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Wednesday, 10 April, 2002, 15:10 GMT 16:10 UK

Niigata - Rugged and rich

Niigata is so rich in resources and landscape that it is difficult to work out what it does not offer.

With beaches, greenery, mountains and snow, this bountiful region boasts enough geographical contrast to satisfy even the most demanding traveller.

Located 250km northwest of Tokyo on the Japan Sea coast, this region is famous for its crystal-clear waters and lovely countryside.

Of course, some visitors might be keen to try its less-clear alcoholic waters as it is also a leading producer of sake (rice wine).

Area facts

  • Population: 530,000
  • Location: 250km northwest of Tokyo on central island Honshu
  • Local team: Albirex Niigata (Div 2)
  • Sights: Mountains, beaches and the Niigata Memorial
  • Top products: Sake, rice, tulips and pears
  • It would be a crime not to sample the national drink, which is best enjoyed late in the evening sitting with 10 worse-for-wear Japanese salarymen who you have never met before, shouting "Kampai" (cheers) in unison.

    When not downing neat sake, visitors can marvel at Niigata's rugged beauty.

    As well as abundant farmland, the area is surrounded by mountains dotted with interior plateaus.

    Unsurprisingly, the people take to the hills in droves during the winter months armed with snowboards and skis.

    Like many Japanese things, it is not what you do but how you look when doing it.

    Expect to see the pistes littered with bodies garbed in the latest and trendiest snow gear - the fact that they cannot stand up on their snowboard or skis is beside the point.

    Going up the ski lifts, it is possible to see wondrous views from the top, which are ruined by the grating sound of Japanese pop blaring out of tannoys scattered over the mountain.

    Niigata City itself is a busy place, which is not surprising as it is the largest port on that side of Honshu and a convenient gateway to the region's machinery, textile, chemical, oil-refining and lumber industries.

    Many tourists, however, use it to get to Sado-ga-shima, an island to the west of the city.

    In medieval times, Sado-ga-shima used to be an island of exiles for intellectuals who had fallen out of favour with the government.

    These days, its relaxed pace of life and natural beauty still makes it the place to get away from it all, but for personal reasons rather than political.

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