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Discovering Shin’etsu with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)!

Discovering Shin’etsu with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)!

In my last article, I discussed where I would go in Tohoku (東北) if I had the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). It’s been a long while since I last travelled to Japan due to the current situation, and many of us are left only with our imagination to think about our next adventure once travelling restarts. Since I am unable to travel too, I can only think to myself "if I were to have this pass, I would go to these places".

 

For this article, I will continue with my dream railway adventure, but this time with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). By ‘dream railway adventure’, my criteria remain more or less the same:

  • Visit ‘obligatory’ tourist attractions e.g. famous castles, parks
  • Experience breathtaking natural sceneries
  • Stay and enjoy at least one hot spring experience
  • Take part in a physical activity i.e. hiking for the green season
  • Travel from place to place by railway!

 

Like in my previous article, the last point is perhaps the most important, more so when this time it’s about exploring Shin’etsu (信越), which is modern-day prefectures Nagano (長野) and Niigata (新潟). I have been to only a few places in both prefectures, which boast some of the most magnificent sceneries in Japan. The best way for me to enjoy these sceneries is from the comfort from the train view, as gazing at them isn’t the same if I were to take other modes of transport. Like the old adage, it’s about the journey itself, not just the destination, and my adventure starts the moment I hop on the train and enjoy the views before reaching the destinations in my itinerary.

 

With the pass’s unlimited rides on JR East and selected lines in applicable areas within Nagano and Niigata, I can visit many places and save a lot of money at the same time. So let’s see where I will go for the green season if I have the pass!

 

Day 1: Shinjuku (新宿) → Matsumoto (松本)

Train route:

  • JR Shinjuku Station (07:00) → JR Matsumoto Station (09:38)

E353 series on the Limited Express Azusa. (Image credit: JR East/Shinoda)

 

Shinjuku Station (新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) is the world’s busiest railway station, with more than 1.5 million passengers served by JR East lines at the station each day. This is the starting point of my trip with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), where my first train ride is on the E353 series on Azusa, a limited express train bound for Matsumoto (松本) in Nagano. Interesting thing to note: the service is named after the Azusa River (梓川), where the image of the river flowing through Kamikochi (上高地) inspires the train’s design.

 

JR Matsumoto Station. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

First stop: Matsumoto Station (JR松本駅 Matsumoto-eki). Here, I will kickstart my Shin’etsu railway adventure with a trip to one of the most glorious castles in Japan, one that is famous for its black-lacquered tiles: Matsumoto Castle.

 

  Matsumoto Castle (松本城)

Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: Matsumoto City/JNTO)

 

Just a 15-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station is the imposing Matsumoto Castle, a masterpiece that is the city's main attraction. It is built atop a stone foundation and surrounded by a moat, and it was constructed in the 16th century. The castle is known for its tiled walls which are coated with black lacquer, and overall shape which is said to resemble a crow spreading its wings. For that, the castle is also known as ‘Crow Castle’ (烏城 karasu-jо̄).

 

Matsumoto Castle with the Northern Alps in the distance. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)

 

I have visited a few castles throughout Japan: Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, Kumamoto Castle in Kumamoto Prefecture, Matsuyama Castle in Ehime Prefecture, and Osaka Castle in Osaka Prefecture. Matsumoto Castle is one I’ve been meaning to visit for an awfully long time. It’s one of five castles that are coveted National Treasures (国宝 kokuhō), recognised for their especially high artistic and historical value, especially when they are built during a tumultuous era when many battles took place. Castles primarily served as fortresses for military lords, but today they are symbolic remnants of a distant past. The only National Treasure-designated castle I’ve visited is Himeji Castle, and the next one to visit on my list is Matsumoto Castle.

 

Matsumoto Castle’s iconic black exterior. (Image credit: JR East/Chie Matsubara)

 

Another reason I want to visit this castle is because of aesthetics. I remember being mesmerised by Himeji Castle’s immaculately white exterior—it’s also known as ‘White Egret Castle’ and ‘White Heron Castle’—and Matsumoto Castle looks like the polar opposite. It makes for an intriguingly contrasting sight, and even though the castle already looks amazing in pictures, I imagine it would be a wholly different experience to be able to see it in person.

 

View from the top of Matsumoto Castle. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

And what do I do when I see a castle? Climb it, of course! The view from the top of any castle is something to look forward to, and I will never pass the chance of seeing a panoramic view of Matsumoto’s skyline if I have one. Better yet, if the weather is favourable, visitors can even see the Northern Alps in the distance. A memorable visit to a historical monument with a stunning view of the surrounding city… how is that for a start for my railway trip to Nagano and Niigata.

(Note: for fans of castles in Japan, learn more about Matsumoto Castle and other castles throughout by checking out Carissa’s article.)

 

Matsumoto Castle (松本城)
Address: 4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto-shi, Nagano 390-0873
Nearest station: JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅)
Opening hours: 8:30–17:00
Admission fee: ¥700 per adult

 

Nakamachi Street (中町)

Storehouses along Nakamachi Street. (Image credit: JR East / Chie Matsubara)

 

A 10-minute walk from JR Matsumoto Station is Nakamachi Street, a shopping district that used to be the heart of the city’s trading business. Matsumoto used to thrive as a trading hub during the Edo Period (1603–1867) when it was part of the Zenkōji Kaidō, a route that links cities Nagoya and Kyoto to Nagano’s Zenkoji Temple. Sake breweries and kimono merchants used to prosper on this street, but today they are replaced with folk handicraft shops, cafés, and restaurants.

 

Historical streets always fascinate me. They give me a glimpse of what the city used to be, and I also get to learn a thing or two about the local history. Nakamachi Street retains the look and feel of its past, especially with the careful preservation of its traditional storehouses (蔵 kura). I also want to see the street’s aesthetics, where the storehouses are characterised by their distinctive black-and-white, crisscrossed wall designs. Last but not least, the one place I want to check out is the main landmark of the street: Kurassic-kan (蔵シック館), a restored sake warehouse that is now used as a rental space for events, tea ceremonies and more.

 

③ Lake Suwa (諏訪湖)

Train routes:

  • JR Matsumoto Station (13:45) → JR Kami-Suwa Station (14:09)
  • JR Kami-Suwa Station (19:58) → JR Matsumoto Station (20:35)

Lake Suwa. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)

 

After exploring Matsumoto, I will hop on the train on the JR Chuo Line (JR中央線 Chūō-sen) to make my way to JR Kami-Suwa Station (JR上諏訪駅 Kami-Suwa-eki), where a 10–15-minute walk from the station lies the understatedly picturesque Lake Suwa. This shallow lake is located near the centre of Nagano Prefecture, and the local towns around the lake have garnered reputation recently as hot spring destinations in the region.

 

One town near Lake Suwa that I would like to visit is Kamisuwa (上諏訪), located on the eastern side of the lake. Kamisuwa is a hot spring town that is popular as a quick getaway destination for people living in Tokyo because of its location and easy access, and on top of amazing hot springs, the town is popular for its locally brewed sake.

 

Tateishi Park overlooking Lake Suwa during sunset. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Lake Suwa is on my itinerary for several reasons. For one, after a trip to Matsumoto, I want to take it easy and explore someplace new, and that would be Lake Suwa. Better yet, I can have a wonderful view of Lake Suwa from Kamisuwa, which is a popular hot spring destination that is accessible from Matsumoto (where I’ll be staying for Day 1 and 2), and hot springs are always welcomed in my itinerary. The third reason is perhaps the most important and is related to my hobby: watching anime! Lake Suwa is said to be the inspiration for the climactic lake scene in ‘Your Name’ (「君の名は」 Kimi no Na wa), one of the most successful anime movies in recent years. So, in a way, my visit to the lake is sort of a mini-anime pilgrimage, and for me to see for myself why this lake is claimed to have inspired director Shinkai Makoto (新海誠) for his film.

 

KATAKURAKAN (top) and footbath at JR Kami-Suwa Station (bottom). (Image credit: KATAKURAKAN, JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

The two things I would like to do in Kamisuwa is to explore the town’s hot springs, especially KATAKURAKAN (片倉館) which is a hot bath facility and community hall with an outstanding Western-style architecture and also designated as a National Important Cultural Property (重要文化財 Jūyō-bunkazai); and a trip to Tateishi Park (立石公園 Tateishi Kо̄en) before sunset for a magnificent view of Lake Suwa. I would recommend taking a leisurely 30-minute walk up the slope to the park from JR Kami-Suwa Station and enjoy the view of the town during the ascent. Once after the sun sets, it will be dark so it's recommended to take a 10-minute taxi ride back to the station.

 

And of course, before I leave Kamisuwa for the day, I can also enjoy a quick dip in a footbath (足湯 ashiyu) right inside JR Kami-Suwa Station before I hop on a train back to Matsumoto.

 

  • KATAKURAKAN: 8-minute walk from JR Kami-Suwa Station
  • Tateishi Park: 30-minute walk/10-minute taxi ride from JR Kami-Suwa Station

 

Day 2: Hakuba (白馬)

For the second day of my Shin’etsu railway trip, it’s all about hiking and getting in touch with the sheer beauty of Nagano’s nature. For that, I look no further than Hakuba (白馬), a village known for being one of the main venues for the 1998 Winter Olympics. Although Hakuba is renowned as a winter destination for its ski courses and resorts, it’s just as popular for the summer too, and I will be heading here for a hiking adventure up the mountains in search of a visually stunning pond…

 

Happo Pond (八方池)

Train routes:

  • JR Matsumoto Station (05:56) → JR Shinano-Ōmachi Station (07:02) / (07:18) → JR Hakuba Station (08:00)
  • JR Hakuba Station (16:38) → JR Shinano-Ōmachi Station (17:13) / (17:19) → JR Matsumoto Station (18:12)

 

Happo Pond. (Image credit: Image credit: Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village/JNTO)

 

High up the mountains at an altitude of 2,060m lies Happo Pond, a tranquil and captivating pond that is one of the natural highlights of Hakuba. It is surrounded by the majestic Hakuba Sanzan (白馬三山 Hakuba Three Mountains), and when the weather is fair, the mountains are even reflected on Happo Pond’s clear water. The pond is one of the biggest draws to Hakuba in the summer and autumn, where people will hike for 1.5 hours from the nearest lift station just to have a glimpse of it.

 

Happo Pond surrounded by the Hakuba Sanzan Mountains. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)

 

I would make Day 2 a whole-day affair to Hakuba, particularly since it’s a full-day hiking experience up the mountains. Hiking is a must-do activity for me in the summer because it’s a unique experience that I can’t have back home, and the one thing I want to do in Nagano is to climb up the mountains. Seeking out Happo Pond helps me to achieve that goal, and its sheer beauty makes for a worthy reward for me.

 

Amazing views en route to Happo Pond. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

Remember how I mentioned that it’s about the journey, not the destination? Although my destination for this hike is Happo Pond, that’s not the only thing I look forward to for the day. The journey to the pond is part of the experience itself, and since I’m going high up the mountains, on a good day I may even stand to see a sea of clouds (雲海 unkai). I only got to see this once before several years ago, and since then I’ve been wanting it again up close.

 

Hiking up the mountains to Happo Pond. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Visiting Happo Pond would take a lot of time, so for Day 2, I will start my day extremely early and take the first train out of Matsumoto. Once at Hakuba, I will make my way to the Happo Gondola where my ascent up the mountain begins with a ride on the Happo-One Gondola Lift “Adam”. After that, I need to ride the Alpen Quad Lift, and finally to the Grat Quad Lift. Only after that does the hiking begin, which would take around 90 minutes to reach Happo Pond. I strongly recommend getting the Happo Alpen Line (Return) ticket, which is a discounted return ticket that includes all three lifts.

 

Happo Gondola (for Happo Pond 八方池)
Address: 4258 Happo, Hakuba, Kitaazumi, Nagano 399-9301
Nearest station: JR Hakuba Station (白馬駅)
Operating hours:
   8am–4:50pm (Happo Gondola Lift “Adam”)
   8:15am–4:40pm (Alpen Quad Lift)
   8:30am–4:30pm (Grat Quad Lift)
Admission fees:
   ¥3,000 per adult (Happo Alpen Line round trip: Gondola Lift “Adam” + Alpen Quad Life + Grat Quad Lift)

(Note: if you are visiting Hakuba with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) from Matsumoto or Nagano on a weekend, you can hop on the Joyful Train Resort View Furusato for free! However, take note of time constraints if you plan to go hiking at Hakuba.)

 

Happo no Yu. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)

 

And before I make my way back to Matsumoto, there’s one more thing I can enjoy: a footbath! Happo no Yu (八方の湯), is a daytime hot spring facility with a separate footbath outside that offers views of Happo, and is a 10–15-minute walk from Happo Gondola station. After a long day of hiking up the mountains, how else can I reward myself than with dipping my feet into Hakuba's hot spring water. The footbath is free for public use too. 

 

Happo no Yu (八方の湯)
Address: 57012 Hokujo, Hakuba, Kitaazumi District, Nagano 399-9301
Nearest station: JR Hakuba Station (白馬駅)
Operating hours: 9am–10pm (closed every Wednesday until 12pm for maintenance)
Tel: +81-261–72–5705

 

BONUS: Nagano’s bountiful mountain foods

Nagano is known for its wild mountain vegetables and soba. (Image credit: Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village/Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)

 

Day 2 is my final day in Nagano, and before I leave for the next segment of my trip, what better way to wrap up the Nagano portion of my travel than with Nagano’s delicacies! As Nagano is a mountainous region, the prefecture is primarily known for its wild mountain vegetables, which are often enjoyed together with soba or as tempura, as well as high-quality miso and buckwheat flour.

 

In particular, the one dish I would not forgo before leaving Nagano is Shinshu soba. What makes it special is the high-quality flour made from buckwheat that is grown with Nagano’s high volcanic ash soil. Furthermore, Nagano’s cool climate and high altitude are also ideal for growing buckwheat, further adding to Shinshu soba’s superior taste and texture. It’s no wonder that Nagano is the second-highest producer of soba in Japan!

 

Sanzokuyaki. (Image credit: Matsumoto City)

 

But in Matsumoto in particular, there's one dish I would add to my plate, and it's called sanzokuyaki (山賊焼き). Chicken lovers would not want to miss this special fried chicken dish that is a local specialty here, where whole pieces of chicken thigh or breasts are marinated with with garlic and other flavours and then deep-fried to juicy perfection. Also, a fun fact: the name 'sanzokuyaki' actually translates to 'mountain thief fry'!

 

Day 3: Matsumoto (松本) → Myoko-Kogen (妙高高原)

For Day 3, my railway journey continues to the other side of Shin’etsu, namely Niigata Prefecture. I bid farewell to Matsumoto and Nagano, and hop on the train to head over to my next destination: Myoko-Kogen, a place that’s renowned as a winter destination for its ski resorts, but is also popular as a summer getaway and a hot spring haven.

 

For this transfer, I’ll be riding the Limited Express Shinano from JR Matsumoto Station to JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki), and then switch to the Shinano Railway and make my way to Myōkō-Kōgen Station (妙高高原駅 Myōkō-Kōgen-eki). In all, this transfer would take me around 2 hours. At Myōkō-Kōgen Station, I will be taking a local bus to my next destination, but with some spare time on my hands until its arrival, I can grab a quick lunch near the station.

 

At Myoko-Kogen, I am in search of yet another pond, but one where I can relax and take it easy once again while experiencing the surrounding nature.

 

Imori Pond (いもり池)

Train route:

  • JR Matsumoto Station (10:07) → JR Nagano Station (10:59) / (11:18) → Myōkō-Kōgen Station (12:02)

 

Imori Pond with Mount Myoko in the background. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

In the Ikenotaira (池の平) part of Myoko-Kogen lies Imori Pond, which is only a 10–15-minute bus ride away from Myōkō-Kōgen Station. The pond features the grand Mount Myoko (妙高山 Myōkō-san) in the background, and the pond’s clear still water will reflect the mountain like a mirror on clear days. Myoko-Kogen is a ski resort area, so it’s primarily known as a winter destination. However, I am interested to visit the place more during the green season, a time when I get to witness the area’s greenery and tranquillity. In particular, Imori Pond makes for the perfect spot to capture the area’s green scenery, especially with Mount Myoko right in the far distant background. It makes for a great counterpart to Happo Pond in Nagano: unlike hiking up the mountains to see the pond, I can take a leisurely stroll around the pond and gaze at a mountain in the distance.

 

Visitors can access Imori Pond easily from Myōkō-Kōgen Station by taking a local bus on the Suginosawa Line. The bus ride takes only 10 minutes per one way. More details on the bus services can be found here.

 

Imori Pond (いもり池)
Address: Ikenotaira, Myoko, Niigata 949-2112
Nearest station: Myōkō-Kōgen Station (妙高高原駅)
Opening hours: Open 24 hours
Admission fee: Free

 

Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉)

Tsubame Onsen. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Do you know what the city of Myoko is also known for? Hot springs. The village is famous for its hot spring water that comes from Mount Myoko, and hence there are many hot spring inns and hotels in the area. In fact, there are seven hot spring areas in Myoko, each with its own distinctive characteristics of hot spring water:

 

  • Myoko Onsen (妙高温泉) which is the nearest to Myōkō-Kōgen Station and has clear hot spring water
  • Ikenotaira Onsen (池の平温泉), which has hot spring water that can be clear or even blackish
  • Suginosawa Onsen (杉野澤温泉), which has clear hot spring water
  • Akakura Onsen (赤倉温泉), which has clear hot spring water
  • Shin-Akakura Onsen (新赤倉温泉), which has clear hot spring water
  • Seki Onsen (関温泉), which has a reddish hot spring water
  • Tsubame Onsen (燕温泉), which has a milky-white hot spring water

 

One of the things I would not expect from a railway trip to Shin’etsu is a ‘hot spring-crawling’ experience, and Myoko is the one place that offers that opportunity. Even though some of the hot spring baths in the locations above are located in hotels, for a fee, they are available for non-staying guests. So hot spring fans can rejoice: Myoko is the one place where you can crawl from one hot spring to another!

 

Tsubame Onsen’s milky hot spring water. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

For Day 3, my accommodation would be here at a hot spring inn in Myoko. But with many accommodations to choose from, which one would I go for? My answer would be Tsubame Onsen. For someone with an adventurous spirit like myself, I would choose a hot spring that is located off the beaten path, and away from the other hot springs for some peace and quiet. Tsubame Onsen is located high up in the mountains and offers a spectacular view of the village below, and it has some of the best hot spring water in the area, where it is said to help those with rheumatism, neuralgia, and various skin ailments.

 

I will spend the night here for the end of Day 3, and if there is one hotel that I would like to check out here, it would be Hanabun. It’s an understated hotel with a hot spring bath that offers a wonderful view of the surrounding valleys and waterfalls. This is one of those times when I can enjoy staying in a Japanese style room with tatami mats, and the hotel also has plans for solo and group travellers. As an added convenience, there’s bus service here that can bring me to Sekiyama Station (関山駅 Sekiyama-eki), from where I can continue my journey after my stay here.

 

To transfer from Imori Pond to Tsubame Onsen, I will be taking a 15-minute taxi ride with an approximate fare of ¥2,000.

 

Hanabun (燕温泉の旅館 源泉の湯 花文)
Address: 6-087 Tsubame Onsen, Myoko, Niigata 949 2235
Nearest station: Myōkō-Kōgen Station (妙高高原駅) / Sekiyama Station (関山駅)
Tel: +81-255-82-3136

 

(Note: the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) does not cover train rides on the Shinano Railway Line, so an additional fare is required to travel from Nagano Station to Myōkō-Kōgen Station for pass holders.)

 

Day 4: Myoko-Kogen → Niigata (新潟)

Train route:

  • Sekiyama Station (08:54) → Takada Station (09:25)

 

On the next part of my railway trip throughout Shin’etsu, I will journey northward to the city of Niigata, the capital of Niigata Prefecture. It takes quite some time to travel from Myoko-Kogen to Niigata, so my day starts with an early hotel check-out and transfer to Sekiyama Station. After that, a small surprise awaits...

 

BONUS: quick tour to Takada Castle Ruins Park

 

Takada Castle in summer. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Do you know what I enjoy about travelling by railway? It’s easy to make quick trips! Before I make my way northward to Niigata City (新潟市 Niigata-shi), I can make a short tour to a special place not far from Myoko-Kogen and pay a visit to the second castle in my itinerary.

 

Located in the city of Jōetsu (上越) is Takada Castle Ruins Park (高田城跡公園), a place that features the namesake castle surrounded by a moat. The park is particularly famous as a spring destination, where people can witness more than 4,000 cherry blossom trees bloom. However, visiting the park during the green season is also a good idea when the ambiance is completely different from that of spring.

 

From Sekiyama Station, I can take the Echigo Tokimeki Railway’s Myōkō Haneuma Line to Takada Station (高田駅 Takada-eki) and take a 15-minute walk from the station to the park. After a short stroll around it, I can return to the station and hop on a particular special train to continue my journey to Niigata City.

(Note: the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) does not cover the section between Sekiyama Station and Arai Station on the Echigo Tokimeki Railway's Myōkō Haneuma Line, so an additional fare is required to travel on this section for pass holders.)

 

Takada Castle Ruins Park (高田城跡公園)
Address: 44-1 Motoshiro, Jōetsu, Niigata
Nearest station: Takada Station (高田駅)
Opening hours: 24 hours
Admission fee: Free

 

Train route:

  • Takada Station (10:25) → Niigata Station (12:30)

 

The E653-1100 series on the Limited Express Shirayuki. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Shirayuki is a limited express train service that runs between Arai Station and Niigata Station (新潟駅) via the Shin’etsu Main Line (信越本線 Shin’etsu-honsen), offering a hassle-free railway travel from the south to the north of Niigata Prefecture. Travelling from Nagano to Niigata is not easy; usually, visitors will travel via Takasaki Station (高崎駅 Takasaki-eki) in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県). But thankfully with Shirayuki, travelling is made so much easier, so visitors are highly recommended to use this train when going between the two prefectures.

 

As the train travels between Naoetsu Station (直江津駅 Naoetsu-eki) and Kashiwazaki Station (柏崎駅 Kashiwazaki-eki) en route to Niigata Station, it will traverse along the coast facing the Sea of Japan, which I can witness from the train. Witnessing this magnificent view is something I dearly look forward to: imagine gazing at a panoramic view of the open sea right from the train window as you make your way to your destination. The excitement is palpable, and I can imagine how the anticipation for the next part of my adventure builds up further.

 

The next part of my trip is all about the magnificent view of the Sea of Japan, and there’s one special place I can visit to have the greatest view.

 

⑦ Sasagawa Nagare (笹川流れ)

Train route:

  • Niigata Station (14:57) → Murakami Station (15:45) / (16:17) → Kuwagawa Station (16:37)
  • Kuwagawa Station (19:13) → Shibata Station (20:26) / (20:31) → Niigata Station (21:09)

 

Sasagawa Nagare. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Just a 5-minute walk away from JR Kuwagawa Station (JR桑川駅 Kuwagawa-eki) is Sasagawa Nagare, a 11km coastline with a breathtaking view of the Sea of Japan. The coastline features many uniquely eroded rock formations created by the rough waters from the sea, and some of the rocks are even said to resemble spectacles and even dinosaurs! Visitors can also hop on a 40-minute boat ride too, where it will provide a more closeup view of the unique shaped rock formations and even feed the flying seagulls that flock the sea and coastline. 

 

Beautiful clear blue waters, white sandy beaches, crying seagulls, the salty breeze… how does this sound to you? It sounds like a heavenly experience for me! Being able to walk leisurely on the beach is therapeutic to me, where I would feel like all of my life’s problems and worries will be washed away by the waves into the open sea. In fact, Sasagawa Nagare is one of the two coastlines that I personally want to visit in Japan. I have been to the Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸 Sanriku Kaigan) many years ago, where it stretches along the eastern side of Tohoku facing the Pacific Ocean. Visiting Sasagawa Nagare feels like the only thing I must do, since this coastline faces the exact opposite direction. Once I visit this coastline, I can finally say that I have seen the two seas that surround northeastern Japan in person.

 

Sunset at Sasasagawa Nagare. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

And how would I wrap up Day 4? By witnessing the sunset along the coastline. The view is said to be stunning, where the sun will cast a shadow on the rock formations and paint the sky crimson red. Only after witnessing this view shall I feel wholly satisfied before I make my way back to Niigata for the night.

(Note: if you are visiting the coastline with the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) on a Friday or the weekend, you can hop on the Joyful Train KAIRI for free!)

 

BONUS: Niigata’s treasures from the sea

Kiwami sushi. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Want to explore more about Niigata's delicacies? Other than hegi soba, Niigata is famous for its seafood. The prefecture directly faces the sea to the west, so it has access to some of the freshest seafood in Japan. To experience best seafood that Niigata has to offer, the one outstanding dish to try out is kiwami sushi (極み寿司), which a platter of 10 sushi pieces that showcase the prefecture’s best seafood for that particular season. What better way for me to remember Niigata by than with a gastronomical experience!

 

Day 5: Shibata (新発田)

For the final day, I want to explore a bit about Niigata Prefecture’s history and culture, so I will make a trip to the city of Shibata, which is only a 35-minute train ride away from Niigata City. In this quiet and peaceful city lies a historical castle, one that symbolises the region’s feudal past.

 

Shibata Castle Ruins Park (新発田城址公園)

Train route:

  • JR Niigata Station (09:45) → JR Shibata Station (10:19)
  • JR Shibata Station (13:00) → JR Niigata Station (13:36)

 

Shibata Castle. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Walk for 20 minutes from JR Shibata Station (JR新発田駅 Shibata-eki), and I will reach the Shibata Castle Ruins Park, a popular place for rest and relaxation for the locals. The centrepiece of the park is Shibata Castle, built between 12th and 14th century. It is also known as ‘Iris Castle’ (菖蒲城 Ayame-jō), and the park is open throughout the year.

 

Shibata Castle's main gate. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Shibata Castle interests me for two reasons. One is for the cultural significance: the main gate and Ninomaru Sumi Yagura, one of the castle towers, are designated as Important Cultural Properties. The other is for my appreciation of castles: it is one of Japan’s Top 100 Castles (日本百名城 Nihon Hyaku-Meijō). I began this journey with a castle in Matsumoto, so it seems only proper for me to end it with a castle too, this time in Shibata.

 

Shibata Castle Ruins Park (新発田城址公園)
Address: 6-4 Otemachi, Shibata, Niigata 957-0052
Nearest station: JR Shibata Station (新発田駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81-254-22-9534

 

Niigata City (新潟市)

  • Bandai Bridge: 15-minute walk from JR Niigata Station
  • Hakusan Shrine: 1-minute walk from Hakusan Shrine bus stop

 

Bandai Bridge. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機)

 

After a trip to Shibata, I will have some time to spare before my train back to Tokyo, so why not explore the city of Niigata while I’m here! The first place I would visit in this city is of course the Bandai Bridge (萬代橋 Bandai-bashi), which is only a 15-minute walk from JR Niigata Station. It connects the new, vibrant town of Bandai in the south with the old, historic town of Furumachi in the north, bridging the new and the old (figuratively and literally). And on top of that, it’s a symbol of the city’s resilience, more so when it has undergone several reconstructions since 1886 and even survived a major earthquake in 1964.

 

Hakusan Shrine. (Image credit: xiquinhosilva / CC BY 2.0)

 

The last place I will visit in Niigata is Hakusan Shrine, which can be easily accessed with the Niigata City Loop Bus. With a 1,000-year history, the shrine is where people can come and pay respects to the Shinto deity that looks over the city, known as Hakusan-sama (はくさんさま). Shrines are always small getaways for me, and given the opportunity, I would always appreciate a trip to one. More so when the Shinto goddess Kukurihime (くくりひめ), who is widely recognised as the god of matchmaking, is enshrined here. By paying respects, I hope I can have her blessing for better luck in relationships from here onwards.

(Note: check out this article if you like to know more about what to visit while in Niigata City!)

 

Hakusan Shrine (白山神社)
Address: 1-2 Ichibanboridoricho, Chuo Ward, Niigata, 951-8132, Japan
Nearest station: JR Hakusan Station (新潟駅), 20-minute walk
Opening hours: 7am–8pm
Admission fee: Free

 

The E7 series. (Image credit: JR East/Shinoda)

 

With that, my railway trip in Shin’etsu comes to an end, and how else would I wrap it up than with one last train ride. From JR Niigata Station, I can hop on the E7 series that runs on the Jōetsu Shinkansen and make a direct trip back to Tokyo in just around 2 hours.

 

Train route: JR Niigata Station (18:12) → JR Tokyo Station (20:12)

 

Summing up my itinerary

A map of my travel plan. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Just like my trip around Tohoku, the best kind of trip around Shin’etsu is one that includes everything: nature, sightseeing, hot springs, famous attractions, and travelling to such places by train. JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) enables me to do all the above, and with unlimited rides on JR trains in the region for 5 consecutive days, I can stand to save a lot of money on train fares.

 

Based on my itinerary above, this is how much I can save approximately:

My trip’s ordinary train fare grand total versus the pass.

 

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

 

So if you are thinking of visiting Nagano and Niigata, 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, you can save a lot of money if you travel extensively by trains in the region. It can also be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

 

Excited to travel to Shin’etsu with the pass now? Summer is a fun time to travel around the region, and we all hope that we can travel soon. Until then, it’s always good to plan ahead for your next railway adventure, and I sure know where I want to go next!

 

Getting around Nagano and Niigata

Matsumoto Castle is located in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station to JR Matsumoto Station, and then walk for 20 minutes from the station to the castle. The journey from Shinjuku to Matsumoto takes around 140 minutes, and the ordinary fare is ¥6,620.

 

Kamisuwa is located south of Matsumoto. Visitors from Matsumoto can take the JR Chuo Line from JR Matsumoto Station to JR Kami-Suwa Station. The journey from Matsumoto to Kami-Suwa takes around 25 minutes and the ordinary fare is ¥590.

 

Hakuba is located in Nagano, north of Matsumoto. Visitors from Matsumoto can take the JR Oito Line from JR Matsumoto Station to JR Hakuba Station (JR白馬駅 Hakuba-eki). The journey from Matsumoto to Hakuba takes around 2 hours and the ordinary fare is ¥1,170. For the Limited Express Azusa, take note that the service has only one round trip per day from Matsumoto.

 

Myoko-Kogen is located in the southern part of Niigata Prefecture. Visitors from Matsumoto can take the Limited Express Shinano from JR Matsumoto Station to JR Nagano Station, and then transfer to the Shinano Railway Line to reach Myōkō-Kōgen Station. The trip from Matsumoto to Myoko-Kogen takes around 120 minutes and the total ordinary fare is ¥3,220.

Take note that the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) does not cover train rides on the Shinano Railway Line, so an additional fare is required to travel from Nagano Station to Myōkō-Kōgen Station for pass holders. From Nagano to Myoko-Kogen, the additional fare for pass holders is ¥850.

 

Takada Castle Ruins Park is located in the city of Jōetsu, Niigata Prefecture. Visitors from Myoko-Kogen can take the Echigo Tokimeki Railway's Myōkō Haneuma Line from Sekiyama Station to Takada Station. The park is a 15-minute walk from the station. The journey from Sekiyama to Takada takes around 30 minutes and the ordinary fare is ¥550.

Take note that the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) does not cover the section between Sekiyama Station and Arai Station on the Echigo Tokimeki Railway's Myōkō Haneuma Line, so an additional fare is required to travel on this section for pass holders. From Sekiyama to Arai, the additional fare is ¥340.

 

Sasagawa Nagare is located north of Niigata City, in Niigata Prefecture. Visitors from Niigata can take the Limited Express Inaho from JR Niigata Station to JR Murakami Station (JR村上駅 Murakami-eki), and then switch to the JR Uetsu Main Line (JR羽越本線 Uetsu-honsen) to JR Kuwagawa Station. The trip from Niigata to Kuwagawa takes approximately 90 minutes and costs ¥2,290.

 

Shibata Castle Ruins Park is located in the city of Shibata in Niigata Prefecture. Visitors from Niigata can take the JR Hakushin Line (JR白新線 Hakushin-sen) to JR Shibata Station. Upon arrival at the station, it’s a 20-minute walk to the park. The journey from Niigata to Shibata takes approximately 40 minutes, and the fare is ¥510.

 

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