At the end of August I was back in Japan for a business trip. At the end of a long work week I was looking forward to a fun weekend of sightseeing before heading home Sunday afternoon.
I wanted to visit Sado Island on Saturday so I planned to stay in the city of Niigata (新潟) on Friday night to be able to grab the first ferry to the island in the morning. After arriving in Niigata and checking into my hotel I decided to venture out a bit since the night was still young. In doing a little research on Niigata I had read about Ponshukan (ぽんしゅ館), which offered sake tasting. Niigata prefecture is famous for its rice and sake so it seemed like a great way to enjoy the evening.
In Japan there is a vending machine for just about everything so I wasn't too surprised to learn upon arriving that the sake tasting was done by vending machine. For ¥500 (about 4 USD) I got five tokens and a little tasting cup with each tasting costing one token.
After paying my money and receiving my sake cup and tokens I was ready to start but with over a hundred types of sake from Niigata prefecture to choose from it was hard to know where to begin. Each sake had a number assigned to it for easy identification. After walking around a bit I randomly decided to try number 50 (越後長岡藩, Echigo Nagaoka-han).
Pouring the sake was quite easy. First you place the cup so that it sits in the hole in the metal grate. After you deposit your gold token you press and hold the yellow button until the sake finishes pouring.
After my first tasting I noticed two huge chalkboards off to the side. The left side had staff recommendations and the right side had the top ten rankings from the previous month. I decided that this might be a better guide for my tasting and decided to try the top three ranked sakes, number 25 (越後鶴亀 Echigo Tsurukame), 103(地上の星, Chijonohoshi) and 55 (越の寒中梅, Koshi no Kanchubai). For my last sake tasting I skiped the fourth ranking sake and tried the fifth, number 92, purely because it was called Cowboy and I couldn't resist the name.
One of the neatest things about Ponshukan was that each sake vending station had a tiny purple map of Niigata prefecture on its label with a red star showing the location of the sake brewery. If the sake was a staff selection or one of the top ranked it also had a white label by it. I also thought it was cool that they had a large map of Niigata prefecture on one of the walls with all of the types of sake shown by location so that if you wanted to try something from a particular region you could identify it.
After I finished my sake tasting I wandered around the store. There was a huge selection of sake that you could purchase so I picked up a bottle of my favorite from the tasting, Echigo Tsurukame, to bring home. It was only ¥1296 (less than 11 USD) so I couldn't resist.
In addition to sake, the Ponshukan was full of foodstuffs made in Niigata Prefecture. They had a bunch of soy sauces that you could try and I ended up loving and buying a bottle of garlic soy sauce for ¥540 (about 4.50 USD) that was fantastic.
Tucked in the back were some fun t-shirts. There was a black one with a map of Niigata prefecture made out of white silhouettes of famous foods from Niigata that was just too awesome for me not to buy.
I had a great time sake tasting at Ponshukan plus I was able to bring home some fun souvenirs. It is a good half hour stop when traveling in Niigata City and I recommend it especially if you are a sake or food lover.
Ponshukan is located on the third floor of the CoCoLo Niigata West building which is just southwest of the Niigata train station. At the time of this writing the store is open from 9:00-21:00, however the sake tasting is only available from 9:30-20:30.