From trying the amazing seafood and sake to spending time with Geigi, these are the things you must try on a visit to Niigata...
The capital of the Niigata Prefecture has long had an affinity with water. Two grand rivers — the Shinano and the Agano – course their way through Niigata City on their way to the sea, which has long shaped its history and influenced its incredible cuisine. If you make for this vibrant city hub, these are just some of the cultural and gastronomic experiences you can enjoy…
During the Edo era, maritime shipping routes linked Niigata with Kyoto in the south and this enabled the two cities to exchange ingredients, culinary techniques and culture.
Niigata’s gastronomic style was heavily influenced, resulting in dishes like noppeijiru soup which sees colourful vegetables and seafood finely diced in the traditional Kyoto style but served in soup form to keep people warm through Niigata’s winters. It’s a daily staple in many local restaurants, and well worth ordering to give it a try.
Thanks to this link, a rich new population travelling from the south needed rich new means of entertainment, and so Geigi - Niigata’s equivalent to Kyoto’s Geisha – thrived, as too did the restaurants and teahouses that the Geigi frequented. You can still experience the special cultural spectacle to this day and At Saito Villa – a traditional Japanese house – you can spend time in the company of the Geigi, with their white-powdered faces and vibrant kimonos, and enjoy traditional songs, dances and games.
As a port city that faces the Sea of Japan, fresh fish is in abundance so naturally Niigata has become renowned for its seafood. At the city’s Pia Bandai Market – one of the largest fish markets on the east coast – you will see hundreds of varieties of seafood laid out each morning, from giant red snow crabs to oysters. Here, you can grab ready-to-eat sashimi or take your fresh-bought seafood to the charcoal grills in the middle of the market to cook up a sizzling and satisfying lunch.
Rice fields stretch far into the horizon in the countryside around Niigata, and with this bounty comes high-quality sake too. Heavy winter snowfall purifies the air and creates an abundance of pure fresh water when it melts, which is used to ferment the local rice. This results in a premium rice wine that is considered one of the best in the country.
There are approximately 90 breweries in Niigata (the most in any prefecture in Japan) and many of these can be visited for a tour and tasting. For example, Imayotsukasa is a well-known brewery found close to Niigata Station. Founded in 1767, visitors today can enjoy free tours in English in which they explain the sake-making process, the local area’s history and offer tasting sessions with more than 10 varieties of premium sake.
If you're considering when to travel to Niigata, try and time your visit for 'Sake no Jin'; the city’s annual sake festival. With a dedicated ‘sake seminar’ before its start, 20 sampling tickets included in the price of admission and the chance to chat directly with representatives from each of the sake breweries, the festival makes for an ideal opportunity to sip your way to becoming a true sake connoisseur.
Wealthy landowners played a major role in the development of Niigata’s rice culture. Make for the village of Soumi and you can find the former estate of the Ito landowning clan who prospered in the Edo period thanks to their agricultural endeavours. This huge 65-room estate has since become the Northern Culture Museum and offers a fascinating insight to the region’s past as you explore its beautiful buildings and gardens.
Top travel tip: Mid-spring proves a particularly beautiful time to visit. At this time of year, the estate’s gardens are lush and many of its flowers are in bloom. Check out the museum’s wisteria arbour and you can snap a romantic shot under cascades of gentle purple flowers.
Top travel tip: Stop for lunch at the Misogura restaurant and you can enjoy a ‘Hagama Experience’. A Hagama is a traditional Japanese cooking pot for rice, and staff will help you to set up a stove and cook up some fluffy Niigata grown Koshihikari rice, enjoyed straight from the pot.
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