Niigata is referred to as Japan’s “rice basket” because it’s surrounded by a huge rice paddy field. There you can go sightseeing to see the paddy field, taste some Senbei (rice crackers) and learn to cook your own, and visit the Sake Museum in Echigo where you can discover the 93 kinds of sake made in prefecture. There are also cultural sites to visit like ruins of Takada Castle and the Sado Gold Mine plus natural wonders like the Toki no Mori Koen, a lush forest park. You can also take a dip in the many onsens in the city if you need a soul-soothing bath.
Speaking of onsens, you’ll find a lot of these in Nagano as well. There’s even a hot spring known as the Jigokudani where you might find macaque monkeys taking a bath. Between the two cities, Nagano is the most quaint of the two. While there are dashes of modernity and the contemporary, tourists often frequent its quieter side where you can find majestic shrines like the Zenkō-ji Temple and the Togakushi Mountain Shrine. It’s towns are also sights to behold in their own right, like Obuse where you can marvel at the paintings and woodblock prints of the legendary Hokusai. There are also ninja-related attractions like Togakure Ninpo Museum and the Kid’s Ninja Village if you want to learn about the iconic and shadowy warriors of the country.