If you ask a Japanese resident what Niigata means to them, they'll most likely answer "snow, rice and sake."
Did you know Niigata was the birthplace of skiing in Japan? First introduced to Japan in 1911 by an Austrian major named Theodore Edler von Lerch, the sport had its roots in the Joetsu region. Since then, skiing has blossomed throughout the country. There are now more than 500 ski resorts in Japan, 16 of which are located just a short drive away from the beautiful town of Echigo-Yuzawa.
Just a 75 minutes bullet train ride from Tokyo, Niigata is probably the most accessible ski destination in East Japan. When skiing or snowboarding is done, you can indulge in a Japanese style "après ski". Relax in the many private hot-spring baths offered by the local hotels and ryokans, or set out on a stroll to explore the local nature from the many footpaths available all year round.
Niigata is home to Japan's second most popular and premium sake rice, the "Gohyakumangoku" rice strain. The strain was created in 1938 at the Niigata Agricultural Experiment Station but only received the name "Gohyakumangoku" in 1957 to commemorate the year the volume of rice production in Niigata reached "5 million koku". "Gohyakuman" is "5 million" in Japanese, and "goku/koku" is an old measuring unit volume: 1 koku = approximately 150kg. Gohyakumangoku was explicitly developed for cold regions, and the sake brewed with it holds remarkable clear and light-bodied qualities. The sake quality known as "Tanrei Karakuchi" (light, crisp and dry) is said to have been made possible thanks to the creation of Gohyakumangoku. The rice strain is grown across Japan, but Niigata accounts for nearly 50% of its nationwide production.
Niigata hosts 91 breweries, making it the prefecture with the most sake breweries in Japan. Together, they produce over 8% of the country’s total sake production. The ratio of premium specially designated sake was roughly 70%, which is substantially higher than the national average of 38%. Niigata focuses on making "tanrei-karakuchi" high-value-added sakes; light, dry and crisp delicious sake that can be enjoyed on its own.
Using their own locally grown Gohyakumangoku rice, they have become the kings of dry sake, creating a unique style referred to as Niigata Tanrei-Karakuchi or Niigata Dry Sake.
The prefecture has a long history of sake brewing, and some of the breweries in business today date back to medieval times. Niigata prospered during the Edo period (1603-1868), and a powerful sake guild, known as the Echigo Toji guild, gradually expanded. Eventually, during the Meiji period (1868-1912), the Echigo Toji guild became one of Japan's Three Great Brewer's Guild. Niigata's power as a sake brewing region further grew with the development of its world-class Sake Brewing Laboratory and Agricultural Testing Center.
In recent years, along with its flagship dry Niigata style, the region has been producing some of the finest full-body junmai and the incredibly savoury sake type called "muroka nama-genshu" (non-filtered unpasteurised and undiluted sake).
Why not try Niigata sake for yourself?
Grab yourself a bottle and let us know how you liked it!
The Sorakami Team