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel (清津峡渓谷トンネル Kiyotsukyо̄ keikoku tonneru). Kiyotsu Gorge is one of Japan’s Three Great Gorges (日本三大峡谷 Nihon Sandai Kyо̄koku), with the other two being Kurobe Gorge in Toyama Prefecture and Osugidani Valley in Mie Prefecture.

 

Kiyotsu Gorge in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC and Japanmase)

 

Impressive cliffs line both sides of the Kiyotsu River, forming a V-shaped gorge. The fast-flowing water and stunning colours in autumn make it a marvellous sight that has been gaining popularity in recent years. To fully enjoy the view, head into the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel for a unique way of enjoying the gorge!

 

Must-take Instagrammable shots at Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel. (Image credit: photoAC and Japanmase)

 

The 750m-long Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel is built into the columnar jointed stone cliffs, and has four platforms that offer panoramic views of the gorge. Autumn is Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel’s busiest season, when the views resemble scenes from paintings—the jagged stone walls contrasting with the bursts of colours from the autumn leaves.

 

Each of the four platforms offers a different experience, with Platform 4 being the most popular due to the gorgeous reflections that the water offers. In recent years, it has been gaining popularity, especially on Instagram.

 

Artwork in the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel. (Image credit: photoAC and Japanmase)

 

Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel was recently renovated in 2018, and as part of the Echigo Tsumari Art Trienniale, artwork by Ma Yansong / MAD Architects was installed, transforming the tunnels and propelling it to worldwide and Instagram fame. Known as the Tunnel of Light, colourful light installations in the tunnels, a unique capsule toilet in Platform 2 that looks metallic from the outside but has transparent windows from the inside, a shallow pool reflecting the view in Platform 4, and other installations were added and made Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel a very Instagrammable spot. Even though only some of the artwork remains, the tunnel is still gaining popularity, with visitors coming to enjoy the autumn scenery and remaining art installations.

 

Kiyotsu Gorge (清津峡)
Address: 2119-2 Koide, Tokamachi-shi, Niigata
Access: From JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅), take a 25-minute bus ride (¥480) to the Kiyotsukyo Iriguchi Bus Stop (清津峡入口). The Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel is a 30-minute walk from the bus stop.
Admission fee: ¥800/adult
Opening hours: 08:30–16:30

 

③ Bijinbayashi Forest

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

Bijinbayashi’s beech trees in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

No matter the season, Bijinbayashi (美人林 Beauty Forest) looks like it comes from a painting with its beautiful beech trees, which have thin and straight trunks that seemingly stretch towards the sky. Though relatively unknown to foreigners, Bijinbayashi is quickly becoming well-known as a “forest bathing” spot for local Japanese tourists.

 

“Forest bathing” (森林浴 shinrinyoku) is where travellers make recreational trips to forests for relaxation and rejuvenation, with the intention of improving mental or physical well-being. Travellers can recharge their spirits by feeling the healing energy of the earth, and enjoying the mystical scenic beauty of the forests.

 

Bijinbayashi’s beech trees in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

During autumn, Bijinbayashi’s beech trees turn a beautiful yellow-orange, and coupled with their perfect reflections in the ponds and puddles of water, a walk through the forest is like a walk through a painting. Breathing in the crisp autumn air and basking in the healing energy of Nature…how relaxing!

 

Access:
From Matsudai Station (まつだい駅) on the Hokuhoku Line, take a bus and get off at Sakaimatsu Bus Stop (堺松バス停). Bijinbayashi is a 20-minute walk from the bus stop.

 

④ Myoko Kogen

Myoko Kogen (妙高高原 Myо̄kо̄-kо̄gen) is located in the Myoko Togakushi Renzan National Park (妙高戸隠連山国立公園 Myо̄kо̄-Togakushi Renzan Kokuritsu Kо̄en), a national park that straddles Nagano Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture. It is also the site of Japan’s first international ski resort, which opened in the 1930s.

 

Outside of winter, Myoko Kogen is an area of tranquil beauty, which can be best enjoyed in autumn at the following two spots: Imori Pond and Naena Falls. Due to their proximity to each other and the ease of access with bus services, I highly recommend visiting them together.

 

Imori Pond

Viewing period: mid-October to early November (varies each year)

Imori Pond in autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

One of Myoko Kogen’s most picturesque spots, Imori Pond (いもり池 Imori-ike) is famed for its still and serene waters, which have a mirror-like surface that perfectly reflects the grand Mount Myoko (妙高山 Myо̄kо̄-san). The pond has a circumference of 500m, and has a flat and easy-to-walk trail that goes around it. The wide trail takes around 15 minutes to complete, and lets visitors enjoy captivating and tranquil views of the surrounding scenery, which is exceptionally stunning in autumn.

 

Views of Mount Myoko from Imori Pond. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The 2,454m-high Mount Myoko is definitely a must see while in Myoko Kogen. Depending on when you visit, you might see autumn colours on the slopes of Mount Myoko, or even a snow-covered Mount Myoko together with the autumn colours at Imori Pond!

 

If you’re feeling a little hungry, fret not as there is a restaurant near the pond, Bashoen (芭蕉苑) where you can get simple meals like soba and udon, snacks like ice cream, and local souvenirs.

 

Access:
From Echigo TOKImeki Railway Myōkō-Kōgen Station (妙高高原駅), take a 15-minute bus ride (¥280) on the Suginosawa Line and get off at the Imori Pond Bus Stop (いもり池入口).

 

Naena Falls

Viewing period: mid to late October (varies each year)

Naena Falls in autumn. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Just a 15-minute bus ride away from Imori Pond is another one of Myoko Kogen’s autumn wonders: Naena Falls (苗名滝 Naena-taki). This majestic 55m-high waterfall is one of Japan's Top 100 Waterfalls, and stands out against the rugged basalt cliffs. What's amazing about this waterfall is the sheer volume of water that flows down; the thunderous roars of the falling water can be heard from far away, especially in spring when there is a lot of meltwater from Mount Myoko. In autumn, when there is no meltwater, the sound and splashing is less, so it's a pleasant time to visit. When viewed from certain angles, you can see a heart-shape amongst the autumn colours, with the waterfall right in the middle! 

 

Naena Falls in autumn.  (Image credit: JR East / Carissa)

 

Naena Falls is located on the Niigata side of the border between Niigata and Nagano Prefectures. It connects the Sekigawa (関川), a river that partially serves as a physical border between Nagano and Niigata Prefectures. Although most of the river flows through Niigata, at this border area, some sections of the river flow in Niigata, while other parts flow in Nagano.

 

Naena Falls in autumn.  (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

From the Naena Taki Bus Stop, follow the well-maintained path towards the forest, and a 500m, 15-minute walk along the trail will bring you to the waterfall. Some ways to enjoy the views include looking at it from the suspension bridge, looking up from the boulders near the bottom of the waterfall, and more. Beautiful autumn colours contrasting agains rugged basalt rocks, with a dynamic and powerful waterfall...you can really feel and hear the power Naena Falls up close, and it's like looking at a moving painting!

 

If you're hungry, near the bus stop is a small rest area with a restaurant, where you can grab a bite to eat. I highly recommend the mushroom soba (きのこそば kinoko soba) and mountain vegetables (山菜 sansai).

 

Access:
From the Imori Pond Bus Stop (いもり池入口), take a 15-minute bus ride (¥300) on the Myoko Sanroku Line and get off at the Naena Taki Bus Stop (苗名滝).

 

⑤ Yahiko Maple Valley (Yahiko Park)

Viewing period: late October to mid-November (varies each year)

Yahiko Park in autumn. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会 and photoAC)

 

One of Niigata’s most famous autumn leaves viewing spot, Yahiko Park’s Maple Valley in (弥彦公園もみじ谷 Yahiko Kо̄en Momiji Dani) is filled with maple trees that turn fiery shades of red and orange in autumn. Together with the bright vermillion Kangetsu Bridge, they create striking scenery that draws visitors from all over the country. Best of all? The park is free to enjoy, and is located just a 1-minute walk from the nearest train station!

 

Yahiko Park has a Japanese-style aesthetic, with waterfalls, ponds, and stone lanterns, and the trees were planted according to the shape of the land. It’s a great place to take a leisurely stroll and enjoy the dazzling autumn colours.

 

Yahiko Park in autumn. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

In autumn, Yahiko Park is famous not only for its colourful and relaxing scenery during the day, but also for its fantasy-like illumination at night. If you can, I recommend coming in the late afternoon and staying until the evening, when you can enjoy a different view of the maple trees. In the evenings from late October to mid-November, the maple trees are illuminated, creating a dreamy and magical atmosphere in the park.

 

Yahiko Maple Valley (弥彦公園もみじ谷)
Address: 667-1 Yahiko, Nishikanbara, Niigata 959-0323
Access: Yahiko Maple Valley is a 1-minute walk from JR Yahiko Station (弥彦駅).
Admission fee: Free
Opening hours: Always open (Illumination from 17:00–21:00 during the autumn colours period)

 

⑥ Niigata City

Finally, to round up my list of recommendations, we head to Niigata City, the capital of Niigata Prefecture. While the previous places in this article have been in nature and parks, you can also enjoy beautiful autumn colours in the city, so let’s check some of them out:

 

The Niigata Saito Villa

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

The Niigata Saito Villa in autumn. (Image credit: 旧齋藤家別邸)

 

The Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸 Kyū Saitо̄ke Bettei) is a former merchant house built in 1918 by Saito Kijuro, a fourth generation member of the Saito family. One of Niigata’s wealthiest families, the Saito family was a wealthy merchant family that made their fortune by operating cargo ships along the Kitamaebune (北前船) route, a major shipping route used in the Edo Period (1603–1868).

 

View from the Niigata Saito Villa in autumn. (Image credit: Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau and 旧齋藤家別邸)

 

The Niigata Saito Villa was designed with the concept of uniting the house and the garden, so that the fantastic views of the garden could be enjoyed from inside the rooms, with each room providing a different view of the garden. Even while viewing the garden from inside the house, you will feel like you are in the garden!

 

The villa estate is about 4,500sqm, with 4,400sqm of it being gardens, so imagine how wonderful the views are. In autumn, the bright red maple trees contrast against the green pine trees, creating a wondrous and colourful sight.

 

Autumn illuminations at the Niigata Saito Villa. (Image credit: 旧齋藤家別邸)

 

On some weekend evenings (Fridays to Sundays) during autumn, the Niigata Saito Villa holds light-up events, where the trees in the gardens are illuminated, showcasing the villa’s amazing autumn colours in a different manner. Don’t miss this stunning sight, especially if you are staying at Niigata City during autumn.

 

The Niigata Saito Villa (旧齋藤家別邸)
Address: 576 Nishi-Ohatacho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8104
Access: From JR 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 Niigata Saito Villa is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop. Alternatively, from JR Niigata Station, take the C20, C21, or C22 bus and get off at the Nishi Ohata bus stop (西大畑), from which the Niigata Saito Villa is a 6-minute walk.
Admission fee: ¥300/adult (additional ¥200 for evening light up)
Opening hours: 09:30–17:00 (until 19:30 during evening light-up) (Closed on Mondays)

 

Hakusan Park

Viewing period: mid-November (varies each year)

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

 

One of Japan’s first parks, Hakusan Park (白山公園 Hakusan Kо̄en) opened in 1873, and is a Dutch-style promenade park, which makes it great for taking strolls and walks, especially during autumn. This spacious and airy garden is one of Japan’s 100 Best City Parks, and is a place where you can enjoy the four seasons as they change. In autumn, trees turn captivating shades of red, orange, and yellow, and it’s a wonderful feeling to stroll under them, looking up and seeing the blue sky through the leaves.

 

The park is only a 15-minute walk from the Niigata Saito Villa, so I recommend visiting them together. Hakusan Park also houses Hakusan Shrine (白山神社 Hakusan Jinja), a historic shrine that is popular among visitors looking for relationship luck.

 

If you want to know more about what you can eat and see in Niigata City, check out our Niigata Branch’s previous article here.

 

Hakusan Park (白山公園)
Address: 1-2 Ichibanboridoricho, Chuo-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 951-8132
Access: From JR 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 JR Hakusan Station (白山駅).
Admission fee: Free
Opening hours: Always open

 

Northern Culture Museum

Viewing period: early to mid-November (varies each year)

Autumn colours at the Northern Culture Museum. (Image credit: 新潟県観光協会)

 

Finally, we end my Niigata awe-tumn spot recommendations with the Northern Culture Museum. Although it is technically part of Niigata City, it’s not in the city centre like how the Niigata Saito Villa and Hakusan park are, but it is still only a bus ride away, and worth the journey.

 

The Northern Culture Museum (北方文化博物館 Hoppо̄ Bunka Hakubutsukan) preserves and showcases the estate and legacy of the Ito family, wealthy landowners of Echigo (Niigata’s old name).

 

Autumn colours at the Northern Culture Museum. (Image credit: Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau (top) and 新潟県観光協会 (bottom))

 

In addition to the various artwork and documents that are rich in Niigata’s history and culture, the Northern Culture Museum also houses a beautiful Japanese-style garden, which is absolutely stunning in autumn. When the autumn colours are at their peak, the garden is illuminated in the evenings, creating a fantastic atmosphere.

 

Northern Culture Museum (北方文化博物館)
Address: 2-15-25 Soumi, Konan-ku, Niigata-shi, Niigata 950-0205
Access: From JR Niitsu Station (新津駅), take a 17-minute bus ride on the S94 bus and get off at the 上沢海博物館前 bus stop. Alternatively, from JR Niigata Station (新潟駅) take a 45-minute bus ride on the S94 bus and get off at the 上沢海博物館前 bus stop. The Northern Culture Museum is a 2-minute walk from the bus stop.
Admission fee: ¥800/adult
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00

 

Closing

Niigata is home to a multitude of wonder-fall autumn scenery. These were just some of my recommended places, but there is still so much more to discover in Niigata. Which place would you like to visit next?

 

In case you missed it, check out Part 1 of this autumn Shinetsu series, where I introduced some of my favourite awe-tumn spots around Nagano Prefecture!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

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

 

If you are thinking of visiting the Shinetsu Region, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Niigata (~¥21,500). 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.

 

Header image credit: photoAC and 新潟県観光協会

 

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