After a number of years repeating to myself, “I’m going to visit the world of Japanese sake,” I finally did last month … even though it was cut short by a winter storm.
Nevertheless, before getting into the good stuff, I should probably clarify something. Sake — the word many of us bandy about to describe, well, sake — is misleading. The Japanese word sake/酒/さけ, while technically appropriate, refers to all liquor (or wine); the less marketable albeit more correct word would be nihonshu/日本酒/にほんしゅ, signifying “rice wine.” So I’m going to stick with sake because it has more staying power.
And now, the good stuff. Over the years, numerous conversations with Japanese friends, antenna shop workers, and tourism info centers have signaled to me that Niigata prefecture was arguably the place to go for rice, and its inebriated offspring, sake. A short hop from Sapporo, and I was soon at my hotel in the eponymous capital, Niigata.
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Known as the sacred wine (神酒/みき/miki, or “god liquor”) as it has been provided as an offering to Shinto gods for more than 2,000 years, sake has also been a staple in Niigata since the 16th century. Nowadays, Niigata has the most sake breweries of any prefecture in Japan.
But there’s no need to try to go everywhere at once.
This is where I introduce you to Niigata city’s Ponshukan (ぽんしゅ館). Ponshukan is a small chain of regional Niigata food and crafts stores, with most branches located in Niigata train station.
One such branch has a somewhat hidden veritable buffet of sake.
Once you wade through all of the delicious-looking food and drink souvenirs, you end up at the sake tasting corner. Head to the cashier to your immediate right, pay 500 yen, and then you’ll receive five tokens, and a sake cup, called choko (猪口/ちょこ), or “wild boar’s mouth.”
Caveat: don’t expect much English, if any. There’s a wealth of information about which part of Niigata prefecture each sake hails from, and maps and guides about sake and sake-production; if you want to know more about this stuff, this is where a translator app comes in handy.
However, there is at least a bilingual guide to the dryness, richness, and aroma of each sample, rated from one to five stars, as well as the English name and place of origin of each sake. In other words, if you really a particular sample, take a photo it, then show it to one of the employees in the neighboring liquor store. Boss!
Depending on the sake that you want to try, the vending machine will require one, two, or three tokens.
Don’t worry — if you’re not so interested in sake, there are also a few types of umeshu, or plum wine, to try:
I was never too familiar with sake, but I gained a much greater appreciation for it after visiting different Niigata restaurants, and indeed Ponshukan. The question now is, where’s the analog for Japanese tea?
Have you ever visited Niigata? Are you a fan of sake?
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