Ponshu-kan: Fine Sake One Sip at a Time

Just 90 minutes from Tokyo via bullet train and with more than 10 ski areas within 30 minutes of the station, Echigo-yuzawa is a popular destination for skiers of all nationalities. One ski area, Gala Yuzawa, even has its own bullet train station and accessing the gondola is as easy as going up an escalator after getting off the train. Echigo-yuzawa also attracts crowds in the summer, thanks to its many hot spring onsen resorts and nature get-aways.

Regardless of the season you go in, you are sure to pass through Echigo-yuzawa station and the many souvenir shops and restaurants in it. However, what many people do not know is that in addition to the day spa hot spring located at the far end of the station, there is also a neat little shop where you can sample some of the area’s finest local sakes, which is saying something – Niigata produces some of the finest rice, and so some of the finest sake, in Japan.

Walking toward the rear of the station, Ponshu-kan greets you with a wall of lit sake labels surrounding the store’s logo, the vibrant colors and kanji inviting you in to partake of the more than 95 sakes in stock. This is no ordinary liquor store, though.

Rather than simply browsing through racks and shelves of bottled sake (although you can do that, too, in the market just outside the shop), Ponshu-kan offers the opportunity to tipple five varieties of your choice for just JPY500, all chilled to perfection.

The hard part is deciding which five to choose. With so many sakes on hand, trying to narrow the choices down can be the toughest part of the experience. However, Ponshu-kan has thoughtfully provided a few aids to assist the indecisive patron. First, there is a large blackboard just inside the entrance with the month’s most popular selections ranked top to bottom.

Next, there is a helpful touch panel display that allows you to choose from a variety of menus – from specifying a particular label to browsing through the shops best 10 recommendations.

Finally, in addition a detailed description in Japanese of each sake, the individual sake dispensers all have the sake’s name in English, what type it is, and whether it is “dry” or “slightly dry.” At the far right of the bank of dispensers, the most popular are clustered together and have “#1”, “#2”, etc., affixed to them to make choosing even easier. If all else fails and you are feeling adventurous, you can always simply choose the sake that has the most appealing label or, if you read Japanese, has the most interesting name. Some possible choices: Otoko no Sake (The Sake of Men), Aka-oni (Red Ogre), Yukitsuru (Snow Crane), and Sugi no Tsuyu (Cedar Dew).

To begin your tasting, simply go to the register located just inside Ponshu-kan’s entrance and after you’ve paid \500, you will receive a choko (ceramic sake cup) and five medallions. Head to the wall of sake dispensers and take a few moments to scan the labels and see what other patrons are choosing.

Once you have decided which sake you want to start with, simply place the choko onto the grate under the spigot and put a medallion into the coin slot. Pressing the button next to the slot will fill your cup with a perfect measure and you are ready to enjoy.

After you have struggling to narrow down the remaining choices for your next four samples, you may find yourself with one other dilemma after finishing your last sip – whether to plunk down another \500 for five more delicious cups of Niigata’s finest.

Ponshukan is open seven days a week, from 9:00am – 6:00pm (April – December; until 8:00pm January – March).