Located immediately north of Tokyo, the three prefectures of Saitama, Gunma and Niigata are quite possibly one of the most overlooked areas of Japan. Well-connected from Tokyo via the shinkansen and local trains, this region is brimming with atmospheric medieval towns, whimsical theme parks as well as venues for thrilling outdoor activities.
Through the JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area), it is very much possible to get here in just an hour as with the case for Saitama, or around two hours for Niigata. Within that short span of time, the landscape outside shifts from concrete buildings to alpine villages, sulfuric hot springs and deep gorges. This region is known as one of Japan’s agricultural baskets and the local produce is prized all over the country. Recently, I managed to visit the three prefectures of Niigata, Saitama and Gunma thanks to an invitation from the tourism boards of these prefectures. It was an eye-opening experience as I did not know much about this region until this particular visit.
If you are looking for some fresh ideas on places to visit from Tokyo that’s away from the maddening crowd but not too far from Tokyo itself, this region is a compelling choice. This travel guide and suggested itinerary for Saitama, Gunma and Niigata shows you how to do the trip with the JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) in as short as 5 days and runs through a variety of activities including historic towns, adventure sports, temples as well as compelling food to try.
Table of Contents
Day 1 – Saitama (Hanno to Chichibu)
From Haneda Airport, take the Tokyo monorail to get yourself to Hamamatsucho Station where you can easily connect to one of Tokyo’s rail hubs such as Ikebukuro. From there, Saitama can be reached in about an hour.
First order of the day in Saitama is the enchanting Moomin Valley Park and the adjacent Metsä Village (admission free). The area is an ode to Finnish/Nordic sensibilities complete with wooden bungalows, a replica of a fishing village as well as showcase of design-oriented brands and crafts from Scandinavia. The Moomin Valley Park, which is situated beside the village, is a real treat for fans of the Finnish cartoon. Inside, visitors can immerse in live shows, interactive experiences, a museum regarding the Moomin as well as reenactments of popular scenes from the cartoon.
While here, stop by Lettula (open daily from 10AM to 8PM) for some awesome fluffy souffle pancakes. For those without a sweet tooth, the restaurant also offers a variety of savory pancakes topped with bacon, eggs and vegetables. They also offer an array of non-pancake dishes.
After having your fill of Moomin Valley, go back to the train station and head to Mitsumineguchi Station for the Chichibu Geo Gravity Park (open daily except Wednesday and Thursdays, 10AM to 5PM) in Chichibu. This one-of-a-kind adventure venue has an unbelievably scenic gorge as a setting, adding a photogenic element to their ziplines, swings and upcoming bungee jump. The park is especially picturesque at the height of autumn in November when the mountains surrounding the park on both sides turn into a fiery combination of red and yellow. That’s about the best time to walk through their suspension bridge which only comes with one rope on each side as handlebars and alternating thin wooden blocks as steps. By far, this was the most exposed suspension bridge I’ve ever walked on!
The area surrounding Chichibu where the Chichibu Geo Gravity Park is located is known for its nature trails and religious sites. I had proceeded further up the mountains towards the sacred Mitsumine Shrine where I slept for the night under my first ever temple stay experience. This is the place where weary city folk come to unwind when they feel too stressed. As this is a temple, this is not the place to expect luxurious lodging although their Japanese-style rooms were certainly sufficient for comfort. The shrine is in the middle of the forest so there is no choice but to dine here. The kaiseki-style dinner and breakfast that come with the stay are relatively more luxurious than what one would normally expect from a temple. To get to the temple, take a taxi from Mitsumineguchi Station.
Day 2 – Saitama to Gunma (Takasaki to Kusatsu)
If you’d rather stay in a modern hotel rather than the traditional digs of a temple, you can continue the journey by heading to Takasaki directly where western-style hotels abound. Otherwise, hop on the train and head here on the morning of your second day. The landlocked prefecture of Gunma is famous around Japan for its agricultural products and that includes konjac and various greens. It might just as well be the case that sukiyaki is the region’s most popular dish as it combines these ingredients into one pot.
The mid-sized city of Takasaki is most well-known for Daruma dolls (even the main train station has a statue of one) – a small figurine that serves as a symbol of good luck in Japanese culture. These are deeply rooted in Buddhist traditions in Japan and come in different sizes. The Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple (admission free) is where the Takasaki version of the Daruma doll originated. While there are variations of the figurine throughout the country, the Takasaki version is the most recognized one. The temple allows guests to decorate their own dolls for a small fee.
Around a 30 minute drive from Takasaki is one of Japan’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Tomioka Silk Mill (open daily except Wednesday, 9AM to 5PM) may look like an unassuming factory from the outside but actually played a pioneering part in Japan’s transformation into an industrial powerhouse. To get here, take the Joshin Dentetsu train and alight at Nishi Tomioka Station.
Another thing that Gunma is known for are its hot springs. There are a couple of popular hot spring areas within the prefecture, the famous of which is Kusatsu. The resort mountainside town is not connected via rail – it is about 1.5 to 2 hours from Kusatsu but the journey is well worth it. The town was recently named the #1 onsen destination in Japan.
The town of Kusatsu has the largest natural hot spring in Japan – the Yubatake – which also acts as the main square for the town. It is especially atmospheric at night when the pool is lit up and takes on various colors. While here, I would also recommend taking a walk around the center which is filled with shops and eateries. You will also find plenty of other holiday-goers wearing their night robes taking a stroll.
As mentioned previously, Kusatsu itself does not have a train station. The nearest one is at Naganohara Kusatsuguchi from where it is possible to take a connecting bus to reach town. In Kusatsu, I stayed at Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel which offers free shuttle to the Yubatake area. The hotel also has private onsen rooms which can be accessed via certain room stay packages or separately booked by guests.
Day 3 – Gunma to Niigata (Shima Onsen, Minakami & Yuzawa)
Another nice onsen destination within this part of Gunma is Shima Onsen which has the feel of a small alpine European town. Compared to Kusatsu, Shima Onsen is even more isolated. From the nearest train station (Nakanojo), it is roughly an hour’s worth of bus ride to get there. But that is exactly where the charms lie. The compact town center is surrounded by lush forests and streams with translucent waters. Aside from going to one of the town’s famous onsens (one of them was purportedly the inspiration behind the bath house in Spirited Away), the surrounding area also has a number of quaint cafes and restaurants. I tried Kaneichi-Hanare, a one-man establishment that serves delicious French food. The 7-course degustation menu goes for around 3,700 Yen per person.
Shima Onsen’s relative isolated location makes it a conducive place for outdoor activities. Lake Shimako is just next to the town and this unbelievably clean body of water serves as a popular spot for canoeing and other water sports. I tried the stand-up paddling which is offered by Green Discovery. It’s great fun as we traversed the southern part of the lake. A 2-hour package includes usage of their wet suit, paddle, board as well as 2-way transport to the lake from their office.
As one of Japan’s agricultural baskets, another popular activity to do in Gunma is fruit picking. Depending on the season, there is always a fruit to pick. I visited in October when only apples were available. During other months, one can also pick peaches, grapes and strawberries.
The area surrounding Minakami in the northern part of Gunma has quite a number of orchards that allow tourists to pick fruits. I went with Minakami Fruits Land Mogitore (5-10 Aramaki, Minakami, Tone District) which is about a 12 minute walk from Tokuganji mae Station. After the fruit picking experience, you can head back to this station and connect via shinkansen to Echigo Yuzawa in Niigata.
You’ll know you are in Niigata when the souvenir shops around the station start selling rice products as well as sake. Of the three prefectures in this trip, Niigata is perhaps the most well-known globally due to its special variant of rice. Indeed, the local cuisine reflects this and even the kaiseki dinners I’ve had while here always make reference to the locally-grown rice. Echigo-Yuzawa Station is notable for being the first train station in Japan to have its own Ponshukan (sake museum) and onsen. The “museum” here actually makes reference to the sake tasting experience. There were no less than 129 variants of sake when I visited, including some seasonal specials. Each cup starts from 100 yen while special types can go up to 500 yen. Nuances of each type are clearly displayed including sweetness, dryness and alcohol percentage. I had great fun getting the sake from the vending machines. As an ode to Niigata rice, the onigiri here also comes extra large. I tried one which was bigger than both of my fists combined and costs around 2,200 yen. Anyone who could finish the giant onigiri in one setting gets his or her photograph proudly displayed at the store.
The town of Yuzawa is another popular tourist town among locals. It is also popular for onsen to the point that even some of the streets around town come with their own footbaths which anyone can use for free. The town was rather quiet when I visited in autumn and no one except my group was using the footbaths. Its peak season is during winter when Yuzawa serves as a busy hub for those looking to ski. I can just imagine when these warm footbaths would come in handy when it gets very cold outside.
In Yuzawa, I stayed at Shosenkaku Kagetsu which is located not too far from Echigo Yuzawa train station (free van pickup from the train station can be arranged). Think of the hotel as a fusion of traditional Japanese lodging with all the creature comforts of a western-style hotel. This is a relatively upscale ryokan with outdoor garden-style onsens and elaborate kaiseki dinners. I particularly enjoyed the little touches like having freshly brewed matcha as my welcome drink and the complimentary ice lolly that I could get from the lobby in the evenings.
Day 4 – Niigata (Yuzawa to Tsubamesanjo)
A visit to Niigata is perhaps not complete without checking out the Dragondola, Japan’s longest cable car ride. Originally built to transport guests between Naeba Ski Resort and Tashiro Ski Resort, the cable car has become something of a tourist attraction especially during the autumn months when the trees from the surrounding mountains change color. Guests can choose to ride the cable car one-way to the direction of the other resort or round-trip. Overall, it takes around 25 minutes per way. I checked out the Dragondola about a month too early for autumn but the views were nonetheless impressive even during the rainy morning I was there. I could make out the lakes and villages in the distance while the mountain peaks provide for something of a thrill while the gondola goes up and down the slopes.
After having your fill of this massive network of cable cars, it’s time to head back to Yuzawa to catch the Yuzawa Shu*Kura “Joyful Train.” It’s joyful in every sense of the word. Firstly, the train seats are more of the bar counter / restaurant type than the conventional train seats. Depending on the ticket, a ride could also include several rounds of sake tastings courtesy of the breweries within the prefecture, a delicious bento box as well as live entertainment. There are a number of routes for the Joyful Train. I personally took a relatively short one from Echigo-Yuzawa to Nagaoka which lasted around 1 hour 20 minutes. If you take it end to end, the ride is almost 4 hours long.
From Nagaoka, it is a seamless connection via shinkansen to Tsubamesanjo Station for the twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjo. These cities are known as manufacturing hubs for cutlery as well as other metallic works. Turn your spoons around and if it says “stainless steel Japan” chances are they come from here. The Tsubamesanjo Regional Industries Promotion Center (open daily except Wednesday from 9:30AM to 5:30PM) which is located just three blocks from the station has a store with an extensive selection of spoons, forks, knives and metallic tumblers. They even offer spoon polishing workshops for guests. The adjacent restaurant Tsubame Sanjo Italian Bit (open daily except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 11:30AM to 3PM, 6PM to 11PM) serves up some pretty good Japanese-style pasta and pizza.
I stayed in neighboring Yahiko for the night, at the 300+ year old Minoka Ryokan. Despite the age, it’s a thoroughly modern construct with elements showcasing Japan’s early 20th century Taisho era. Some of their rooms offer a combination of traditional Japanese with Victorian-era sensibilities. Watch out for the jovial owner by the reception. He was so friendly he even showed us around town during our stay.
Day 5 – Niigata to Saitama (Yahiko to Kawagoe to Tokyo)
Yahiko is a small and peaceful town built around a Shinto shrine, the similarly named Yahiko-jinja which is worth a visit. It is quite unlike the other Shinto shrines I’ve visited. The sprawling property has an archery range, a breeding facility for rare chickens as well as a deer park. A lot of Japanese come all the way here just to visit the shrine which is said to have the power to grant wishes. A popular spot here has two boulders on a platform. It is said that those who could lift the boulder with ease while thinking of a wish will have his wish granted. If the boulder feels too heavy, the wish won’t come true.
Another unique temple in the area is the 1,300 year old Kokujoji Temple (open daily from 9AM to 5PM). The temple has seen something of a revival lately after unveiling murals of historical religious figures in suggestive poses. This is something you definitely won’t see in other places of worship and the recent installation of these murals have drawn a bit of controversy among the local community. Conceived by the temple’s chief priest as a way to revive interest in the temple, the artworks were created by Tokyo-based artist Ryoko Kimura in modern manga style. Even without considering these murals, the hilltop location of the temple offers some beautiful scenery – definitely well worth a visit.
From Tsubamesanjo, it is time to leave Niigata (which still has plenty of other things to see – you can check out some more reasons to visit Niigata). It is an easy connection by shinkansen to Tokyo but I would suggest making a slight detour by local train to Kawagoe. Called “Little Edo” due to its compact old town, this is one of the best preserved Japanese cities in the eastern part of Honshu. Attractions here include the historic clock tower, Toki-no-Kane and plenty of temples and shrines such as the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine and Kumano Shrine. Taking a leisurely stroll through the streets of the old town takes one to a different era – similar to what one might experience in places such as Takayama and Kyoto. Aside from traditional architecture, there are also plenty of fine examples of western-style buildings from the Taisho era. The local Starbucks outlet at the old town is notable for having a Japanese garden at the back. When visiting Kawagoe, do note that shops tend to close by 5PM so try to come here earlier if possible.
After having your fill of the old town of Kawagoe, it’s an easy train ride to Tokyo from where you can spend a couple more days or connect directly to Haneda Airport for your flight out.
Tips for Traveling to & Around Saitama, Gunma & Niigata
- To get to these three prefectures, you have to make your way to Japan first. The nearest international airport to the three prefectures is Haneda Airport which has direct flights to several major cities in the world. In order to ride the shinkansen and local trains in this region, make sure to get a JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) which has a validity of 5 days within a 14 day period. This pass is best purchased online or overseas where it will cost 17,310 yen for adults / 8,650 yen for children. You will have to pay extra if you purchase it in Japan. You can also purchase the pass online here.
- Note that the 5 days which the pass is valid for need not be 5 consecutive days. As long as they are within the 14 day period, it is fine.
- When taking the shinkansen, you may want to reserve a seat especially for longer rides. Do reserve at least 3 days before and collect the tickets of your reserved seat at least 1 day before your trip.
- There are some local trains in this route which are not covered the JR East Pass (Nagano, Niigata area) so check beforehand.