Tasting sake in the sake and rice museum inside the Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture is a fun thing to do if you are passing through.
This isn’t a tea ceremony type of thing, but self-service: there are more than 100 sake machines available for you to operate by yourself. For 500 yen you can buy 5 coins and the loan of a sake cup. There are 117 different kinds of sake to taste, 95 of which from Niigata itself. This and the funny way its presented, makes a visit to this sake- and rice museum (which is really just a way to pull in customers to the liquor store…) worth while. Kanpai!
Bathing in sake
I first heard of this sake attraction via Only in Japan, a YouTube channel. Niigata prefecture is known for its sake. The tasting storeroom is part of the station’s Ponshukan, a souvenir shop, restaurant, sake- and rice museum and onsen in one. Onsen? Yes, drinking sake isn’t enough for you, you can bathe in it for an extra 800 yen. The sake is added to natural onsen water (41 degrees Celcius) for you to simmer in.
I’m not that keen on onsen, but I like to have drink. Niigata wasn’t really on my route, but because you can go to Niigata in just over 3 hours, I made a day trip out of it from Tokyo in 2016. Ticked another Shinkansen line off the list: the Jōetsu Shinkansen.
Take note: the sake and rice museum is NOT in Niigata and not even in a suburb of it. Echigo-Yuzawa is 140 kilometers away from Niigata and thus closer to Tokyo.
You can skip Niigata itself, unless you are on your way to Sado Island. I thought I’d take a look at the Sea of Japan (next stop Vladivostok), but after walking from the station for an hour it turned out to be less exciting than I thought. There was no beach, just a sad parking lot full of cars with their engines running and their drivers taking a nap. Back on a bus and train, I headed back to Tokyo with a quick stop in Echigo-Yuzawa, just for the sake tasting.
Ski-resort and souvenir shopping
Echigo-Yuzawa is dead in Summer, but very busy in Winter when its a popular place to ski, with no less than 20 resorts. That’s why the station has an extraordinarily large souvenir shop. The omiyage (souvenirs) consists of regional food, knives, rice and, of course, sake.
You’ll recognise the sake and rice museum, where by the way you can also taste different types of salt if you’re so inclined, by the large sign that explains what you’re supposed to do. If not, you’ll stumble over the life size plastic drunken salary men posed in front of the museum entrance. The sign says: “I drank too much yesterday so now I have hangover. Please take it easy.”
Inside the museum you are immediately confronted with the sake machines. Take it easy? But there is so much choice! What to do?
Thankfully the museum – which isn’t really a museum – has a list of the most popular sake. The local Echigo sake is the most popular. Would you believe it? Anyway. I’m not a sake connaisseur and the five cups I tasted all tasted great. I did notice they all had different flavours.
If you want to have a go at this sake tasting, it takes 90 minutes to get to Echigo-Yuzawa from Tokyo. Take the Joetsu Shinkansen in the direction of Niigata. Your JR Pass is valid on this route. A single journey will cost about 6500 yen.