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Niigata, Niigata Prefecture

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Niigata, which will host the Agriculture Ministers’ Meeting on May 11 and 12, is known for many things, but premier Koshihikari rice is likely the prefecture’s most notable product.

The brand is long loved and known as one of the tastiest varieties in Japan, cultivated in nutrient-rich water that runs down from the snowy mountains to the rice paddies. A wide margin in temperature between sowing and harvest is also an important factor contributing to Koshihikari’s taste.

Excellent water and rice also make Niigata one of the country’s largest sake producers. The climate is optimal for brewing sake; the local sake’s crisp dryness is partly thanks to the cold winter temperatures and long-term fermentation process. The city’s 15 master brewers have long been polishing their craft and passing their techniques on to future generations.

Visitors to Niigata can enjoy many varieties of authentic washoku (Japanese food) dishes that have been developed in the city’s rich cuisine culture. Facing the Sea of Japan, Niigata is blessed with plentiful marine products and can offer excellent sushi, wappa rice (rice with seafood and other delicacies on top and boxed in a round wooden container) and other dishes. Tourists can enjoy a wide variety of seasonal washoku made using the prefecture’s high-quality meat and vegetables.

Of the many Niigata delicacies, Phung Thi Hau, a Niigata resident from Vietnam, who has a sweet tooth, said sasadango, a traditional confection with anko adzuki bean paste with mochi (pounded rice cake) mixed with yomogi (mugwort) leaves and wrapped in bamboo leaves, is her favorite food.

“I love sasadango. I’m so impressed by its beautiful green color and the nice aroma of yomogi, which is also grown in Vietnam,” explained Phung, who is a graduate student in Niigata.

“In addition, I love Le Lectier pears, which are totally different from normal pears because they are soft and tastes very good. We have no fruit like this in Vietnam,” she added.

While food is one of the attractions of Niigata, the hospitality shown to foreigners, based on its minatomachi (port town) culture, makes tourists feel welcome.

In 1869, Niigata became one of the first five ports in Japan to open to foreign trade. Jan. 1 of this year marked the 150th anniversary of the port’s opening.

Thanks to this lengthy contact with foreigners, the city is still abundant with traditional forms of hospitality for visitors such as ryōtei restaurants serving luxurious Japanese food, and geisha.

Phung, who has lived in Niigata for about two years, recommends the Furumachi shopping street as a place for visitors to experience great food, hospitality and deep-rooted history.

“I like the Furumachi shopping street because of the beauty of mixing both traditional culture and modern culture there. I used to visit Nabedyaya (a ryōtei restaurant) where I could eat traditional cuisine and hear the wonderful music played by geisha,” she noted.

Furumachi is also well-known as a downtown, urban area with many city facilities, banks, malls, restaurants, temples, hotels and other things, she added. “Even if you are only in Niigata for a short period, you can enjoy almost all of the best things here,” she said.

While hospitality is one thing Niigata developed over time, agricultural advancement is another area that has evolved in Niigata as residents learned to work with nature. In the past, rice fields were too muddy to work in and people in Niigata spent a long time installing equipment to drain water from the fields to address the situation. Today, the people of Niigata are proud of the technology they have developed to improve agricultural conditions.

Niigata also went through deregulation, something made possible after being designated a national strategic special zone, to allow farmers to open restaurants, even on land formerly allotted for agriculture, to serve local delicacies made with fresh ingredients. These restaurants have proven popular with not only local residents, but also tourists. The deregulation also made it easy for farmers to partner with companies with innovative information and communication technology to run energy-saving and cost-cutting tests, making Niigata a venue for cutting-edge, smart agriculture. The city also provides support for farmers to broaden their business scope to include food processing and wholesaling.

As a historical and cultural symbol, the Northern Culture Museum, which used to be a private residence of Niigata’s wealthy, land-owning Ito family during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), is a standout destination. In 1946, the family turned the home into a museum, displaying traditional furniture and architecture, Chinese and Korean ceramics, as well as old Japanese artworks the family owned.

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