Found in the mountainous southwest part of Niigata Prefecture, the Joetsu region consists of three cities: Joetsu, Myoko, and Itoigawa. Probably best known for its excellent winter skiing conditions – it gets up to three meters of snowfall! – the area also has plenty to offer during the warmer seasons. Here are five experiences to go for…
The World’s Largest Illumination
Featuring 1,6 million lights, Myoko Happiness Illumination holds a 2015 Guinness World Record for being the “Largest Image Made of LED Lights.” Held at APA Hotel in Myoko, the event is now in its third year and takes over part of the resort’s 27-hole golf course, attracting nearly 300,000 visitors. The course, which is divided up into different themed sections, was created by noted illumination designer Motoo Marumaru, and takes about 90 to 120 minutes to walk through. It features a light tunnel, impressive water projections of the Wind God and Thunder God, and a two massive dragons to end off the colorful display. It’s a little far for a daytrip, so it’s a good idea to check into APA Hotel for a night or two, which will also give you a chance to work your way through the rest of our “top five” list.
Until November 15. For more info, visit tinyurl.com/TWmyoko-illumination
A Perilous Cliff Road
About 100 million years ago, volcanic activity created the 400 m-high cliffs of the Northern Japanese Alps, which fall dramatically into the Sea of Japan. To allow people to journey around the mountain, the ancient Hokuriku Road was carved out just next to the often stormy sea, resulting in many travelers getting swept away. In fact, the cliffs get their name, Oyashirazu (“without the parents knowing”), from a poem composed by the wife of samurai Taira no Yorimori after their child was taken by the waves.
Situated in Itoigawa, the cliffs can now be traversed by car via the Hokuriku Expressway, but you can stop off and walk along the Oyashirazu Community Road, which was built in 1883, and turned into a recreational walkway in 1966. If you stand on the pavilion at the entrance, you can take in a view of the Sea of Japan as well as the ancient Hokuriku Road. Look out for the carvings on the cliff face, which read “To no gotoku, ya no gotoshi” (“As smooth as a whetstone and as straight as an arrow”) – they commemorate the completion of Oyashirazu Community Road, which put an end to the perilous cliff journeys.
For more info, visit tinyurl.com/TWoyashirazu
Colorful Hot Springs
The onsen in Myoko all come from the same source – Mt. Myoko, which is listed in the 1964 book “100 Famous Japanese Mountains” – but their waters are peculiarly different in color, ranging from clear to reddish-brown to milky. For a truly spectacular setting, we recommend Tsubame Onsen, which is set up high on the side of a mountain, boasts blue-grey water, and is free to enjoy (although the hike to get there might feel like payment).
For more info, visit tinyurl.com/TWmyoko-onsen
The Prettiest Sushi (and Best Rice in Japan)
Plump, shiny, and slightly sweet, Koshihikari rice is known for being the country’s finest, with most of it being produced in Niigata. Combine this with the region’s delicate style of presenting sushi upon bamboo leaves – known as sasazushi – and you get not only the tastiest but also the most beautiful sushi dish ever. Joetsu is particularly renowned for its sasazushi, with its colorful toppings including fresh seasonal vegetables, mushrooms marinated in soy sauce, and omelet slices. The added bonus of having the best rice in Japan? The area’s sake is also pretty hard to beat.
The Sacred Lotus Festival
The pretty, three-tiered Takada Castle was built in 1614 and is worth visiting any time of the year, but we’d recommend heading there for the annual summer Joetsu Lotus Festival in August, when the outer moat is filled with lotus flowers. The blooms also take over the rest of Takada Park, where the castle is situated, and are said to be the “best in the East” in terms of beauty and scale.
For more info, visit tinyurl.com/TWtakada-park