Honshu's snow country
The rice is right in Niigata prefecture where there's skiing in winter, festivals in summer and sake all year round.
Benefiting from the heaviest snowfall on Japan’s main island of Honshu, Niigata is known for its top-notch winter resorts featuring long gondolas and historic hot springs, like Tsubame Onsen. But the snow also blesses the prefecture with another famous attraction — rice. When spring comes, the snow melts bringing nutrient-rich water from the mountains down to the paddy fields and creating the perfect conditions for some of the fluffiest grains you’ll ever taste. Of course, where there’s rice, there’s also sake (rice wine) and happily, the prefecture has plenty of opportunities to sample the national drink; you can drink it, eat it and even bathe in it.
Niigata city is the bustling prefectural capital, spit in two by Japan’s longest river, the Shinanogawa, and bordered by the Sea of Japan. Stock up on fresh seafood and premium rice — you can taste the difference — and enjoy the enormous range of locally brewed sake (there are 100 breweries in the city).
In March, the city hosts the annual Sake-no-jin, a kind of Oktoberfest but with sake instead of beer.
Visitors can sample more than 500 types at the fair and enjoy performances, seminars and other sake-related entertainment.
Just across the water from Niigata city is Sado island, reachable with a one-hour jetfoil or two-hour ferry. A former place of exile for political dissidents, nowadays its mountains, beaches and delicious persimmons attract crowds of urban escapees. In August, you can catch the Earth Celebration, a music and arts festival hosted by the famous Kodo Drummers.
Another big festival is Fuji Rock, a three-day international music extravaganza that draws more than 100,000 people to the scenic ski resort of Naeba in late July. It’s a huge event, with several stages featuring foreign and Japanese acts, as well as fantastic food, workshops, a fairground and surprisingly clean toilets. In the winter, Naeba’s slopes are the starting point for the world’s longest gondola which links four ski resorts across the mountains and some of the season’s highest quality powder.
From Tokyo, it’s a fast and cheap bullet train to the enormous JR Echigo-Yuzawa station which has its own onsen and sake tasting bar. On March 29, 2016, the new Genbi bullet train launched – basically a contemporary art gallery on very fast wheels, allowing passengers to revel in the masterful scenery both inside and outside the train. Mind blown.