Japan's best booze, straight to your gullet


Sake is Japan's drink, and can be found wherever rice is grown. While each region has their own characteristics and flavors, it's generally accepted that Niigata sake is of the highest quality. This is due to the rice itself, which is in turn so good because of the "soft" water that flows through Niigata after some of the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan.

Sake, rice wine, also called Nihon-shu (literally Japan-alcohol), has gained popularity around the world as a smooth, flavorful drink that pairs well with seafood and snacks. Sake is always made from rice, and is rated in terms of dryness, richness, aroma, alcohol percentage (usually 13-17%), and furthermore, the grade; that is, how much the rice has been "shaved" before brewing. In general, the finer and smaller the rice has been shaved, the purer the sake, and the higher the price.


There are a plethora of sake breweries all across Niigata, generally concentrated near rivers. Imayo-Tsukasa Sake Brewery has been making sake since the turn of the 20th century, and still stands at the same location today. Quite close to Niigata station, the street this brewery is on was once indeed a river that flowed to the sea of Japan to the north, also indicating why along the same road there are soy sauce and miso makers as well. While the landscape may change, the process and tradition of making sake stands strong here. That isn't to say however that Imayo-Tsukasa is stuck in the past.

This brewery stays relevant, combining old techniques with new, and even teaming up with artists to create bottle designs. The most famous is their "Koi" line of sake made to resemble a koi fish. Another is the "Black" brand which has a mysterious yet inviting appearance.

With the right timing, reviving old techniques can be a form of innovation. The owner was proud to tell us that his brewery has started storing a portion of their sake in cedar barrels as opposed to large metal tanks; a practice that has been all but lost over Niigata. Furthermore, Imayo-Tsukasa has, since 2006, stopped supplementing their sake with other grain alcohols, a process that became mainstream during the rice shortages after World War 2.

You can take tours of the brewery here, and the current owner has a very open and conversational style about him, letting people explore the brewery as he both explains the process and tells stories of the brewery's past and present. Inside is full of classic equipment, some in use, some for show, and it's a reminder that sake brewing on a small scale is very much a hands-on process, and the result of labor, dedication, and passion.

After the tour, there is a tasting corner that lets you freely sample nearly all their varieties. Explore the flavors, and find the best balance of dryness and aroma for you!

Niigata Sake Museum Ponshukan at Echigo-Yuzawa Sta.

Echigo Yuzawa, surrounded by high mountains, and one of the top ski destinations in Japan. Just about an hour and a few minutes directly from Tokyo Station, it's a great point of entry into Niigata. Not only do you have skiing, but hiking, stunning nature, and some of the best rice, and hence sake, very nearby.

If you've just come to ski, or are merely stopping by, connected to the station is "CoCoLo" a shopping emporium of Niigata goodies, restaurants, and a place most wouldn't dare miss before the return train home: the "Ponshukan". This place was made for sake enthusiasts, selling countless varieties, along with treats and snacks that are dying to be paired with any number of delicious drinks.

The tasting area though, has to be the biggest draw. It's a clever system, putting nearly every sake brand across Niigata in a dispensary wall, each getting its own vending box. For 500 yen, you get 5 special coins, and a glass, and can peruse the wall of sake, sampling ones that catch your eye. Each sake (and a handful of shochu and wines) cost a certain number of coins ranging from one to three, and also has a rating system for its dryness, richness, aroma, and alcohol percentage. Just put your coin in, place your glass, and press a button to get about 20ml of the sake, the perfect amount for a satisfying sip.