A small taste of heaven

by Mark Thompson

Echigo Yuzawa Station is a well-trod portal to Niigata’s famed snow country, bustling this time of year with the comings and goings of skiers and boarders. But however fine the powder, there’s an excellent reason to linger: The Ponshu-kan (Sake Museum) located in the station.

At the entrance, a happy salaryman mannequin greets you with a bottle held aloft; inside there are several more, in various degrees of inebriation. Wish them well as you make a beeline for the Tasting Gallery.

Here, for a mere 500 yen, you receive five coin tokens and a chokko (small ceramic drinking cup). This is all you need to explore the paradise of 115 brands of nihonshu from a cross section of Niigata’s 102 breweries. If you wish to choose your five samples carefully, you can enter your desired flavor-profile into a computer: the database then serves up several suggestions. If you’re still in the dark, consult the gallery’s Kunkiko Yamada, a certified kikizakeshi (nihonshu’s equivalent of a sommelier).

The sake selection changes periodically, but you’re guaranteed a mix of popular favorites such as Hakkaisan, Kubota and Koshi no Kanbai, and rarities such as Kiri no To from Komatsubara Shuzo, Niigata’s newest brewery. Behind the great wall of sake a giant refrigerator keeps the sake chilled at 4-6 degrees.

Contrary to what you might expect, the Tasting Gallery wasn’t the brainchild of Niigata’s prefectural government, or even of its breweries. It was started from scratch by Ponshu-kan.

“When we opened seven years ago we had a tough time getting the cooperation of breweries,” says curator Kuwabara Haruhiko. Over the past couple of years though, he says that many have begun to see the light.

While the obvious benefit of the Tasting Gallery is educational, it also makes it easy for tipplers to try before buying — which they can do 10 meters away. In addition, there are plenty of Niigata food souvenirs on sale and a small restaurant with sake and handmade liqueurs on the menu. Finally, to top it all off there’s an onsite onsen. With all this what more could you possibly want?