Top 10 reasons to visit Niigata, Japan

Top 10 reasons to visit Niigata, Japan

Published February 27, 2011

During 1964, my grandfather Ben Levy, a Galveston businessman, had the extraordinary opportunity to visit Niigata, Japan, shortly before it became our official sister city. My grandfather was an active member of Galveston Rotary and planned to attend several Rotary meetings as he journeyed through Japan.

Plans to establish a sister city relationship were under way when then Mayor Edward Schreiber learned of my grandfather’s trip, so he asked him if he would be willing to make an overnight stop in Niigata to personally deliver “greetings.” My grandfather was thrilled to take this excursion and thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to the Niigata community.

Just recently, my son Stewart and I joined the privileged few from our island who have actually visited our dynamic sister city Niigata, and it was an experience I will forever treasure.

Stewart is a junior at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he is majoring in Japanese and minoring in business. For the past six months, Stewart has lived in Nagoya, Japan, where he is a study-abroad student at Nanzan University.

Last summer, while serving as an intern for Mayor Joe Jaworski, Stewart learned more about Galveston’s sister city relationship with Niigata. With the help of Patricia Bolton-Legg, former councilwoman and current chairwoman of the Galveston-Niigata committee, and her contact Jonathan Carll, who works in the foreign affairs division for the city of Niigata, Stewart and I visited the fair city during the first days of 2011.

There are dozens of compelling reasons to journey to Niigata, but here are our top 10:

1. Mayor Akira Shinoda and his four senior staff members of the foreign affairs division welcomed us with numerous, thoughtful gestures, including the flying of the American flag outside city hall on the day of our meeting.

Foreign affairs staff members included Ms. Hiroko Saito, Mrs. Keiko McGinty, Mrs. Naoka Yamamiya and Mr. Kazunori Yoda, who chairs the Galveston-Niigata committee.

During our meeting, I learned Mr. Yoda traveled to Galveston after Hurricane Ike and personally delivered funds, which were used to purchase replacement trees for our city.

While Niigata has relationships with other sister cities, their relationship with Galveston is the most long-standing, and they truly are invested in our continued recovery.

They had numerous questions about the recovering of our hotel industry as well as the revival of the Historical Strand District. It was heartwarming to have the opportunity to talk with them, and they made our trip to their city worthwhile, in and of itself.

2. The ANA Crown Plaza Hotel, where you can begin your day with freshly baked, thickly-sliced Texas-style toast. It was memorable and delicious.

3. The Cave D’occi Winery, part of a first-class property that cultivates rows and rows of European-style grape vineyards.

Since freezing cold temperatures prohibited us from touring the grounds, we visited the gift shop where I discovered the most delicious apple-raspberry preserves I have ever tasted. I wish I had purchased more jars.

4. The World Class Spa adjacent to the winery. We briefly talked with a husband and wife who were celebrating their anniversary and enjoying a couple of nights of pampering there.

5. The 130-year-old, award-winning Takarayama Sake (Japanese rice wine) Brewery. Our guide was the great-granddaughter of the original owner, and his portrait was proudly displayed in the sake tasting room. The sake was light and dry, and delightful to sample as we watched the snow falling on that picturesque winter afternoon.

6. Dinner at Bistro Tsubaki (Tsubaki means camellia), which specializes in sweet Nanban prawns. We were welcomed by long-standing members of the Niigata-Galveston committee.

In addition to Mr. Yoda, we were introduced to Mr. Kenji Nagai, Mrs. Fujiko Tanaka, Mrs. Naoko Yokoyama and Mrs. Yukari Omori.

Mr. Nagai spoke fondly of his meetings with former Mayor Jan Coggeshall and civic leader Don Hubbell. Mrs. Tanaka happily reminisced about being a houseguest of Joan and John Hyatt and told us she really enjoyed Dickens on The Strand.

You could not ask for more delightful dinner company, and we will never forget the hospitality.

7. The new concept shopping center, which included state-of-the-art fish markets, grocery stores and diners. At the grocery store, samples of home grown Nagoya pears were available to taste. They were juicy, tasty and are known for their sweet smell and smoothness.

The grocery store featured local specialties such as packaged pear pastries for purchase. If you love pears as much as we do, you will not want to miss this variety.

8. The small and cozy Ramen Noodle Diner with a single counter that seats 10 customers at one time. We walked in, selected our favorite flavor of Ramen from a handy vending machine, took our seat at the counter and, minutes later, were served piping hot and delicious Ramen soup. Such an efficient operation and a wonderful, hearty treat for us.

9. Shirone Giant Kite History Museum, which is the largest kite museum in the world and houses a collection of kites from all around the world.

10. And, the former Niigata Customs House, which was built in 1869 to coincide with the opening of the Niigata port, one of the five major ports opened to foreign trade at the time.

Our 48 hours in Niigata were over before we knew it, and Keiko, Naoko and Jonathan escorted us to our departing train. Without hesitation, they boarded the train with us, secured our luggage and proceeded to hand-select the seats they believed would provide the most beautiful view of the upcoming, snowy countryside.

After Stewart and I settled in our seats, I glanced out of the window and saw Keiko, Naoko and Jonathan patiently waiting outside, warmly waving goodbye. During our visit, they attended to our every imaginable need, placed all their responsibilities on the back burner and made us feel so incredibly welcomed.

Visiting Niigata was a dream come true for Stewart and I, and I hope to return again to experience the unforgettable hospitality.

Sharon Levy Pagan lives in Galveston.