These are the best things to do in Yuzawa in Japan’s Niigata Prefecture. From riding the Yuzawa Kogen Ropeway for alpine views, to visiting the Kiyotsu Gorge, and sampling different types of sake, there is plenty to do in this onsen mountain town!
Yuzawa is a ski resort and onsen town situated in Minamiuonuma District in the Japanese Alps in Niigata Prefecture. Its ease of accessibility from Tokyo makes it a popular winter destination and it has become known as snow country among skiers and snowboarders since you can be on the slopes in less than two hours after leaving the city.
However, Yuzawa also has plenty to offer visitors the rest of the year. You can ride the ropeway year-round for alpine views, visit the Kiyotsu Gorge and the impressive art installation it houses, hike to waterfalls, soak your feet in the free foot baths, sample different types of sake, and even try a sake-infused onsen!
In this guide, we’ll be sharing the best things to do in Yuzawa, how to get there, where to stay and more.
Getting to Yuzawa
Getting to Yuzawa couldn’t be any easier with frequent train connections that make it an ideal weekend destination or even an accessible day trip.
From Tokyo – catch the Joetsu Shinkansen at Tokyo Station travelling towards Niigata. It’s a 1 hour and 14-minute journey and you’ll get off at Echigo Yuzawa Station.
From Niigata – catch the Joetsu Shinkansen at Niigata Station heading towards Tokyo. It’s a 44-minute journey and you’ll get off at Echigo Yuzawa Station.
Alternatively, you can catch the Shin-Etsu Line and then transfer onto the Joetsu Line in Nagaoka. This is a considerably longer journey riding the local commuter trains and takes 2 hours and 38 minutes, however, it does cost less than taking the Shinkansen.
Where to stay in Yuzawa
Yuzawa offers different types of accommodation to suit every budget. You can find ryokans, hotels and guesthouses featuring both Western-style rooms and traditional Japanese-style rooms.
Four Seasons Yuzawa Quattro – luxurious maisonette with a living room, bedroom, private open-air hot spring bath, and a balcony only 5 minutes from the train station.
Shosenkaku Kagetsu – hotel providing Japanese-style accommodation plus various hot spring baths only 3 minutes from the train station.
Yuzawa Grand Hotel – Western and Japanese-style rooms plus indoor and outdoor baths only 2 minutes from the train station.
Things to do in Yuzawa
Ride the Yuzawa Kogen Ropeway
One of the best things to do in Yuzawa if you want to enjoy the surrounding mountain view is to ride the Yuzawa Kogen Ropeway.
The ropeway connects Echigo-Yuzawa Station with the Alpine Botanical Garden (Alp no Sato) in just seven minutes. At 1,300 meters long this is considered one of the world’s biggest ropeways and it has the capacity to carry 166 passengers.
The Alpine Botanical Garden sits at an altitude of 1,000 meters and it features various gardens with 200+ rare species of alpine plants that you would normally only find in the highlands at around 2,500 meters above sea level.
Once you reach the top, you can enjoy the mountain views from various panoramic points, stop at the various photo ops like the Ayamegaike chair, or take part in some adventure activities like mountain go-karting, ziplining, or riding the summer bobsled.
Take a day trip to Kiyotsu Gorge
If you only have time for one day trip from Yuzawa, choose the Kiyotsu Gorge! This is one of the ‘Three Great Gorges of Japan’ and it’s a place with spectacular scenery.
The gorge was carved by the Kiyotsu River over millions of years and it features vertical cliffs, caves, and streams – essentially a nature lover’s paradise.
The main tourist attraction here is the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel, an art installation created by MAD Architects. This installation includes:
- Periscope – a building with a cafe on the ground floor and a foot bath on the second floor. The cone-shaped ceiling has a mirror that reflects the landscapes of the gorge.
- Expression of Color – a portion of the tunnel with coloured lights and chanting music.
- FLOW – a viewing platform that has been painted in black and white swirls.
- Invisible Bubble – a mirrored dome toilet located inside FLOW.
- Drops – a viewing platform with a tunnel of mirrors that resemble droplets of water.
- Light Cave – a viewing platform where the ground is covered in a thin layer of water that reflects the landscapes and creates an interplay between shadows and light.
Getting to the Kiyotsu Gorge is fairly straightforward. You have to catch the bus bound for Morinomiyahara Station departing from Platform 4 in front of Echigo Yuzawa Station (east exit).
The one thing to keep in mind is that the bus only runs a handful of times a day, so you’ll want to plan your visit accordingly. If you go into the visitor information centre inside the train station, they’ll give you a map and explain the journey in detail. It does involve a 20-minute walk once you get off the bus, but it’s doable.
Hike to Fudo Falls
If you’re looking for a super easy hike with big rewards, I would recommend hiking to Fudo Falls.
The waterfall is named after Fudo Myoo, a deity in Japanese Buddhism known as the Immovable Wisdom King. This deity is often associated with waterfalls, so as a result, Fudo Falls is not just a natural attraction but also holds cultural and religious importance.
To get to the falls, you need to follow the road that leads up towards the mountain between the Yuzawa Museum of History and Folklore and the Yuzawa Kogen Ropeway. You’ll be able to see, or at least hear, the stream that runs down the mountain.
You’ll first reach the falls that run over the dam, and if you continue just a bit further uphill, you’ll reach the actual falls in their natural element.
The setting is serene and beautiful any time of year. The falls are also relatively accessible to visitors since it’s a short trail, that’s paved most of the way, and you only go on a dirt path at the very end once you’ve almost reached the falls.
Enjoy the free foot baths
If you spend enough time travelling around Japan, you’ll notice that most onsen towns have free foot baths that visitors can enjoy. This is no different in Yuzawa!
There are three different foot baths located directly behind Echigo Yuzawa Train Station that you can reach by taking the west exit, and there’s another foot bath a bit further in Yuzawa Central Park.
All you have to do is remove your shoes and socks and you can dip your weary feet in the warm waters. It’s a nice way to unwind after a busy day of sightseeing.
These foot baths are covered with large umbrellas and offer some protection from the sun, rain and snow.
We even found a random hand bath, which we were not expecting but definitely made use of!
Sample sake at the Echigo Sake Museum Ponshukan
One of the coolest things to do in Yuzawa is to visit the Echigo Sake Museum Ponshukan located inside Echigo Yuzawa Train Station.
The museum has a wall of sake vending machines where you can try all sorts of sake.
For ¥500 you get 5 tokens that you can use to sample different types of sake. Most sakes require just 1 token, though more premium ones may require 2 or 3 tokens.
If you’re not quite sure where to begin, look at the board for some of the staff’s top sake recommendations.
Niigata Prefecture is famous for its sake and it’s considered the best area for growing rice and fermenting sake due to its deep snow and its abundance of water.
Eat your way through Echigo Yuzawa Train Station
It’s not every day I list a train station as a tourist attraction, but Echigo Yuzawa Station certainly deserves that distinction. There are so many cool things to see and do in the station that you could seriously spend a whole day there.
For starters, the train station has an onsen on site and what makes it unique is that sake is added to the water.
Aside from this, you can buy all sorts of street food and the thing to try is sasa-dango, a traditional sweet from Niigata Prefecture.
Sasa-dango is made primarily from mochi (glutinous rice) and red bean paste. The rice is pounded into a sticky dough and then wrapped around a filling of sweetened red bean paste. The distinctive feature of sasa-dango is the inclusion of mugwort (yomogi), which gives the dough a natural green colour and a unique, herbaceous flavour.
The sasa-dango is wrapped in bamboo leaves (sasa leaves). These leaves not only impart a subtle fragrance and flavour to the dango but they also help keep it moist and fresh. Plus, the wrapping makes it portable and easy to carry, which historically made it a popular snack for travellers.
We tried one and really enjoyed it. Red bean paste as a dessert filling is a bit of an acquired taste, but if you’ve spent enough time travelling around East Asia, you’ve probably encountered it. We like that it brings a mild sweetness to desserts.
Also, you’ll likely be asked if you want the chunky red bean paste or smooth red bean paste. We had a bit of a lost-in-translation moment, but we eventually figured it out when the lady behind the counter started pointing at different pictures.
Have soba noodles for lunch
Soba is a traditional Japanese dish highly renowned in Niigata Prefecture. This is because Niigata Prefecture is known for its exceptional quality buckwheat, the primary ingredient in soba noodles. The region’s climate and soil conditions are ideal for growing buckwheat, leading to a distinctive flavour and texture in the noodles.
In Niigata, you’ll find a variety of soba styles. Some are served cold with a dipping sauce (zaru soba), while others are in hot broth (kake soba). There’s also a regional specialty called hegi soba characterized by its firm and chewy texture served on a wooden platter in bite-sized swirls.
We had lunch at Nakanoya Soba Yuzawa, a great restaurant located just across from the Echigo Yuzawa Station.
Niigata is also famous for its sake, and pairing soba noodles with local sake is a popular culinary experience, enhancing the flavours of both the dish and the drink. We didn’t order sake since we had already tried quite a bit at the Echigo Sake Museum Ponshukan, but you can certainly do so!
We enjoyed this restaurant so much we tried to come again a second time only to discover they are not open on Thursdays! But if you come to Yuzawa, definitely check this place out.
Best time to visit Yuzawa
While Yuzawa is a popular winter ski destination, the best time to visit really depends on what you’re looking to experience:
For Winter Sports (December to March)
Yuzawa is renowned for its heavy snowfall, making it one of the most popular skiing and snowboarding destinations in Japan. The peak snow season runs from late December to February, but the ski resorts usually operate from December to early April, depending on the snow conditions. If you’re keen on winter sports, this is the best time to visit.
For Onsen (Year-round)
Yuzawa has numerous hot springs, making it a great destination for onsen lovers throughout the year. Winter is a particularly popular time to soak in an onsen, with the contrast of the hot water and cold air creating a unique experience. However, onsens can also be enjoyed in other seasons, especially after a tiring day of exploring or hiking.
For Sightseeing and Hiking (May to November)
As the snow melts, the landscape transforms, revealing lush greenery and beautiful vistas. Late spring to autumn is great for sightseeing, trekking, and enjoying the natural beauty of the region. During the months of October and November, you can witness the autumn leaves that offer a spectacular display of reds, oranges, and yellows.
Ski Resorts in Yuzawa
Yuzawa is a very popular winter destination with skiers and snowboarders. There are a whopping 12 ski resorts in Yuzawa offering slopes for different levels from beginner to advanced, as well as numerous outdoor winter activities to choose from. So it’s easy to see why this place is nicknamed Snow Country! Some of the ski resorts offer their own free shuttle bus to transport guests from Echigo Yuzawa Station to the ski area.
- Naeba Ski Resort
- Kagura Ski Resort (Tashiro Station)
- Kagura Ski Resort (Mitsumata Station)
- Nakazato Snow Wood Ski Resort
- Yuzawa Nakazato Snow Resort
- Yuzawa Park Ski Resort
- Iwappara Ski Resort
- Kandatsu Snow Resort
- NASPA Ski Garden
- Ipponsugi Ski Resort
- Yuzawa Kogen Ski Resort
- GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort
Tip: There are lockers at Echigo Yuzawa Station should you need to store your ski or snowboard equipment while you spend some time exploring the town.
Fuji Rock Festival
If you’re visiting Yuzawa during the summer, there is one event you won’t want to miss!
Fuji Rock Festival is one of Japan’s most famous music festivals and it’s typically held during the summer months in late July or early August.
It’s named after its original location near Mount Fuji, but since 1999, the festival has been held at the Naeba Ski Resort in Niigata Prefecture.
The festival puts on an impressive lineup of both international and Japanese artists featuring a wide range of music genres, from rock and electronic to hip-hop and reggae, attracting music lovers of all tastes. Plus it also offers an epic setting surrounded by mountains.