All You Need to Know About Niigata

The more you learn about Japan, the more you get to notice patterns in the way the country is structured, as well as details on their cultural norms. For one, a Prefecture usually has a city that has the same name as itself. Niigata is one of them. Found in the Chubu region on Honshu island, it has a total area of 12,582 square kilometers and ranks as the 5th biggest Prefecture in Japan. It has 9 districts, 30 municipalities, and as of October 1, 2016, a population of 2,285,856 people. The flower used to represent it is the tulip, while its symbolic tree is the Camellia, and its symbolic bird is the Crested Ibis.

As for the capital of Niigata, Niigata city (Niigata-shi) is the first government-designated city on the northwest coast, facing the Sea of Japan. With a total land area of 726.45 square kilometers, Niigata has an estimated population of over 810,000 with a Gross Domestic Product of US$43.3 billion in 2010. The city government was established in 1899.  However, after becoming a free port after the Meiji Restoration, Niigata merged with nearby municipalities, bumping up the population to over 800,000 and allowed it to have the greatest rice paddy acreage in Japan.

A Brief History of Niigata

The Prefecture of Niigata has many ties to history, with it being a combination of a major old province “Echigo”, and another province, “Sado”. The clan that runs this area around the Sengoku era was the Nagao clan, most prominently Uesugi Kenshin (initially known as Nagao Kagetora) who took singular charge of Echigo Province by uniting its leaders. He later established his own clan; the Uesugi clan, taking over the rest of Echigo for long periods of time.

Because Niigata Prefecture is near the sea, it is known for its ports. Its capital, which is Niigata city, was a renowned port town. Following Matthew Perry’s infamous visits to the Japanese Islands, Niigata City was the among first cities to step forward to deal with foreign trade in 1858. It is near both Korea and China and thus helps Japan conduct most of its trade via that route. 

During the second world war, Niigata city became a useful place to deploy troops because of its strategic location and bay area. It became a candidate to receive the atomic bomb but ended up not receiving the bomb because of bad weather, and its proximity to U.S. Aircraft bases removed it from its candidacy.

Details of the Earthquake in Niigata in 1964

Niigata has seen many earthquakes over the past years, but one of the largest ones that hit the Niigata city was one that occurred on June 16, 1964. At precisely 1:01 P.M., JST (Japan Standard Time), Niigata City experienced an earthquake that scored on a 7.5-7.6 on the Richter scale. The northwest coast of Niigata Prefecture was where the epicenter of the earthquake originated, which was 50 kilometers from the city of Niigata. The earthquake caused a tsunami, and Niigata City took the first wave only 15 minutes after the earthquake happened, but did not cause as much damage as the earthquake itself.

Though the earthquake was incredibly strong, most of the buildings that took damage from it only did so because of liquefaction. The role that liquefaction had to play in this earthquake was quite large, as it was the reason fire would break out all over the city and why 1,407 people were displaced. 

As for statistics, the specific number is 15,298 buildings rendered completely useless because of soil erosion. Other than that, 6,640 buildings that were destroyed partially, and 1,960 buildings that were completely devastated. One of the cultural landmarks that fell to this earthquake was the Showa bridge. 36 people lost their lives during this earthquake, while 385 people were injured.

What is the Weather Like in Niigata?

Niigata’s climate is characterized by hot and humid summers and mild winters. April and May during Spring bring average high temperatures between 10-15 degrees Celsius, while average lows range from 0-8 degrees Celsius.  

Although other parts of Niigata Prefecture received more annual snow than Moscow, Oslo or Montreal, Niigata City itself experiences less because of its low-lying elevation and the shielding effect of Sado Island. However, there is more than sufficient rainfall. July can bring strong rains, while the winter months of November and December also have much precipitation.  During summer, the south winds can make temperatures rise to more than 30C, falling to 0.2C in January.

A Guide to Touring Niigata City

Niigata is 2 hours from Tokyo via the Joetsu Shinkansen, a high-speed, 240 km/hr. the railway line connecting Tokyo and Niigata. Niigata City’s interesting places to visit include the traditional Hon-cho Market, the Hakusan Koen Park and the adjacent Marinepia Nihon-kai aquarium, the Shibata Castle and Gardens, the night-illuminated 6-arch Bandai Bridge built in 1929, the tulip festivals in spring, and the Niigata Festival in August with its large fireworks display, to name a few.

Places to Visit Around The Map of Niigata City

The Bandai Bridge is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Niigata. With 6 graceful arches stretching across the Shinano River, it makes for a remarkable sight. 

The Hon-cho Street Market has existed in central Niigata for 150 years and is a farmer’s market in the real sense of the word—nothing trendy or self-consciously healthy, just fresh fruits and vegetables from the agricultural areas surrounding Niigata City. 

Hakusan-Koen is Japan’s first Citizen's Park.  It was built in 1873 and remains to this day one of the most beautiful places to stroll among lovely, manicured gardens.  There is a pond teeming with koi, an ancient- looking bridge, and a shrine. 

Marinepia Nihon-kai aquarium is one of the most prominent aquariums along the coast of the Sea of Japan. This aquarium shows aquatic life forms from around the world with an emphasis on the environments of Niigata and the Sea of Japan.  The aquarium offers a range of interactive exhibits where visitors can touch and study the animals displayed.  Dolphin shows, penguin promenades, and sea lion feeding demonstrations are scheduled daily. Known for its pristine landscape, 

Shibata Castle is in the Niigata prefecture on the western coast of Japan’s main island.  Located on the second most extensive land area devoted to National Parks, Ijimino Park and Ominesan Sakura Park are not to be missed.    

Best Food/Drinks to Try in Niigata

Koshihikari Rice – Niigata is known to be one of the best growers of Japan’s most popular rice variety, Koshihikari.  When the winter snows melt, the nutrient-rich water that runs down the mountains combines with the large change in temperature between sowing and harvest to contribute to the variety’s excellent taste and popularity.

Sake – Niigata is somewhat the sake capital of Japan, and the area is very conducive to brewing it. Cool water flows underground when the winter snows melt, enhancing the flavor of the rice and providing high-quality drinking water for making sake. During the winter months, the slow, low-temperature fermentation produces the crisp, dry flavor and texture that Niigata’s sake is known for.

Fish – Niigata is famous for its tasty fish.  During springtime, the nutrient-rich melting snow that runs down the rivers encourages the growth of high-quality plankton in the two great rivers--the Shinano and the Agano.  When these nutrients flow into the sea, they are consumed by small and white-fleshed fish, which are highly prized for their desired taste.

Niigata Sushi Zanmai Kiwami – Especially well-known Niigata delicacies are the fatty kanburi (winter yellowtail) and the incomparable nanban ebi (sweet shrimp), so look out for those in seafood restaurants. Best of the season standouts like the blackthroat seaperch, yanagi-garei and flounder are regularly served by sushi shops. The selections of local seasonal offerings made by the Chef together with uni (sea urchin roe), toro (medium fat tuna) and ikura (salmon roe) are also served.

Love Sake? Enjoy Yourself At A Vending Machine Sake Store in Niigata

Japan is known for its quirky automated technology that instantly gratifies your needs – whether it’s a drink, food, toy, cigarettes or alcohol, Japan’s vending machines have you covered. If you’re in a large, bustling city like Niigata, you can be sure to spot more vending machines than any other city in the world. However, Niigata-shi is known for its love affair with sake.

Out of all of Japan, Niigata has the highest rates of sake consumption. There are reportedly more breweries for sake in this Prefecture more than any other, so it’s no surprise that Niigata holds the most variation of this product, as well as creative ways to sell it. One great place that holds 93 different kinds of sake is Ponshukan, written as “ポン酒舘”. It has rows upon rows of “vending machines” of sake that you can try.

How does it work? First, you exchange 500 yen for 5 tokens. Then, you pick the sake you want to try out of their huge collection. You will be given a cup to catch the sake that spills out when you insert the token This can be a daunting task, so you may want to do your research about sake first before picking a brand. Then again, you could just have 2000-yen ready, and enjoy a full-fledged sake tasting spree of 20 different kinds of sake, if your stomach can handle it. 

Just like wine, scotch, and coffee, each sake has its unique brand of taste that can widely differ from other sake, so tasting the different variations of this special Japanese spirit is truly a learning experience. Also, don’t worry if you get hungry, because Ponshukan also serves food, such as onigiri and traditional side dishes to help curb your appetite.

Great Hotels To Visit  Niigata

This 2017, the two top hotels in Niigata are the Hotel Mets Niigata and the ANA Crowne Plaza Niigata. The ANA Crowne Plaza Niigata is a little cheaper than its competitor, costing around 7,300 yen a night. It’s got free Wi-Fi and parking and has been awarded 4 stars out of 5 on TripAdvisor, out of 240 reviews. Reviewers found it comfortable, with rooms of reasonable size, as well as having a beautiful view of the port.

As for Hotel Mets Niigata, it’ll set you back 11,135 yen a night, but it has a higher star rating of 4.5 Its sake bar has impressed its guests, so it’s great for sake lovers who want to relax with a cup of sake in the evening. Its convenience of being very near the Niigata train station, coupled with the nearby amenities (restaurants and stores) gives it great value for its price. The hotel itself is new and clean, and the service is helpful and accommodating. 

Niigata Steel: Behind the Prefecture’s Knife Making Industry

It is no secret that Japan makes some of the most extraordinary knives. Niigata is home to many of them, with its most popular (and expensive) brand being Kamikoto. With some of their products and sets ranging from $200 to $1,295, these blades are made of nothing prime steel whose melding recipe has been perfected over the past 800 years. Known for their knives being sturdy but light, Kamikoto is highly-acclaimed in the knife industry, competing against premium German brands. 

The Key to Choosing the Best Japanese Knives

You may rely on reviews to get lucky with good knives, but there are steps (that do require quite an amount of effort) you can take to getting the best bang out of your buck with your knife set. First, find out which knives you need most. As examples, a Gyuto is an all-around kitchen knife and can measure 5 to 15 inches, but it's far cousin, the Santoku, has a wider blade but shorter length range (6.5 to 9.5 inches) and is just as versatile as the Gyuto, if not more. 

Once you’ve researched and had your pick, visit the quality knife stores in person. See how they fit with your grip, how much steel was used to make the knife, its weight, and its balance. If it feels right with your movements and in your hand, (and it agrees with your budget), then you have the right knife in your hand.

With great sights, sake, food, and souvenirs (like steel knives) to offer, what’s there not to love about Niigata? This great Prefecture (and city) has undergone many trials and has risen to be only an even greater community.