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Niigata is a city (pop. 484,000) and prefecture (pop. 2,490,000) in Japan. The city, located at the mouth of the Shinano River, is the largest port on the Sea of Japan coast and handles a significant amount of maritime traffic, most notably periodic ferries to North Korea. The prefecture is one of Japan's largest rice cultivation areas, and houses several other sizable cities including Nagaoka and Joetsu, as well as one of Japan's lesser-known islands, Sado Island.

Niigata was incorporated in 1889. Before the opening of Japan made seaports more important to Japan's economy, Niigata was a rather sleepy fishing village isolated from Edo and other major cities by the high mountains of the Japanese interior. Its main economic value was as a port of call for ships on coastal routes to the Kansai region: Sado Island was also the site of a huge gold mine that filled the bakufu's coffers for centuries.

The treaties signed with Western powers in the mid-1800's made Niigata an important seaport: in its early years, the city was known for its broad network of canals, although these have since been filled in and turned into highways.

In the decades of economic expansion following World War II, Niigata's influence in Tokyo grew dramatically, largely thanks to the prominence of Tanaka Kakuei, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest pork-barrel politicians in Japanese history: he brought the Joetsu Shinkansen high-speed rail line to the city in the 1980's, and won funding from the government for vast infrastructure improvements throughout the prefecture. Nowadays, Niigata's countryside is covered in tunnels, bridges, and highways, quite a few of which are rarely used for anything.

The area is warm in the summertime, averaging 27 degrees Celsius in July; however, the ocean currents from the north make Niigata cold and snowy during the winter, with an average January temperature of 0 degrees Celsius and monthly snowfall often in excess of 20 cm.

Some other random facts about Niigata:

  • The world's best koi (as in the fish) are said to come from Niigata.
  • Niigata is the location of the International University of Japan.
  • Niigata is a center for metalworking. 95% of all metal utensils manufactured in Japan come from the prefecture, and Niigata also produces railway cars, machine tools, and other heavy machinery.
For more, visit Niigata City at www.city.niigata.niigata.jp, and Niigata Prefecture at www.pref.niigata.jp.

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