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Off the beaten path: Exploring Japan's hidden gems

NIIGATA. Gunma.

"Asa man na dapita (Where is it located)?" "Asa diay ka (Where are you)?" Two questions a friend asked me after I posted photos taken in Japan; one of them showing skiers playing on a snow-blanketed mountain slope.

Then I realized one thing: not many Filipinos are familiar with Niigata and Gunma. I, myself, heard the names for the first time only last year when the Japan National Tourism Organization invited me to a familiarization tour that aims to promote these places to tourists from the Philippines.

Yes, Niigata and Gunma are places in Japan. Two of the 47 prefectures of the Land of the Rising Sun. The former is home to about 2.3 million people, while the latter has a population of about 1.9 million, as of 2019.

Niigata is located on the northwestern side, facing the Sea of Japan, while Gunma is proud to be at the center of the mainland. Both are surrounded by nature so beautiful that all I could say was "Wow!"

It was winter when we arrived in Japan through a direct Philippine Airlines flight from Cebu to Narita International Airport in Tokyo. I was with a group of Cebu-based travel agents who were so warm — perfect for a chilly Japan.

From the airport, we hopped on a coach bound for Niigata, which is more than four hours away from Tokyo by bus, but can be reached in more than an hour by Shinkansen (bullet train).

Ski resorts

Niigata, blessed with beautiful nature, is home to ski resorts. One of the most famous is Gala Yuzawa, the "only snow resort in the world with its own Shinkansen station." It can be accessed from Tokyo's JR (Japan Railway) Station or Ueno Station in just 75 minutes.

So if seeing snow or playing with it makes you happy, or if you're a ski lover who wants to hit the slopes of Japan without much hassle, Gala Yuzawa is the best place to go. The train will bring you direct to its ski center called Cowabunga.

The resort offers a lot of activities — skiing, snowboarding, sledding, Kanjiki Snow Fun Tour and snowmobile sleigh tour, among others. It has its own rental corner, a swimming pool, jacuzzi, Japanese onsen (hot spring), restaurants, and of course, a gondola station for cable cars that will take you to its courses and slopes.

The resort is open from December to May. This winter season, it is open until May 6. It closes after May as the snow melts.

About five percent of the people who visit Gala Yuzawa are Filipinos, and 30 percent are from Thailand, said Mori Hisashi, senior manager of Gala's sales promotion department.

In Gunma, two hours and 30 minutes away from Niigata, the beauty of snow-covered Mt. Tanigawa is what lures tourists to its peak.

The mountain's peak can be reached through the Mt. Tanigawa Ropeway and it is where you can see skiers and snowboarders playing on the slopes. Here, the snow starts in the middle of November.

Fish market

Aside from ski resorts, Japan is also famous for its seafood, a wide variety of which can be found at the Teradomari Fish Market in Niigata.

Here, you can find merchants selling fresh seafood — from fish to sweet shrimps, squid, and crabs — all at reasonable prices. Locals said the seafood they sell at Teradomari are from the Sea of Japan.

Souvenir shops and dining areas serving the fresh catch of the day are also options for visitors.

Souvenir items

If souvenir items are what you're after, the Niigata Furusato Village is located 25 minutes away from Teradomari. It is a tourism facility where you can buy specialties of the Niigata Prefecture, specifically its famous rice crackers.

Other places in Japan where you can shop for souvenir items for your loved ones are Kawaba Denen Plaza, a roadside station in Gunma that is also perfect for sightseeing and picture-taking; the Echigo-Yuzawa station in Yuzawa, Niigata; and of course, Don Quijote in Tokyo.

Workshops

Speaking of rice crackers, Niigata is home to factories and stores where you can learn how rice crackers (senbei in Japanese) are produced.

One such store is the Niigata Rice Cracker Museum where our group had a hands-on experience in roasting senbei. It wasn't easy, as you have to stand by a very hot oven with your hands stretched, focused on flipping the rice cracker until it gets brown and crispy.

A member of the staff in this store roasts about 1,500 crackers a day.

In Tsukiyono Vidro Park in Minakami, Gunma, we had our sandblasting workshop. Each of us was given a glass and told to create a smoked-glass effect on its surface. How? By blasting it with sand at high pressure.

The sandblasting takes about 30 minutes to finish and customers can take home the finished products at 870 Japanese yen per piece.

The glasswork center also features glassblowing, where you can watch about 70 workers blowing the melted glass through a pipe to form a shape.

"The kilns have been melting glass since 20 years ago. They never stopped... This is the biggest glassblowing center in Japan," said Tomo Kurata, sales manager of Joetsu Crystal Glass Co. Ltd.

The park also has a museum and shop where you can buy glassware in different shapes, colors and sizes.

Then there's the Takumi no Sato in Minakami, where we tried soba making. The ingredients: buckwheat, white flour and water. We were told to mix them and knead until dough is formed. The dough is then cut into long, thin pieces and then cooked.

Other crafts and workshops available at Takumi no Sato are pottery, bamboo weaving, woodwork, glass etching and Japanese papermaking.

Swan watching

Another popular tourist destination in Japan is Lake Hyoko in Agano City, Niigata. Marvel at the thousands of migratory swans and other birds that fly into the lake "to skip the severe winters of Siberia," said our tour guide, Yukiko Sawaguchi.

Swan watching starts in early October until late March. The peak season is late November, when more than 5,000 swans swim at the lake.

Fruit-picking

Japan is also proud of its farms that grow not just vegetables, but also fruits. The former Dole Land, now known as Minakami Fruits Land Mogitore, is famous for growing eight kinds of fruits — strawberry, cherries, blueberries, peach, grapes, pears, plums and apples.

The farm hosts educational tours where visitors can try picking fruits, or making pies or jams. People can visit this place anytime of the year.

There's truly more to Japan than the well-known destinations of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hokkaido. The ones mentioned above are just some of the many places to explore, and they're located in Niigata and Gunma.

***

Where to stay in Japan

* Naspa New Otani

Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata

This modern resort hotel can be reached in three hours and 23 minutes from the Narita International Airport by bus, and 80 minutes by train from central Tokyo.

The hotel features spacious rooms for guests. The rooms' design and style vary from Western to Japanese, and a combination of both. There is also a natural onsen (hot spring), one for men and one for women.

Naspa New Otani is also proud of its ski garden, a ski resort that is located right next to the hotel.

* Ana Crown Plaza Niigata

5 Chome-11-20 Bandai, Niigata

In this hotel, the rate starts at 7,600 Japanese yen, depending on the type of guest room you're interested in. The good thing about this hotel is it is located at the heart of Niigata City, thus convenience stores such as 7-11 and Family Mart, as well as fastfood, restaurants and supermarkets are just a stone's throw away. The JR Niigata train station is also near the hotel.

The rooms are stylish and comfortable, and you'll be treated to a view of Niigata City from your room's window. Restaurants that serve European, Chinese and Japanese cuisines are also available.

* Minakami Hotel Juraku

Yubara, Minakami, Tone District, Gunma

If you're looking for a ryokan or traditional Japanese hotel, then the Minakami Hotel Juraku is the best option for you. The rooms here follow a Japanese style, and since the hotel is located in Minakami town, you have a bigger chance of experiencing snow.

The restaurant here has a wide selection of tasty food, and a pharmacy and convenience store are also located nearby.

* Sunshine City Prince Hotel

Higashiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo

This is a high-rise hotel that is located in central Tokyo, just minutes away for Don Quijote in Ikebukuro area. It is directly connected to Sunshine City, a shopping mall. All guests rooms -- a total of 1,091 -- were completely renovated in April 2019.

Convenience stores and shopping areas are within walking distance, as well as the major railway stations in Tokyo, making it an ideal place for business travelers and those who travel to Japan for sightseeing and shopping.

***

The author joins the familiarization trip to Japan hosted by the Japan National Tourism Organization in cooperation with K-Management last January 13-17, 2020.


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