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What to do in Niigata, Japan's largest port city on the sea
Located on the Shinano waterway, the longest river in Japan, Niigata, capital of the prefecture of the same name, is one of the most populous cities in the northern region of Japan. About two hours north of Tokyo by Shinkansen, it is a pleasant and vibrant city with access to many sites such as hot springs, ski resorts, beaches, and the island of Sado, the jewel of the prefecture.
Niigata has long been the first port on the sea of Japan. It is a port city with wide streets and many parks and gardens that make it a pleasant city to live in. The locals like to stroll along the green banks of the Shinano and Agano rivers or to walk on the footbridges of the Bandai Bridge.
The Shinano River divides the city into two parts: the modern section in the south and the older parts in the north. These two areas are linked by the Bandai Bridge, a 300-meter long structure dating from 1886 but rebuilt in 1929. Designated an Important Cultural Property of Japan since 2004, its six elegant arches have become the symbol of the city.
The historical district of Niigata
In the 17th century, the city was located on the island between the Shinano and Agano rivers. Niigata has preserved some gems in this historic center, the Furumachi district. Constructed in 1918, the summer villa of the Saito family, in particular, one of the three most prosperous merchant families in the Meiji period, is a magnificent wooden mansion surrounded by gardens, where one can attend performances of Furumachi Geigei, performed by Niigata geisha.
Hakusan Shrine, founded 400 years ago, is located in the heart of a large park, Hakusan Park. Opened in 1873, it is one of the first public green spaces in the archipelago. The place is particularly pleasant during the cherry blossom season.
Further on, the Museum of Northern Cultures is the former property of the Itô clan, the largest landowners in the region. The estate, built in 1882, has 65 rooms, one of which has 100 tatami mats overlooking a beautiful garden that has been used as a location for Japanese films. In the restaurant on-site, you can enjoy local rice cooked in a traditional Hagama (cooking pot), which is placed in the middle of the table. Here you can walk through a traditional Japanese mansion with tea ceremony rooms surrounded by elegant gardens. In late spring, the surroundings are adorned with purple wisteria flowers.
The old buildings of the Niigata Customs House (dating from 1869), the Daishi Bank, and the City Hall house the city's history museum, Minatopia.
With newer buildings lining the waterfront, for example, the Marinepia Nihonkai Aquarium, with 20,000 marine animals and over 500 species, is one of the largest aquariums in Japan. A large transparent tunnel allows you to walk "surrounded" by marine creatures. Penguins, sea lions, and dolphins also put on a show.
To the south of the aquarium, the Japan Sea Tower and its revolving restaurant offer beautiful views of the city.
The modern part of Niigata
This is the lively part of the city with its shops, restaurants and entertainment venues. In the Bandai Bridge area is the Rainbow Tower, which has a 100-meter-high observation point overlooking the city with a revolving restaurant on the same floor.
Also in the modern section of the city, the 125-meter high Bandaijima Building is the tallest building on the Japan Sea coast. Its observatory, Befco, on the 31st floor, offers a 360-degree view and on a clear day, you can see the Sea of Japan, Sado Island, and the Gozu Mountains. The good news is that admission is free.
About 2km south of Niigata station, the city is surrounded by a lake, Toyanogata, around which parks and walking paths have been laid out. Bicycle rentals are also available.
Niigata's specialty: Japan's rice granary and a major producer of sake
The Niigata region is renowned for the quality of its koshihikari (short grain) rice, one of the finest and most expensive in the archipelago but also the most flavorful. It is also a major producer of rice cakes (Senbei) whose recipes are revealed at the Niigata Senbei Okoku. Visitors are welcomed to put their hands to the dough, to cook and decorate their own patties.
And where there is rice, there is sake! Located at the foot of the mountains and on the edge of the ocean, Niigata is renowned not only for its rice but also for the quality of its water. Rice and water are the two essential ingredients for making great sake. There are fifteen sake breweries in and around the city, some of which were founded in the Edo period (1603-1868). You can visit the Imaotsukasa brewery, for example, or enjoy a sake tasting at the train station, hosted by the sake dispensers at Ponshukan, a sake theme park.
- Read also: Sake in Japan
Niigata's major events
Sake lovers can enjoy the Niigata Sake Fair, which takes place every year in March. More than 200 high-quality, locally produced sakes can be tasted for a small fee.
In early August, the Niigata Festival is held, with a mikoshi (portable shrine) parade, folk dance performances, and spectacular fireworks over the Shinano River.
- Read also: Matsuri, Japan's festivals
In mid-September, several thousand dancers from around the region and the country converge on Niigata for the Sô Odori Dance Festival. The event, which was suspended in 1868 and revived in 2001, brought strength and courage to the people who lived in this rugged, snowy land. For three days and nights, traditional and modern dances are performed in various places around the city.
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