Sake Sampling at Ponshu, Echigo-Yuzawa Station
The Japanese fondness for drinking is unashamedly displayed at JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station, Niigata Prefecture, where a section of the station has been set aside for enjoying sake-themed art, tasting sake from all parts of Niigata, eating foods made with sake, and, of course, buying sake. Another amusement for hedonistic travelers is soaking in a bath filled with sake and hot spring water.
Visitors to this center of sake madness, called the Ponshu-kan, are warmly greeted at the entrance by the statue of a ruddy-faced grinning salaryman who is enthusiastically waving a large sake bottle. He seems so friendly that many visitors stop to have their photographs taken with him. Hanging around his neck and laid upon his grey suit is a sign welcoming people inside. The sign is written in the casual way that a drunken man using the local Niigata dialect might speak.
After passing by this drunken greeter, sake lovers discover an intoxicating world. First, on the left, is a long narrow liquor store selling sake from every sake brewer in Niigata. Of course, all day long the helpful clerks dispense both samples of sake, many of which are unavailable outside of Niigata, and advice for sake novices.
Passed out and sprawled on the floor, below shelves displaying large bottles of sake, is a statue of another salaryman, perhaps the co-worker of the man who drunkenly greets visitors at the entrance.
The unconscious fellow on the floor is resting his head on a bottle which he had probably just finished emptying. Another statue represents an intoxicated salaryman bent over with a hand holding the wall for support; his face is pale and his eyes are squinting as if he is struggling to stay vertical. Lots of people also like to have their photographs taken with these accommodating, but obviously smashed, gentlemen.
For an education about the flavors of sake, there is no better school in the world than Koshinomuro, a shop without compare even in Japan. Vending machines attached to the walls dispense sake from ninety-five sake brewers within Niigata.
The customers, or students of sake, pay five hundred yen for the use of a small sake cup, ochoko, and five tokens for the automatic sake-dispensing machines. The process is to choose a variety of sake, insert the token, wait for the sake to pour into your cup, and savor.
For professional tasters, a small spittoon is available, so swallowing in unnecessary, but most people swallow. Cleaning the cup and rinsing the mouth with fresh water between tastings is recommended. The clerks are Niigata sake specialists, so they can answer any question or request. Ask for dry sake, sweet sake, fruity sake, or any other flavor, and the staff will guide you to the right sake dispensers.
For those wishing to test their sake discerning abilities, two rows of five sake dispensers have been reserved for kikizake, a formidable sake-tasting challenge. First, the taster samples four different sakes which are not labeled. After that, the taster tries one more cup of sake, and he or she must identify which of the four sakes is the same as the fifth.
Only one third of the challengers can identify the matching sakes. Winners receive a certificate noting their special abilities, and photographs of the winners are pasted on a wall. The author of this article is proud to state that his photograph is now displayed amidst other elite sake buffs.
Ask about Niigata, and Japanese will undoubtedly speak of sake, rice, and seafood. Unusual combinations of these are available in the Ponshu-kan restaurants and souvenir shops, which specialize in foods that are made with sake or sake by-products: amazake soft cream, brownies prepared with sake, seafood and vegetables simmered in sake, or pumpkin, papaya, and garlic liqueurs containing, surprise, sake.
If the consumption of sake and sake-related foods has worn you out, there is one more unique experience waiting for you. Sakeburo Yunosawa, a small hot spring facility offers baths filled with natural hot spring water and sake. Each morning, two large bottles of specially prepared sake is poured into each bath.
The manager of the hot spring claims that the sake has been specially formulated by a local sake brewer for his baths. He also claims that the sake and hot spring water mix is an efficacious remedy for many skin ailments. Being not only a sake enthusiast, but also a hot spring addict, I had to try the bath, too. It is an indoor bath with no windows for natural ventilation, so the room is steamy. I thought that I detected a slight sake odor in the steam, but it might have been my own breath.
The final activity to enjoy before sadly going home is choosing souvenirs. Naturally, sake and sake-related food products are options, but there are other unusual goods. For those visitors who have excessively enjoyed sake at the Ponshu-kan and might later need help in reconstructing their memories of their trip, ceramic plates or key holders displaying the images of drunken salarymen might be just the thing.
Be sure not to drive home from the Ponshu-kan. In fact, a sign informs visitors that "Ponshu-kan is the store of drunken-driving banishment declaration."
Ponshu-kan is located at JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station on the Joetsu Shinkansen from Tokyo Station. JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station is also on the Joetsu Line from Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture to Miyauchi Station in Niigata and the Hokuhoku Line linking Echigo-Yuzawa Station with Kanazawa Station.