Niigata is known for three things: lots of snow (it is called Yukiguni--snow country--after all), delicious rice, and Japan's best nihonshu (sake). Those three things go hand-in-hand, really. The climate that generates so much snow actually provides great conditions for growing Niigata's famous koshihikari rice, and the snow melt yields some of the most pure water in all of Japan. With pure water and delicious rice, Niigata is able to brew the best nihonshu (sake). So naturally, if you visit Niigata in Winter, you should do your best to enjoy the snow with some skiing or snowboarding, but in all seasons, you should certainly take the time to enjoy the rice and sake products. But where's the best place to do so?
My recommendation is the Niigata Ponshukan!
There are two Ponshukan locations: Echigo Yuzawa station and Niigata station. Both locations offer the same great opportunities, which is basically the chance to sample the best of what Niigata has to offer.
Here are my favorite things you can find at the Ponshukan:
Sake to Sample
Ponshukan offers over a hundred varieties of Niigata-made Japanese liquor, including nihonshu, koshu, tokubetsushu, umeshu (plum wine), shochu, and wine. Admission is just 500 yen, which will give you 5 medallions to use in the wall full of sake vending machines. Of course, you can buy as many additional medallions as you like, testing all different types of wonderful sake. If you are new to nihonshu, this is a great way to determine your favorite kind of sake by alcohol content, flavor (sweet or dry), and variety (junmai, ginjo, etc.).
Sake to take home
Once you've sampled the sake, you can head to the market portion of Ponshukan to find a bottle of that delicious sake you have discovered. There are literally hundreds of varieties available to you, and these make great souvenirs, gifts, or travel companions for your journeys in Japan.
Your new favorite Sake Cup
Once you've found your favorite sake and picked out a bottle to bring home with you, head to the wall of ceramics to find your favorite vessel with which to drink your newfound drink-of-choice. The ceramics here are all hand-crafted in Niigata, so each has its own charm and unique aesthetic that you may not be able to find elsewhere in Japan. Besides, who better to make sake cups than the artisans who live in the area with the best sake?
Japan's best Onigiri
If you are on-the-go and want a snack, Ponshukan offers phenomenal onigiri (rice balls). Why shouldn't they be delicious? After all, you are in the prefecture that has the best rice and some of the best fish owing to its place along the Sea of Japan. There are all sorts of fillings from which to choose, including tarako (cod roe), ume (plum), and wakame, among others. My personal favorites are the miso (another Niigata delicacy) and freshwater salmon. Oh, and in case you're wondering, they use double the rice to maximize your fill of that delicious Niigata koshihikari rice!
Rice to bring home
So let's say you've tasted the onigiri and decided you need to bring some of this delicious rice home with you. The great thing about Ponshukan is that they offer smaller bags so you don't have to lug around a giant sack of rice. Instead, you can pick up one or two of these, throw them in your suitcase or travel bag, and enjoy the nostalgic taste of delicious Niigata rice to remember your trip to the beautiful Japanese prefecture.
Sake-based beauty products
You probably saw this heading and thought, "This is some silly gimmick product line, right?" Well, not that I have ever used beauty products, but the concept behind it makes enough sense to me. So one of the by-products of sake brewing is called sake kasu, or lees. Those lees have high salt and mineral content--two things that are common in a number of beauty products like scrubs and face masks (according to my wife and Google). Well, that's what Ponshukan offers: scrubs and face masks that capitalize on the richness of sake kasu.
Other Niigata favorite foods
Niigata has many other famous foods which you can purchase at Ponshukan to take with you. Pictured below is Hegisoba, a type of buckwheat noodle that has its origins in Niigata. Other options include curries, confectionary, miso, cakes, etc.
Believe it or not, there is a Sake onsen in which you can bathe and take a dip in a bath filled entirely with sake. Of course, no pictures from that experience, but just be aware that the onsen is only open for limited hours, as opposed to the rest of the Ponshukan which welcomes travelers for the better part of the travel day.
So there you have it...
...all of the great reasons why you should visit the Ponshukan when traveling to Niigata. Normally I say, "Zehi, you should give it a shot," but this is one of those places where I just have to say, go--it's that good.
Extra Photo Gallery
The Ponshukan had a lot more to offer. Just to give you a little more perspective on what's there, I have included a few other photos.