Sake (or Nihonshu) can be as involved and varied a subject as wine. Both have their experts, aficionados and divided opinions and, like wine, you can put all that aside and just enjoy the drink itself.
This is the precisely the aim of Ponshukan (or Sake Museum) in Echigo Yuzawa Station where you can taste 100 varieties of local sake – although it’s not advised you do it all in one go. If you are not relaxed enough, there is also an onsen in the station with sake added to the water.
Just as the environment plays a vital role in the character of grapes used to make wine, the same is true of rice, the principal ingredient in sake. Niigata is famous throughout Japan for its rice, and the area around Yuzawa produces Koshihikari, the most highly regarded of all. The pure, clean water that melts off the mountains to fill the rice fields every year is the same used to make the sake. Great rice plus pure water equals fantastic sake.
Ponshukan is at the far end of Echigo Yuzawa Station opposite the main gates. Just look for the full-sized models of inebriated, be-suited commuters in various drunken poses, possibly giving a taste of what lies in store. Past the sake shop with a dazzling array of different bottles, you come to the main attraction: The Wall of Sake. As fearsome as it sounds, it’s basically a giant vending machine with more than 100 kinds of sake available. For ¥500, you receive five tokens and a tasting cup to experiment at will.
A sake menu can be just as intimidating as a wine menu, but you are sure to find a sake style to suit your palette. Each box has the bottle label on, so it is easy to locate your personal favorite among the many on offer in the gift shop on the way out. There is also information on the grade and taste to guide you.
There are several big names, famous throughout Japan, such as Hakkaisan, that will elicit appreciative comments when you present them as omiyage. Another great brewery from Yuzawa is Shirotaki.
They also have an informative Website in English that explains the whole process and gives a good general introduction to this huge subject. http://www.jozen.sakura.ne.jp/english/index.html
The adjacent hot spring containing sake is supposed to aid circulation and metabolism. After my detailed inspection of the tasting boxes (all in the name of research), it just gave me a head rush. After some great sake, good food and a hot bath, the journey to Tokyo will never seem so short. So, whether you have a serious interest in sake or just need to kill 10 minutes before your train, you’ll enjoy the experience.