Niigata (新潟) is the prefectural capital, the largest city on the Sea of Japan coast and a decent place to spend a night or so en route to the ski fields or Sado-ga-shima. Highlights include a lively restaurant district serving the region's famed rice and sake, an attractive city park and the handsome Shinano-gawa running through the centre. Head up to the impressive Nippō observation deck to get a sense of where you are in the world.
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