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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Niigata hidden gems to expertise Japan’s distinctive tradition

Discover past the same old Tokyo, Osaka and Hokkaido which are on everybody’s typical Japan itinerary. With 47 prefectures, there are many hidden gem spots to expertise Japan’s distinctive traditions and tradition. On my current journey to Japan, I did a street journey in Niigata and located some distinctive actions to do in case you are trying to plan a Japan journey that’s not so typical. Learn on for my checklist of Niigata hidden gems!

Matsudai Hoshitoge Rice Terrace Me
Hoshitoge Rice Terraces are simply one of many lovely landscapes present in Niigata

This text is sponsored by Earnings Insurance coverage. I’m working with Earnings Insurance coverage to uncover hidden gems on my travels in 2023! Keep tuned for extra blogs on cool locations that I’ve visited all over the world and all the time be sure to’re coated by Earnings’s Journey Insurance coverage to journey with confidence. Get pleasure from as much as $15,000 protection for abroad transport and lodging expense, together with for brand spanking new COVID-19 variants^ with Earnings’s Journey Insurance coverage!

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What’s particular about Niigata?

Niigata is a prefecture about 2 hours from Tokyo by shinkansen. This area on the northwest coast of Honshu Island will get one of many highest snowfalls in Japan and is most busy within the winter when skiers and snowboarders descend upon this often quiet rural space.

JNTO Yuzawa Ski Lift View
Niigata’s Yuzawa is a prime winter vacation spot in Japan. Photograph credit score: © JNTO

All that snow has additionally made Niigata’s water further pure, and Niigata rice and associated merchandise like sake and soba are thought of top of the range in Japan. You’ll additionally discover loads of onsens throughout this area with a complete number of minerals and waters to soak in.

Regardless of it being a prime winter vacation spot, Niigata truly has loads of actually cool and weird issues to do within the hotter seasons. I visited Niigata in October because the temperature begins to drop somewhat however earlier than the autumn leaves begin to present.

Matsunoyama Bijin Bayashi Forest Me
Chilling within the Bijinbayashi forest whereas it was nonetheless inexperienced

The beauty of hotter intervals just isn’t having to cope with snow – Niigata is kind of rural so driving is one of the best ways to get round, and for us tropical Singaporeans, driving in snowy/icy situations may be fairly precarious.

Whereas nobody desires to get into an accident whereas driving abroad, it’s good to journey with peace of thoughts. Earnings’s Journey Insurance coverage gives medical bills abroad protection of as much as $1,000,000*.

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Sado Landscape Farm Car
Renting a automobile offers you extra freedom to discover Niigata

Additionally, it’s usually much less crowded throughout. Whereas I often discover myself surrounded by different vacationers after I go to fashionable Japan locations in Honshu like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, this was not the case in Niigata the place I principally noticed locals and home Japanese vacationers. Whereas communication could be a bit tougher because it’s much less touristy and fewer English is spoken, we nonetheless managed to get round with the assistance of translator apps.

Able to uncover a few of Japan’s hidden gems in Niigata? Right here’s a map of my finds, learn on to be taught extra.

Learn the way snow makes meals style higher

Hakkaisan Yukimuro – Uonuma

Niigata will get a critical quantity of snow yearly. We’re speaking one thing like 1-2m of snowfall in a day! You’ll discover the homes on this area all are inclined to have steep sloping roofs to cease snow accumulation on prime of homes.

This large snowfall isn’t simply used for snowboarding although. The Japanese developed one thing referred to as yukimuro 雪室 or snow storage, the place they acquire all this snow and pack it into an insulated warehouse to create a naturally-cooled fridge. The snow then melts away very slowly as the times go by – consider it or not it could actually final till the next winter! These snow cooled storage homes had been used to maintain meals cool and contemporary even within the scorching summers earlier than electrical energy and fridges had been a factor.

Uonuma Hakkaisan Yukimuro Exterior
Hakkaisan Yukimuro

Right here in Uonuma, you possibly can take a free tour of the yukimuro constructed by sake producer Hakkaisan, an infinite facility that may maintain as much as 1,000 tons of snow. Whereas straw was the primary type of insulation again within the day, the Hakkaisan Yukimuro is rather more high-tech at this time, utilising equipment and metallic to maintain the snow from melting too shortly.

Uonuma Hakkaisan Yukimuro Tour Old Photos
Some previous photographs of early yukimuro insulated with straw discovered at first of the Hakkaisan Yukimuro tour

I visited in October and located it exhausting to consider that the chilly 5.5°C temperature within the yukimuro was purely due to the pile of snow sitting in a single nook of the warehouse and never from air-con! The snow pile I noticed was already fairly small because it’d been there since final winter – sometimes they pack the snow proper to the roof in winter, and over time it progressively melts away till they repack it within the subsequent snow season.

Uonuma Hakkaisan Yukimuro Snow Pile Wide
The small snow pile holding the temperature at 5ºC. It was truly about 4.4ºC once we first walked in! You possibly can see the packing containers of snow-aged meals on the backside, and the sake tanks are on the left facet.

In the event you’re questioning why Hakkaisan has a yukimuro within the first place, it’s as a result of individuals have discovered that storing rice, sake and different meals for lengthy intervals and ‘snow-aging’ them in these perpetually ice-cold yukimuro someway makes it style higher. You should purchase these particular snow-aged meals and liquor within the present store.

The top of the tour brings you to the sake tasting part the place you possibly can style all of Hakkaisan’s sake, shochu and different liquors totally free. The hidden gem on the bar is the sake that’s been saved within the yukimuro for 3 years and eight years respectively. Compared to the usual sake, the 3-year snow cooled sake was distinctly tastier, and the 8-year sake had a very rounded style proper from the primary sip!

Uonuma Hakkaisan Yukimuro Sake Tasting 3-8 yr Snow Aged
Whereas all the opposite sakes are free to style, it is advisable to pay to style the 3-year and 8-year snow cooled sakes. However it prices simply 400 yen and also you get a sampler cup of the 3-year (left) and a full sake glass of 8-year (proper).

Customer information

Hakkaisan Yukimuro is positioned in Minamiuonuma (South Uonuma) [Google Map]. It’s part of the bigger Uonuma no Sato facility and positioned 7 minutes drive away from the closest practice station – Itsukamachi Station on the JR Joetsu Line.

The Hakkaisan Yukimuro tour is half-hour lengthy and is held a number of occasions a day. The tour is free – take a queue quantity from the knowledge counter. The information speaks utterly in Japanese however there are indicators and photographs within the begin of the tour with English translations which principally encompasses what the information says so that you’re not lacking a lot even should you don’t perceive Japanese.

Uonuma Hakkaisan Yukimuro Sake Photowall Me
Hakkaisan Yukimuro’s photowall with their sake and shochu bottles on show

What’s close by

The Uonuma no Sato facility has a number of different retailers and eateries value stopping by earlier than or after your tour. If beer is extra your factor, drive over to the Sarukurayama Brewery which can be owned by Hakkaisan for some craft beer tasting. The burgers listed below are good and also you get a fantastic view of the countryside from right here because it’s the very best level within the brewery. [Google map location]

Uonuma Sarukurayama Brewery Exterior
Sarukurayama Brewery sits on prime of somewhat hill
Uonuma Sarukurayama Brewery Beer Flight
Tasting a flight of Sarukurayama’s craft beer – Rydeen beer
Uonuma Sarukurayama Brewery View
Having fun with a view of the mountains round us whereas sipipng beer

In the event you’re teetotalling or the designated driver, there’s a spot 10 minutes away from the brewery often known as the Rydeen-sama water supply, which is the water used to make the Rydeen craft beer that Hakkaisan brews. Deliver alongside a bottle – that spring water is pure mountain runoff and tremendous contemporary and chilly all year long! Locals may be noticed filling up giant containers with this water. [Google map location]

Uonuma Rydeen Water Source
There’s a spout and a few ladles on the left to fill your bottle, and a hose to the proper for filling bigger canisters!

Expertise how artwork remodeled an agricultural area

Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Discipline – varied districts

Japan has loads of nice museums and cultural treasures, however artwork lovers could also be shocked to seek out artworks and installations embedded within the rural countryside in Niigata across the Tokamachi area. That is the results of the Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Triennale (ETAT) that first started in 2000 and is now one in every of Japan’s largest arts festivals, with its most up-to-date version held in 2022 (postponed from 2021 due to COVID-19).

Matsunoyama House Memory Exterior Sign
Look out for the ETAT yellow wayfinder indicators alongside the roads and markers on the artwork websites

Whereas ETAT commissions new works each 3 years, what’s attention-grabbing is that lots of the older works have been maintained and made accessible for viewing or participation exterior the competition interval. Many of those works are additionally deeply embedded into the communities that they’re present in, so it’s a fantastic probability to understand the native tradition by the artwork on-site.

The area the place ETAT is held is also referred to as the Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Discipline, and covers 6 areas together with Tokamachi, Kawanishi, Nakasato, Matsudai, Matsunoyama, and Tsunan. It’s just about not possible to take a look at each single piece of art work over only a few days – I based mostly myself in Tokamachi and spent 2 days driving round which is simply scratching the floor of what the area has to supply.

Matsunoyama Last Class Hall
The Final Class by Christian Boltanski and Jean Kalman is about in an previous disused college constructing in Matsunoyama’s Higashikawa Village

In addition to taking a look at artworks, what I discovered particular about ETAT is that it goes past the everyday galleries and sculptures and in addition contains lodging and consuming experiences. I stayed in a single day on the Home of Mild, a James Turrell art work modelled after a conventional home with a very cool lighting programme. Most of the eateries additionally work with the native communities to offer regional specialties for lunch, dinner and snacks as you discover – I had unbelievable Tsumari Pork at Ikote in Tokamachi Metropolis.

Tokamachi Ikote Exterior Night
Igloo-shaped Ikote was designed to resist the excessive snowfall of Niigata and is each a restaurant and an business and craft centre

ETAT artworks to take a look at

The Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Discipline web site has all of the infomation you want concerning the artwork and artists, however the sheer quantity of works to see could be a bit intimidating to determine. Listed here are a few of my really useful artworks and hubs that I believe informal guests can match into their itinerary exploring the area.

Tokamachi Metropolis

The Museum on Echigo-Tsumari (MonET) (entry payment/passport required) is the primary coronary heart of ETAT and a very good place to see a bunch of works and choose up info and maps to plan your route, and maybe essentially the most complete merchandise retailer of all of the places. Seize a meal on the lovely igloo-shaped Ikote close by. You also needs to try the fantastical Hachi and Seizo Toshima Museum of Image E-book Artwork (entry payment/passport required) in an previous disused college.

Tokamachi MonET Palimpsest Viewpoint
On the 2nd flooring of MonET taking a look at Palimpsest by Leandro Erlich – that ‘reflection’ within the water is definitely the tile design and never an precise reflection of the present sky within the water


Matsudai is about 30-40 minutes’ drive west of Tokamachi Metropolis and for artwork lovers, it’s a pleasant space to take pleasure in a cluster of attention-grabbing works. The Matsudai NOHBUTAI Discipline Museum (entry payment/passport required) close to the practice station has a very good assortment of works, and from right here you possibly can head to Matsudai Fort (entry payment/passport required) on prime of a lofty hill, the atmospheric and haunting The Final Class (entry payment/passport required) and Home Reminiscence (entry payment/passport required) which seems like a human-sized spider took over it.

Matsudai Castle First Floor
Not what you’d anticipate to see while you open the doorways of a conventional fortress

Kiyotsu Gorge

Kiyotsu Gorge (entry payment/low cost with passport) has lengthy been well-known as one of many prime 3 gorges in all of Japan, however in 2018, the tunnel stroll was remodeled into the Tunnel of Mild with artworks and photograph worthy spots towards a tremendous gorge view. Don’t miss the free footbath and ‘Periscope’ on the present store close to the doorway and the Soko Museum of Artwork en path to the gorge.

Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel of Light Water Mirror Me
Lovely view of Kiyotsu Gorge enhanced by this art work by Ma Yansong and MAD Architects

Customer Information

The outside installations of the Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Triennale are free to view, however among the works require an entry payment. Relying on while you go and the way a lot you need to see, it could make extra sense to purchase an Admission Passport that grants you entry to all of the works for one value.

This passport is often legitimate for a number of months, however it could be worthwhile to purchase even in case you are solely going to be utilizing it for only a few days. I purchased the 2023 passport which was legitimate from April to November for two,500 yen and whereas I didn’t cowl every thing, it will have value me 5,400 yen to pay for entrance charges to what we visited if we didn’t have the move.

ETAT Admission Passport 2023
Admission move for 2023 season. There are pages which are stamped upon entry on the website. It prices half value should you want to revisit the identical website.

The very best time to take a look at Echigo-Tsumari Artwork Triennale works is on the weekend (Saturday and Sunday) when a lot of the works are open, however it could even be much more crowded. Keep away from Tuesdays and Wednesdays as a result of most issues are closed then. I visited over Thursday and Friday – it was usually not crowded, however solely half the works had been open then. Some works are closed within the winter season.

I additionally checked out the Setouchi Artwork Triennale which spans the islands within the Setouchi inland sea space, one other actually cool artwork competition that’s additionally value trying out!

Uncover the evolution of gold mining in Japan

Sado Kinzan Gold Mines – Sado Island

Sado Island off Niigata’s coast is Japan’s largest island within the Japan Sea. One of many extra uncommon issues that Sado Island is thought for is its lengthy historical past of gold and silver mining, from way back to 400 years in the past in the course of the Edo period within the 1600s, by the Meiji interval and at last stopping in 1989 at first of the Heisei interval.

Sado’s mines are concentrated largely in Aikawa on the west coast of this butterfly-shaped island, and the mines have been preserved and registered as nationwide cultural treasures and historic properties. There are preparations underway to register the mines as a UNESCO Heritage website as properly, so it could be value visiting now earlier than it turns into too fashionable in future.

Sado Kinzan Mines Entrance
Sado Kinzan entrance – Doyu mine is to the left, Sodayu mine to the proper

Over 400 km of tunnels had been dug on this mine’s historical past, although solely a fraction of those tunnels may be visited at this time. Most guests can go to the Sodayu and Doyu Mines on their very own. Sodayu Mine reveals the early Edo period mining situations by mechanical dioramas and soundscapes within the tunnels. They did a reasonably good job of utilizing the house, and it kinda jogs my memory of a barely much less bizarre Haw Par Villa.

Sado Kinzan Sodayu Mine Diorama Lumber Worker
Sodayu mine has life measurement dioramas and mechanical figures that transfer

You may get separate tickets for every mine, however I like to recommend getting a mixed ticket so you possibly can see each mines and distinction how totally different early and fashionable mining situations are.

Doyu Mine is the extra fashionable one from the Meiji period and solely closed as just lately as 1989.At first look it appears a bit duller, however the true motion right here is that half of this tour takes place outside. The spotlight level is the Doyu no Warato, the place they blasted a gap within the peak of the mountain making it appear like somebody tried to cleave the mountain open. This allowed them to attach two mining tunnels, and you’ll truly take a stroll to the positioning of the opening on the mountain facet at this time.

Sado Kinzan Doyu no Warato Sign
The cleave within the mountain – Doyu no Warato

Customer Information

You’ll have to take a ferry to get to Sado Island. Many of the ferries go from Niigata Metropolis to Ryotsu Port on the east coast of Sado Island – jetfoils that take about an hour in addition to bigger automobile ferries that take roughly 2.5 hours. You may as well take a automobile ferry from Naoetsu to Ogi Port within the south of Sado Island. Extra information on costs, schedules and ticket reservations may be made on the Sado Kisen web site.

Sado Island is fairly rural, and whereas there are bus providers to get across the island, they don’t come that usually so renting a automobile is a way more environment friendly solution to get round. Sado Kinzan in Aikawa is about 45 minutes’ drive west of Ryotsu Port. I rented a automobile from Toyota Hire a Automobile which has a sales space proper on the Ryotsu port.

Sado Kinzan Museum Exhibits
Museum reveals and artifacts inform the story of mining in Japan

The mixed ticket for Sodayu Mine and Doyu Mine value 1,500 yen although you should buy tickets for every mine individually as properly. Deliver a jacket as it’s a number of levels colder within the mines than exterior. The mines could be a bit claustrophobic, anticipate to do a good quantity of strolling. Every mine takes about 30-40 minutes to finish in complete. Extra information may be discovered on the Sado Kinzan web site.

Adventurous guests can think about reserving the personal Yamashi Tour for a extra intense caving expertise that requires a torch and a tough hat – prior bookings are required.

What’s close by

Very near Sado Kinzan is the Kitazawa Flotation Plant, an deserted group of buildings which had been used to course of the ore extracted from the mines. For the reason that mines shut down they’ve been left as is, and nature has taken over turning it into fairly cool green-covered buildings.

Whilst you can’t discover the deserted buildings, the true hidden gem is to come back again at night time because the buildings are lit up with rainbow lights. Together with some accompanying atmospheric music, the sight is each fairly enchanting and unearthly.

Sado Kitazawa Flotation Plant Remains Day
Kitazawa flotation plant stays are very inexperienced within the daylight
Sado Kitazawa Flotation Plant Remains Night
Unearthly feels by night time

If you wish to strive your hand at discovering any remnant gold left on the island, you possibly can head to Nishimikawa Gold Park the place as a substitute of mining, you are able to do one other old skool sourcing approach which is to pan for gold. This facility is positioned on the positioning of the Nishimikawa Gold Mine which apparently is even older with a thousand years of historical past. For 1,000 yen, you possibly can pan the sand-filled troughs right here and see what number of gold flakes you possibly can come away with. I didn’t do that myself, however panning seems like fairly exhausting work.

Sado Nishimikawa Gold Park Panning
Panning for gold is an arduous means of shaking sand and water till the gold flakes may be noticed
Sado Nishimikawa Gold Park Flakes
I’m fairly positive everybody who comes right here will come away with some gold flakes

Sip and soak in Niigata’s well-known sake

Ponshukan – Echigo Yuzawa

With rice as one in every of Niigata’s defining agricultural merchandise, it’s no marvel that this area has some glorious sake breweries to style and buy native brews. Whereas it’s a enjoyable solution to discover the area, you may suppose it will be simpler to simply style all of the sake in a single spot.

Niigata’s Yuzawa area is without doubt one of the most accessible locations to ski in Japan as it’s linked instantly by Shinkansen from Tokyo. The Echigo Yuzawa station is residence to Ponshukan, a spot the place over 100 various kinds of sake from Niigata breweries can be found for sampling. Once I visited, there have been 132 dispensers, principally of sakes and a handful of wines as properly.

Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan Entrance
Coming into Ponshukan – it’s sake time!

500 yen buys you 5 tokens, which helps you to strive as much as 5 totally different sakes within the store (some sakes value greater than 1 token). I’m a kind of individuals who can’t deal with having too many choices, so it’s nice that the store shows suggestions by the store workers, in addition to what sakes recorded the very best gross sales within the earlier month to assist make up your thoughts. It even has some little quizzes that suggest you a sake based mostly in your temper or style.

Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan Sake Cup Tokens
Armed with cup and tokens all prepared for sake tasting

Of the three Ponshukans in Niigata, one hidden gem that makes the Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan particular is that you just don’t simply get to drink sake there, however you even get to wash in it. There’s a small sake tub positioned behind the sake tasting space with a small tub that has sake infused water. Sake is meant to make your pores and skin supple and in addition improves blood circulation!

Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan Sake Bath
Sake scorching spring at Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan

The scent of sake is kind of apparent while you first enter the tub, although I wanted the tub was somewhat larger or a couple of pool was accessible because it may not be so nice if it was crowded. It was a pleasant solution to wind down after sake tasting, and with its location proper within the practice station and particular lockers large enough for baggage, it’s not a foul possibility you probably have an extended wait to your subsequent practice! Right here’s my information on find out how to onsen in Japan.

I couldn’t take photograph inside the tub clearly for privateness causes, however you possibly can see some photographs on the Ponshukan web site.

After the tub, bask in some koji ice cream or a koji latte to chill off – koji is fermented malted rice that’s used to make sake. The stall is correct subsequent to the doorway of the sake tub.

Echigo Yuzawa Ponshukan Sake Bath Entrance
Like most Japanese onsens, the sake tub is break up in accordance with gender

Customer information

Echigo Yuzawa Prepare Station is about 1hr 15mins away from Tokyo station by Shinkansen.

Ponshukan is positioned at three totally different practice stations – Echigo Yuzawa, Niigata and Nagaoka, however the sake tub can solely be discovered on the Echigo Yuzawa outlet. The sake tub prices 800 yen, and also you’ll want 2 x 100 yen cash to make use of the lockers within the tub space (refundable).

Tokens for sake tasting in Ponshukan are purchased in batches of 5 for 500 yen, and you’re given a small sake cup to do your tasting – return it when you’re completed.

Keep in mind that should you plan to drink, Japan has a zero tolerance rule with regards to drink driving, so be sure to’re taking public transport or there’s a delegated driver.

Have you ever been to Japan’ Niigata area? What different hidden gems have you ever discovered right here? Share them with me within the feedback so I’ve much more causes to return in future.

Within the meantime, try all my Japan posts right here:

This text is sponsored by Earnings Insurance coverage. Whether or not it’s uncovering hidden traditions in distant areas or exploring hidden corners of an island, be sure to’re coated by journey insurance coverage earlier than your journey so you possibly can have enjoyable exploring adventurous hidden gems and journey with confidence. Get pleasure from as much as $15,000 protection for abroad transport and lodging expense, together with for brand spanking new COVID-19 variants^ with Earnings’s Journey Insurance coverage.

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