Written by Steve Csorgo
From Tokyo To Niigata: Places To Visit On The Joetsu Shinkansen
Explore the Niigata and Gunma regions of Japan on the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train! Stunning towns and untouched nature hold numerous hidden gems for fantastic daytrips!
The Joetsu Shinkansen is one of Japan’s most popular bullet train services. It runs between Tokyo and Niigata, and stops at almost a dozen stations nestled in the Japanese Alps and the Echigo plains.
Best of all, anyone with a JR Rail Pass, a JR TOKYO Wide Pass, or a JR EAST Welcome Rail Pass can ride this bullet train for free, getting on and off as many times as they like! So why skip the stations between your starting point and destination? Make a day out of sightseeing on the Joetsu Shinkansen!
Starting just north from Tokyo, we’ve picked the most interesting stations on the line!
Takasaki - The Birthplace of Daruma Dolls
Picture from Japanese Encyclopedia: Daruma
Our first stop, an hour out of Tokyo, is Takasaki - a well-developed city with just over 350,000 residents. The city is famous for its love-affair with Italian food - a quick search for Italian restaurants near the station yields over a dozen different results! While Italian food may not be on your itinerary, if you’re craving some western cuisine, this is the place to be!
The top sightseeing destination in Takasaki is the 40-meter tall statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, which can be easily reached on the tourist bus Gururin. These convenient buses stop at a terminal just outside Takasaki Station's west exit. The buses stop at many popular sightseeing spots, and an all-day pass with unlimited rides (510 yen) is available for those who want to see all that Takasaki has to offer.
Be sure to stop by Shorinzan Durumaji Temple, the birthplace of the Daruma doll (pictured above), loved for its characteristic of always getting up on its own even if knocked down. Hundreds of these delightful oval-shaped talismans are spread throughout the temple grounds, creating a surreal sight!
Jomo-Kogen - Outdoor Adventures in the Minakami Region
Takaragawa Onsen. Picture from Minakami Onsen - Great Hot Springs Near Tokyo! 2018 Edition
Jomo-Kogen is the entrance to the Minakami region of Gunma, a mountainous land of lush nature and breathtaking views filled by onsen, ski resorts, and hikes.
If you have time, an adventure to Takaragawa, a huge outdoor mixed-gender onsen in the middle of the mountains, is worth the trip! You can wear a swimsuit or towel while bathing, so don’t be shy. The onsen is a little tricky to get to, but you won’t regret it!
The trip from Jomo-Kogen Station takes an hour, split between two bus rides. From Jomo-Kogen Station, board the bus to Minakami Station. At Minakami Station, transfer to a bus that stops at Takaragawa-Iriguchi. If the route seems a bit intimidating, don't worry! The tourist information center at Jomo-Kogen Station can give you plenty of direction and assistance.
Echigo-Yuzawa - Some of the Best Ski Resorts in Japan
Picture from 5 Ski Resorts For A Day Trip From Tokyo
Echigo-Yuzawa is the gateway to Niigata Prefecture and is home to many of Japan’s most beloved ski resorts. Several snowy slopes can be found within walking distance from the station, so you can start skiing almost as soon as you get off the train!
The breathtaking Japanese Alps encircle Echigo-Yuzawa, creating beautiful views and making strolls around town a joy. If you feel cold, there are several free foot baths with naturally-heated spring water dotted about the town, including one outside the station’s west exit. Hot springs are likewise plentiful, as are fantastic restaurants and izakayas serving delicious local delicacies and sake.
Even during the warmer seasons, Echigo-Yuzawa is well worth getting off the train for. Inside the station is souvenir mecca Ponshukan, an elegantly-designed store that stocks a jaw-dropping collection of locally-made sake, miso, soy sauce, confections, and more. You can also find sake taste-testing vending machines!
Urasa - Taste Delicious Niigata Sake
Urasa is in the Uonuma region of Niigata, which is the home of Japan’s renowned koshi hikari rice. Dozens of magnificent mountainside drives can be found here, including to the spectacular Kiyotsu Gorge.
The easiest destination to reach from the station is the Uonuma no Sato Village, which is home to the sake mega-brewer Hakkaisan. Frequent and comprehensive tours of the brewery run daily, with a free tasting course included! You can also step inside their sake aging warehouse, which is naturally-refrigerated by snow gathered during the winter. Sake aged via this ancient technique comes out crisp and dry and is enjoyed all over Japan!
The village also holds the Sarukurayama craft beer brewery, a baumkuchen bakery, and a cute café surrounded by snow in winter and fresh greenery in summer. The surrounding rice fields are framed by grand mountains, including the brewery’s namesake, Mt. Hakkai, which provides spectacular views. Uonuma no Sato Village is most easily reached by taxi, a ride that takes 15 minutes from Urasa Station.
Tsubame-Sanjo - Discover Amazing Artisan Crafts
Tsubame-Sanjo is a station serving the two neighboring towns of Tsubame and Sanjo. The area’s biggest attraction is its long tradition of metalwork, using both cutting-edge techniques and ancient knowledge. Their work is so highly prized that Apple recruited Tsubame-Sanjo metalworkers to develop its range of gadgets, which culminated in the shiny metal back of the iPod and more! The local artisans' glorious metalwork is displayed and available for purchase at Tsubame-Sanjo Wing inside the station itself. Just check the price before buying – some pieces are very expensive.
The Tsubame Industrial Materials Museum is a 7-minute drive (or 25-minute walk) from Tsubame-Sanjo Station. Here, you can learn techniques from a metal-master and craft your own cup or spoon, which can be colored using a titanium coloring technique for an extra fee. You’ll also learn the tsuchime hammering method to add small dimples to your piece, the signature mark of a Tsubame-Sanjo crafter.
Niigata City - A Metropolis with Beautiful Historic Spots
Picture from How To Travel To Niigata, A Port City With A Rich History
The final destination on the Joetsu Line is Niigata City – a seaside metropolis boasting a long history of trade, and a geisha culture that was once the most populous in all of Japan. While much of this history has been paved over in favor of convenience, there are still lots of interesting sites to be found.
If you’re a sake lover, head straight to the Nuttari district for the Imayotsukasa Sake Brewery – a traditional producer of some of the finest brews in Japan. The brewery is only a 15-minute walk from the station, and comprehensive English tours and tastings are available. Check their website in advance to get times and information.
After you enjoy the brewery, cross the wide mouth of Shinano River and dive into the ancient streets of Furumachi to enter the world of geisha - or geigi, as they are known in Niigata.
Dozens of traditional wooden rowhouses filled with restaurants, bars, and izakaya house a lively party district. Some establishments are extremely exclusive, with genuine geigi performances or rare delicacies, such as the pufferfish restaurant Kakimasa, or the ancient three-storied restaurant Nabejaya. Others cater to a more casual crowd, and are a great place to do some shopping, or spend your evening!
Strolling through these Edo-era streets, originally constructed to entertain tired fishermen or traders after their treacherous sea journeys, presents an authentic slice of Japanese history rarely found outside places like Kyoto.
Enjoy Your Ride on the Joetsu Shinkansen!
Bandai Bridge, Niigata. Picture from A Close Look At The Bandai Bridge, Niigata's Symbol
From Takasaki to Niigata City, the Joetsu Shinkansen runs through a magnificent and unique stretch of Japan. Get your Japan Rail Pass ready, put on some comfortable shoes, and hop on the Joetsu Shinkansen to experience a fresh new side of Japan!
Remember that JR-EAST released a time-limited ticket called JR EAST Welcome Rail Pass that allows you to travel three days in eastern and northern Japan for just 12,000 yen! Use this pass or another discount ticket offered by JR-EAST and enjoy your travels by shinkansen!