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Yuzawa is a mountain resort town in the Niigata Prefecture of Japan that is famous for its onsens & winter sports activities, as well as many great places for drinking sake. The snow from beautiful Japanese Alps produces an abundance of clean water. Meanwhile, this climate is also perfect for growing rice, another key sake ingredient. Niigata not only produces the third-most sake in Japan; local residents also drink more sake than anywhere else in the country. Here is where to find the best sake in Yuzawa, including the best breweries, tasting rooms, & bars.
Visiting a sake brewery in Yuzawa
Shirataki Sake Brewery
The Shirataki Sake Brewery is located not far from the Echigo-Yuzawa train station that dominates the town of Yuzawa. Head below the tracks and you’ll immediately find yourself in the rice paddy fields of the countryside.
On weekdays, tours of the Shirataki Sake Brewery are available, as long as you book ahead of time. The tour takes you through the brewery facilities while explaining the process of sake brewing.
Whether you do the tour or not, anyone can do a sake tasting on the third floor of the main brewery building. There are also offices on this floor, so yes, you’ll be drinking sake while everyone nearby is working.
This bottle shop has a wide variety of the various sakes brewed by Shirataki, from their Jozen line to more expensive rarer varieties, plus other items, including cosmetics made from sake.
Nearly all of the Shirataki sakes were available to try in the tasting room. Not only is the selection broad (some 15 different bottles of sake when I visited, including seasonal releases), visitors also pour for themselves. If you begin to feel that you might have had your fill of tasting & should show some restraint, you will find yourself being encouraged by the staff to try even more. A sales tactic for sure, but it’s also enjoyable hospitality.
The staff & the provided information help explain the differences between each sake.
The sake meter value measures the sweetness or dryness of each variety compared to water.
The rice polishing ratio signifies how much of the rice grain was left after polishing. The lower the polishing ratio, the less of the grain remaining, which generally correlates to a higher cost thanks to more rice being required for brewing. However, taste is a matter of preference, so some will prefer sake with a higher polishing ratio, which leaves more of the outer layers, thus providing a fuller flavor.
Thanks to having so many different bottles of sake available, the selection from Shirataki runs across the full range of tastes.
As you sip your sake, be sure to take in the panoramic views of the mountain valley surrounding Yuzawa.
In the end, I didn’t quite try all of the sake samples since I thought it would be excessive, but I came close. Shirataki does export to the United States, including to San Francisco, so I didn’t buy anything to take home. But I was tempted.
Address: 2640 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata 949-6101, Japan (map)
Sake tasting & shopping in Echigo-Yuzawa station
Ponshukan Sake Museum (Sake Tasting Corner)
The Ponshukan Sake Museum AKA Sake Tasting Corner in Echigo-Yuzawa train station just might be the best sake experience in Japan. Where else can you combine the Japanese love of sake with the Japanese love of vending machines? As soon as you see the statues of the passed out businessmen outside, you know you’re in for a treat.
Entry to Ponshukan is 500 yen, but for this you get 5 tokens (don’t worry, you can always buy more).
With these tokens, you can then sample a wide variety of Niigata sake. How wide? This wide.
There are about 120 different sakes available, plus a few plum wine, shochu, and other local wine options. Ponshukan also has salt, miso, and cucumbers to taste.
The presentation of the sake tasting in Sake Tasting Corner is simple, but what the endless vending machines lack in fanciness, they more than make up for with an informative tasting experience.
Some of the selections include English in the titles & descriptions, but otherwise there are helpful drawings that describe the flavor of each sake. With so many sake options to choose from, you’re going to have to make choices, so the information is useful for making the decision just a bit easier.
Once you’ve chosen your sake, put your choko (sake cup) underneath the dispenser. Then, put in the required number of tokens (1-4 depending on how pricey an option you’ve chosen) & press the button. As you listen to the rumbling of trains overhead, watch your new mechanical bartender friend work its magic.
It’s as simple as that. Enjoy your sake & start planning what will be next. I worked my way through a couple of sets of tokens, learning that I enjoy dry, full-bodied sakes with caramel flavors the most.
There’s one small issue with the Sake Tasting Corner, which is that there isn’t really any seating. It’s not a place where you’re meant to linger for very long. That’s not a problem since there are other sake bars in Yuzawa, but don’t go there planning on spending much time.
Once you’ve had your fill of sake & found out which ones you like, there’s a convenient bottle shop right outside. This combination is a perfect concept. Yes, the sake museum sells sake by the cup, but it’s also a promotional tool for everything else that’s available for sale. The bottle shop also has some small samples, in case you haven’t had your fill of getting drunk in a train station. Ponshukan also has other locations in the Niigata & Nagaoka train stations.
The Echigo-Yuzawa train station serves as a town hub. It’s filled with restaurants offering a variety of dishes, including the local specialty hegi soba, as well as a great hidden onigiri stand called Yukinto. The shops also make the train station the perfect place to pick up some local gifts. If sake is not your style, they also have a selection of local craft beer from nearby Minamiuonuma & some local wine. There’s even a sake onsen at the very back if internal consumption of sake has not been sufficient.
Address: 2427ー3 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata 949-6101, Japan (map)
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One of the most fun sake experiences in Japan is the Echigo Sake Museum Ponshukan AKA Sake Tasting Corner in the Echigo-Yuzawa train station. Purchasing tokens allows you to sample from 120 different varieties of sake, all served from vending machines. The effect of so much sake is clearly represented by the statues outside!
The best sake bars in Yuzawa
While you can of course drink sake in pretty much any bar or restaurant in Yuzawa, there are a couple of sake bars that are particularly notable for their great sake selection.
Bar Yamashin (地酒 bar 山新)
Bar Yamashin is a quiet local sake bar located east of the train station, south of the brewery. With over 100 different sakes available as small 60-90ml pours, there are plenty of tasting options.
The small bar has 8 seats along a counter facing the sake fridges, providing a great view of the selection. There is also a small beer selection, including Rydeen from the nearby Hakkaisan sake brewery.
They also offer seasonal small plates that pair well with the sake. This is the yellowtail sashimi.
While the menu was entirely Japanese, between using Google Translate & my Spanish skills, I had no problems ordering. Yes, my Spanish skills. One of the owners didn’t speak much English, and I speak very little Japanese. However, thanks to her having studied in Paraguay & my high school Spanish experience, we settled on that being the best mutual language for communication.
With some nice jazz playing, Bar Yamashin is a cool, chill sake bar that would be a great place for a romantic evening out.
Address: 3 Chome-4-10 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata 949-6101, Japan (map)
Tazikawa Maroi is another great Yuzawa sake bar. It’s located on the west side of the train station. The bar features over 100 sake varieties, served by their in-house sake sommelier.
Address: 2511-3 Yuzawa, Minamiuonuma District, Niigata 949-6101, Japan (map)
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