Exploring Niigata along the Northward Golden Route with JR EAST PASS19 February, 2018
Continuing from our Day 4 morning in Gunma, we took a JR Max Tanigawa 309 train from Jomo Kogen Station to GALA Yuzawa Station. The moment you stepped out of the GALA Yuzawa station, you have arrived at the GALA Yuzawa ski resort (〒949-6101 Niigata-ken Minamiuonoma-gun Yuzawa-machi Ooaza Yuzawa Aza Kayabira 1039-2) – there is no need for complicated bus transfers. What really surprised me were the multi-lingual check-in counters right in front of the train stations – there are GALA Yuzawa staff who can speak Bahasa Indonesian, English, French, Chinese and many other languages.
GALA Yuzawa is only 75 minutes away from Tokyo station and there are special promotional packages available if you are holding on to the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) e.g. you can buy a JR PASS 1-day pass for 3500 Yen (for adults) which gives you a GALA Yuzawa 1-day pass with free unlimited access to the Gondola and Chair Lift and also free locker ticket and 10% discount ticket for rentals and group lessons. Considering that the regular 1-day GALA Yuzawa pass is 4600 Yen (for adults) and the locker ticket cost 1000 Yen, you will achieve almost 2100 Yen (about S$24++) in savings with your JR PASS!
The convenience that GALA Yuzawa offers goes beyond JR PASS promo packages, multi-lingual staff and a ski resort directly connected to a shinkansen station. The best part is you don’t have to lug along heavy ski equipment and even winter wear all the way from Singapore or wherever you are from.
GALA Yuzawa offers a wide range of SALOMON skis and snowboard and winter wear e.g. ski boots and accessories e.g. gloves so you can just show up at GALA Yuzawa empty-handed and rent the stuff you need and start your ski holiday! There are also no hidden prices – all prices are clearly laid out in English, Chinese etc. lik in the picture below. Do note that gloves and knit cap are not for rent – they are for sale only at 1000 Yen (about S$13+).
There are lots of shopping and restaurants at GALA Yuzawa too so for your travel companions who ain’t into snow activities, they can rest and relax by a restaurant and do some shopping.
GALA Yuzawa offers a wide range of snow activities for both children and adults such as skiing, snowboarding, trekking with the traditional Japanese snow shoes and the resort also has an indoor heated swimming pool and onsen. One thing to note is to check GALA Yuzawa’s website daily at 6.30am on weather conditions before making your trip to the ski resort from Tokyo. When we were at GALA Yuzawa, there were strong winds and thus the Gondola is closed and there were no skiing, snowboarding activities available.
Nonetheless, there are still some snow activities you can try near the resort e.g. sledding down a small slope. As most snow activities are closed that day, the GALA Yuzawa staff provided these sleds free of charge.
From GALA Yuzawa, we took the resort’s shuttle bus to the Echigo-Yuzawa Station to board the Genbi Shinkansen – one of the most interesting train I have taken. This train is known as the travelling art gallery as train passengers can enjoy numerous modern art installations by prominent artists in Japan. The Genbi Shinkansen 現美新幹線 runs from Echigo-Yuzawa to Niigata and tickets for the ride are not available for sale outside Japan. The JR EAST PASS covers the travel area and train ride.
If you have kids, there is also a train carriage where kids can play with model train sets!
We alighted from the Genbi Shinkansen at Tsubame-Sanjō Station and went direct to the Tsubamesanjo Industrial Promotion Center (1-17 Sugoro, Sanjo City, Niigata 955-0092). TSUBAMESANJO is Japan’s top metalware production area in Niigata and here at this promotion center, you can find all sorts of kitchen equipment e.g. cutlery, knives, kitchen tools, pots and pans and they have very innovative products on sale too! Guests can also experience a free knife sharpening workshop.
We wrapped our Day 4 at Niigata with a stay at the ryokan – Inn of Four Seasons – Minoya (Yahiko, Yahiko Village, Nishikanbara-gun, Niigata Prefecture 959-0323). This Japanese-style inn is over 300 years old and is located right in front of Yahiko Shrine which is known throughout Japan as the most famous shrine in the Echigo Province. Minoya’s western-style bedrooms are just so beautiful and spacious. I like the contrast in designs between retro vintage decor at the bedroom area and the traditional Japanese style living room.
Dinner at ryokans is always quite an interesting experience. The dinner at Minoya is no different with fresh ingredients sourced direct from the Niigata prefecture. There are some Japanese-Western fusion dishes and they all taste so good. My favorite is the sashimi which is so tender and fresh that it melts in your mouth!
The breakfast at Minoya ryokan is different from other ryokans we have experienced as it is a buffet breakfast and it has a good selection of Western and Japanese style dishes – my plate in the picture below shows the diversity of dishes available e.g. you can order Western style cooked to order omelette or enjoy poached egg dipped in soy sauce as well as grilled fish.
Day 5: Niigata
We started our day at Niigata with a stroll at Yahiko Shrine 弥彦神社 (〒959-0323 Niigata Prefecture, Nishikanbara District, 弥彦村 Yahiko, 2887-2). The solemn shrine at the foot of the sacred Mt. Yahiko is known as a power spot for love and good fortune. It is worth walking around the shrine grounds if you want to feel zen and calm especially after a long and busy itinerary exploring Japan.
After a walkaround in the Yahiko shrine, we went to Tsubame-shi Migakiya-Ichibankan (3633-7 Koike, Tsubame City, Niigata Prefecture). Tsubame-Sanjo in Japan’s Niigata prefecture is known for its metalwork and production of craftsmen’s tools. The Tsubame City Migakiya Ichibankan (Polishing Building Number One) was established to nurture successors of the metal polishing industry. The facility aims to encourage and support startup entrepreneurs, as well as to train individuals in the metal production industry and promote production centers through advances in technology. Visitors can tour the factory and try their hand at polishing techniques.
Lunch was at Omura Shokudo おおむら食堂 (810-4 Kotaka, Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture) – one of the oldest and most established ramen restaurant in Tsubame City. The ramen here is known for its backfat. The portions of the ramen are also huge – for just 770 Yen, you get this huge bowl of ramen you see in the picture below. Most importantly, the ramen, the chashu slices and the broth tastes so good!
Continuing on our tour around the industrial area of Tsubame region, we visited the Suwada Open Factory (1332 Koanji, Sanjo, Niigata Prefecture 959-1114) which is known for its production of the Suwada nail nipper – it is a bigger type of nail clipper than those we see in Singapore. For a product as simple as a nail clipper, you will be amazed at the precision engineering skills required of the workers in the factory to ensure that each nail nipper produced is of the highest quality. Definitely do check out the open factory of Suwada nail nippers (it is free of charge to visit the factory).
Our last stop in Niigata was at sake brewery Asahi Shuzo 朝日酒造は (880-1 Asahi, Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture 949-5412) where we got to do a behind the scenes look at how sake is made – however no photography is allowed but you can google for sake breweries and you will find images of huge cylinders of sake piped through different containers for different stages of production. The Asahi Shuzo is one of the oldest nihon-shu breweries in Niigata, having being founded in 1830.
As part of the sake brewery tour, we were also treated to a sake tasting session for Asahi Shuzo’s main brand, Kubota. The brewery also has a retail store that sells sake confectionery – yes sake cake and biscuits! 🙂
We wrapped up our 5 day trip along the Northward Golden Route by taking the Max Toki 336 shinkansen from Nagaoka Station to Tokyo Station and boarded the local JR train and Tokyo Monorail with the JR EAST PASS to Haneda Airport for our flight back to Singapore. During the journey, we were treated to a yummy train bento with fresh and delicious seafood!