I hope you found my previous autumn self-drive itinerary guide to Niigata Prefecture useful.
Today, I am happy to share with you yet another itinerary to a different part of Niigata Prefecture to enjoy its winter snow charm!
As most of you already know, Niigata is lovingly nicknamed “snow country” in Japan, highlighting just how it is the perfect winter travel destination especially for us tropical creatures who are fantasizing a magical white wonderland…
Yuzawa & Uonuma area in Niigata sees particularly heavy snow fall, so let’s explore all sort of different winter activities, both thrilling and relaxing in the region.
I have planned a 3N2N itinerary for you to enjoy the Yuzawa & Uonuma area based on my experience, so let’s go!
DAY 1: YUZAWA AREA
First of all, let me emphasize just how incredible convenient it is to get to Yuzawa from Tokyo. Simply hop on a Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, and in barely around 70-mins, or 4 stations later, you will arrive at Echigo-Yuzawa Station where a plethora of snow resorts awaits you.
Today however, we are heading to Gala-Yuzawa Station, which is one stop after Echigo-Yuzawa Station. Please note that only the “Tanigawa” train stops at Gala-Yuzawa Station, so be careful when you purchase the tickets.
The incredible thing about Gala-Yuzawa Station is that, it is BOTH a snow resort AND a shinkansen station. In fact, it is the only shinkansen station in the world that is directly connecting to a ski resort. That means that you can basically get off the station, ski to your heart’s content and then hop back into the shinkansen and head home. No ski resort is ever this convenient!
Check this out! You can head straight to the resort reception the moment you get off the JR train gates.
You can rent your ski wear, equipment and purchase your ropeway tickets all at the counter adjacent to the train station. There’s of course restaurants, food courts and even a hot spring facility to sooth your aching body after a hard ski or snowboard session.
After changing into my snow wear, I headed straight for the ropeway.
For those who are not skiing or snowboarding, know that there are still activities aplenty to spoil you and your family.
For example, you can get on the Snow Pleasure Sleigh Tour towed by a snow mobile to explore the stunning snowscape.
Gala-Yuzawa Snow Resort makes the perfect destination for day-trippers from Tokyo, since you can basically ski-in-ski-out right from the train station. However in this article I want to share with you why you are going to miss out lots of other fun and exciting experiences for not extending your stay in the area…
Trust me, 3 day is barely enough to explore just Yuzawa & Uonuma! Below are some of the attractions in the region that I have explored.
Are you a fan of Japan’s traditional beverage, amazake? Amazake literally means “sweet sake”, but contains no alcohol and is actually made of fermented rice. Those who love amazake, why not take a factory tour to see for yourself how this popular drink is made?
Uonuma Jozo is located in Uonuma City, most famous for its bountiful rice harvest in Japan. The reason Uonuma Jozo picked this place to build a factory to produce its rice koji products is due to the plentiful of soft and clean water resource from melted snow around the mountains it is surrounded with.
Walking up to the upper floor, you will be greeted by a stylish space that is the Uonuma Koji Salon, where you can relax with your favorite sweet treats from the cafe while admiring the snowy scenery of Uonuma in winter time.
I’d recommend the amazake soft serve, original raw koji amazake straight from the factory, as well as a supremely rich and creamy limited edition Jiyugaoka amazake roll cake that is absolutely delish!
I also went on an eye-opening factory tour to see with my own eyes how Uonuma Jozo produces its prized amazake, mimicking the most traditional way as closely as possible. You will be surprised how little ingredients is used in producing such a delicious drink, just like how the obaachan makes her amazake in rural villages since decades ago.
If you are up for some extra fun, try koji amazake soap bar making, blending your favorite essential oils and favorite dry herbs with added amazake for skin beauty effects.
NASPA Night Snow Buggy Tour
For those who can’t get enough of Niigata’s fluffy snow and are looking for some fun adventure after sun down, here’s something that might pique your interest – Night snow buggy tour!
The night snow buggy tour is provided by Y.O.G.C (Yukiguni Outdoor Guide Club), and you can book it through the popular snow resort NASPA Ski Garden. Get on a funkily illuminated buggy, ventured up the ski slopes for a mesmerizing night view of Uonuma City!
Of course, since you are likely the only guests on the empty ski slope, it’s a perfect opportunity to snap a few cool (literally!) shots however you like.
Stay: Shosenkaku Kagetsu
Although the ryokan’s name is incredibly hard to remember even for the Japanese, it is totally the highlight of my trip, and I absolutely recommend you to consider spending a night here. Let’s just call it Kagetsu (literally means “flower moon” in Japanese) in short.
Kagetsu used to be a popular accommodation before the pandemic hit, so rest assured that you will feel at ease staying over with no language barrier. Just look at this hand-drawn lovely little brochure!
My favorite thing about Kagetsu has to be its in-room outdoor bath. As I know many foreign tourists love to have some privacy when it comes to hot spring, this alone gives you all the reason to put up a night here. Did I also mention that you can enjoy the shinkansen whizzing by while soaking in warm, therapeutic hot spring right in the comfort of your own room?
There’s also another private bath within the ryokan where any guests can book in advance, which is completely outdoor so you may get nature’s snow shower during winter time!
For the premium room, you will also be served in-room dinner and breakfast which is beyond luxurious. Kagetsu’s hospitality is top-notch yet warmly welcoming, you really can’t ask for more authentic luxurious ryokan experience than this.
DAY 2: MINAMI-UONUMA AREA
Just a 10-min drive away from Yuzawa sits another long-established historical snow resort which has been recently given a stylish makeover – Ishiuchi Maruyama.
While there are over 20 courses and multiple slopes with different gradients for the winter sports diehards , family with kids will rejoice knowing that you can find more to just skiing at “Snow Garden”, a beautiful terrace with a smashing view of Uonuma’s snowscape.
You can rent a gorgeous snow dome like this to take an afternoon siesta while your enthusiastic loved ones ride the snow.
When hunger hits, you can dine in at the chic restaurant nearby or even order takeout to enjoy in your warmly heated snow dome.
Many may think that snow resorts are only for ski or snowboard addicts, but I assure you that with a view like this, you will wish time would just stop…
If you are in for a little light adventure, snow shoe trekking is also available for the nature seekers. Since most trekking are done on the plains, this is a pretty rare experience criss-crossing the forests on foot at high altitude.
And now, I am sure you are all waiting to read about food! While Niigata is mostly famous for its rice, sake and seafood, today I am going to introduce a place for meat lovers.
This is Uonuma Kamakura, and today we are going to taste the local specialty – Majidon.
Majidon is actually not a kind of dish, but rather, a project to celebrate the region’s pride – Koshihikari rice. As you may know, Koshihikari is Japan’s most prized branded rice, so the locals have thought of hosting an annual competition to create the best savored rice bowl with creative toppings, which is called… Majidon.
You can find different varieties of Majidon in the region, so there’s always something to cater for different budget and taste.
Here’s my Majidon with Niigata-produced Murakami Beef and Mochibuta pork.
Carnivores like me would be spoilt for choice when it comes to their donburi selections! Of course, for the pescatarians, know that there are also seafood bowls available.
Uonuma no Sato is a sprawling tourist facility operated by the Hakkai Sake Brewery. Today we are visiting one of them – Hakkaisan Yukimuro.
“Yukimuro” means “snow room”, and it is an ancient technique used by the residents in snowy regions in Japan to store food. By using the power of snow as a recycled energy, yukimuro makes the perfect “natural refrigerator” that provides a stable, consistent low temperature, typically around 3°C regardless of external weather conditions.
At Hakkaisan Yukimuro, you can see literally a small mountain of hardened snow in the massive room, and it is used to store a variety of different food including vegetables, coffee beans, sake, etc.
Not only is yukimuro a highly eco and sustainable way of food-preserving, the process, called “snow-aging”, actually offers many benefits to enhance the taste of food too. For example, vegetables such as carrots and potatoes will sweeten due to saccharfication, while meat will become more flavorful while ripening.
The best of all? Snow-aged sake is said to have excellent quality in taste and smoothness! There’s free sake tasting and you can take this opportunity to bring home limited edition sake and shochu by Hakkaisan.
On the second night, we had a very special treat awaiting us – sky lantern!
Hotel New Greenpia Tsunan is an all-season resort surrounded by the wilderness at the foot of Mt Naeba. It is quite a journey to access especial during snowy winter, but it is exactly because of its remote location that makes unique activities such as launching hundreds of sky lanterns simultaneously into the starry night sky of Niigata a dream come true!
On the paper lantern, you can write down your wishes, and then the helpful staff from the hotel will assist you to light it up and then release into up above and beyond.
Hopefully, the stars have seen my wishes…
DAY 3: TOKAMACHI AREA
Maple Syrup Harvest Tour
Did you know that there are maple trees in Japan?
Tokamachi Region in Niigata is home to Japan’s own maple species. And yes, you can harvest maple syrup from it!
This unique experience is brought to you by HomeHome, in collaboration with Yabukozaki. You will put on your own snow shoes, follow the guide and venture into the pristine forest, stepping on freshly fallen snow while hunting for the delicate elixir…
How do you think maple syrup is made? Many people have the image of the sweet golden nectar just seeping out of the tree bark or leaves, but you may be surprised to know that maple syrup’s original form is a translucent liquid extracted by tapping the maple tree trunk, and tastes like nothing…
It is only after careful tapping, boiling and brewing, a highly concentrated of the lightly sugared tree sap is then turned into precious, made-in-Niigata maple syrup. You can then grill pancakes made of organic Niigata rice flour and drizzle the sweet result of the hard labour of maple-syrup harvesting over. Enjoy!
Traditional Craft: Chinkoro Fortune Doll Making
HomeHome also offers a variety of traditional craft experience, and one worth mentioning is Chinkoro making – a fortune doll made of rice flour that’s exclusive to the Tokamachi region.
The origin of the dolls is unknown, however it is said that the Chinkoro Dolls, usually in the shape of a dog, brings good luck to those who own them.
You will first learn to mould freshly steamed rice cake into the shape of Chinkoro – a dog. Once you have learnt the basic, your creation is entirely up to your own creativity and imagination.
I have breathed into life a mouse-turned-squirrel buddy holding a cheese-like-chestnut. And then I also planted a melancholic daikon onto the cardboard.
Creations from our team members! Just for your reference. Which is your favorite?
Note that since the dolls are made of food-grade flour, they will eventually dry up and start cracking. While it is indeed a little heartbreaking to witness your masterpiece fall apart, the locals believe that they more shattered your Chinkoro becomes, the more good luck it will bring you.
Final stop: Ponshu-kan
If you haven’t been to Ponshu-kan, you haven’t been to Niigata.
I have featured Ponshu-kan multiple times before, it is available conveniently inside Echigo-Yuzawa Station, Niigata Station, and Nagaoka Station, so you won’t have an excuse missing this tasty stop before leaving Niigata.
I was heading back to Tokyo from Echigo-Yuzawa Station, so this was my perfect chance to sample all kinds of made-in-Niigata sake from the sake dispensers.
While you are at it, why not try the “bakudan onigiri” – literally rice ball bomb – made of 600g worth of premium Niigata rice and 5 types of fillings which you may choose.
I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to finish it all on your own without sharing, but perhaps it would be a great train snack – if you can even call something this big a snack – on the way home.
That’s all for now! I hope you enjoy my snow time experience in Yuzawa & Uonuma region of Niigata, and finally here is a video for your viewing pleasure.
See you in Niigata!