Niigata Sake Guide – 6 Amazing Sake Breweries for Your Itinerary
For lovers of Japanese sake, the Niigata region of Japan is the holy-land.
Packed with historical breweries producing some of the most distinct and high-quality sake in Japan, Niigata’s sake history dates back hundreds of years.
Today, Niigata is dotted with dozens of sake breweries, many of which have ancient roots. Most offer taste testing, tours, and limited-edition brews.
While the sheer number of breweries within Niigata can be overwhelming, there are definitely a few 'must-sees' that rise to the top of the list. Balancing convenience, quality, historical-significance, along with how tourist-friendly they are, here are 6 Niigata sake breweries that should be on your next Japan itinerary!
Niigata City: Imayo Tsukasa Brewery
Being only a 20-minute walk from Niigata Station, Imayo Tsukasa has become Niigata’s global sake ambassador. If you can only choose one brewery during your time in Japan, this is the one!
Despite being on verge of collapse, after painstaking renovations aiming to modernize the brewery while retaining the original structure, Imayo Tsukasa rebranded with a unique aesthetic perfectly balancing the old and new. This impressive feat led them to winning numerous awards for design, which is best seen in their renowned ‘carp bottle’ sake (Pictured below).
To help promote their impressive selection, they offer a 1000-yen self-serve tasting course with over 10 different brews. This extensive course is designed to introduce beginners to different sake styles, and includes a non-alcoholic fermented rice drink and a 100-dollar sake! Even if you don’t like sake, the stunning building, deep history, and pleasing bottle designs will be sure to delight. They boast daily English tours along with ample English signage and information.
Tour times can be found at their website.
Shibata City: Ichishima Brewery
Ichishima Brewery is a short walk from Shibata Station, which can be reached directly from Niigata Station. With a free tasting course and free tour (in Japanese), this brewery is a great addition to a sake-lover’s itinerary!
Founded in the 1790s by a powerful local family, Ichishima's roots penetrate deeply into the surrounding town of Shibata. While keeping true to tried and trusted brewing methods, an impressive redesign of their products has made them extremely popular among a younger crowd of drinkers. Inside the brewery, they are very particular about their process, and only the highest quality local water and rice is accepted. Adding to the brewery’s charm is a small museum featuring authentic pieces from Japanese history, including a collection of priceless kimonos and ancient sake tools.
Best of all, Ichishima Brewery is close to two other fantastic breweries, Kanemasu Brewery (a 10-minute walk) and Kikusui Brewery (a 10-minute drive), each worth a visit in their own right.
Murakami City: Miyao Brewery
Miyao Brewery belongs to the deeply historic Murakami region of northern Niigata. Housed inside an ancient wooden warehouse, it is the ultimate representation of traditional Japanese sake culture.
Miyao Brewery are known for being intensely particular about their water. They purposely built their brewery adjacent to the Monzen River, of which pure and naturally filtered water flows from the subterranean streams of the Asahi mountain range. This water is renowned for its softness, and is the key to Miyao’s consistent quality of sake. While there is no tasting course, there are small tasting bottles available for under 1000-yen, which you can buy and enjoy later. Free tours in Japanese of the ancient part of the building are available, but the actual brewery floor is off-limits.
After the tour, you can spend the rest of the day exploring the surrounding town of Murakami. Dotted with dozens of Edo-era buildings, along with a unique culture of salmon fishing and green tea production, Murakami is one of the most authentic and untouched areas in Japan.
Murakami City is 45 minutes by train from Niigata City. Miyao Brewery is approximately 10 minutes by taxi from Murakami Station.
Niigata City: DHC Brewery
DHC Brewery’s vast range of sharply-designed sakes can be tasted for free inside their gorgeous traditional brewery. They are also very liberal with serving sizes!
Most recommended are DHC’s ‘Kayama’ sakes, which are very sweet and easy to drink - perfect for beginners! Ask to try their ‘Kayama Kameguchi,’ which has a refreshing buzz born from natural carbonation. Unfortunately, DHC do not offer tours of their brewery, however, this extensive free tasting course and stunning building make the trip well-worth it. For those who speak Japanese, many of the staff are also highly passionate about sake and would love to have a chat!
DHC Brewery is near Toyosaka Station, a 20-minute train ride from Niigata station and on the way to Shibata, where the Ichishima, Kanemasu, and Kikusui breweries are located.
Minami-Uonuma: Hakkaisan Brewery
Housed inside the Uonuma Village complex, Hakkaisan is by far the largest sake venture in Niigata. With comprehensive tours, free tastings, high-quality merchandise, and a constant thirst for research and development, Hakkaisan is striving to keep sake relevant for the next generation.
Hakkaisan’s premises contains dozens of attractions, with the biggest highlight being their snow storeroom. Based of ancient methods, this sake storage facility uses real snow gathered during winter to keep their sake at the perfect temperature while purifying the air. Snow-aged Hakkaisan sake is found all across Japan, and its crisp finish has made it popular with sake-lovers.
The surrounding Uonuma Village is also packed with fantastic attractions, including a craft beer brewery, Baumkuchen bakery, and quaint coffee shop, all encircled by fresh nature. The skyline is dominated by Mt. Hakkai, the brewery’s namesake, which provides the pure water needed to create their divine brews.
Uonuma Village and Hakkaisan Brewery can be reached after a 10-minute taxi ride from Itsukamachi Station or Urasa Station. Tours run fairly often, so ask what time the next one is once you arrive.
Agano City: Echigo-Sakura Brewery
What makes Echigo-Sakura Brewery stand out is the extensiveness of their tours. Their free tour will bring you right to the brewery floor, getting you up close and personal with the brewers as they perform their craft.
At different times of the day you’ll see various stages of the sake-making process. Morning tours, for example, see leftover rice solids being pressed and filtered out to make refined sake. If you’re lucky with your timing, you’ll also get to try mixing this unrefined sake yourself with a giant paddle!
The reason most breweries won’t allow full tours is due to the risk of contamination. The bacteria used in sake brewing is very sensitive and needs to be cultivated in perfectly sanitized conditions. Foreign bacteria brought in by outsiders can find its way into the fermenting sake and potentially ruin the batch, costing the company thousands. Echigo-Sakura combats this with a thorough disinfectant system combined with protective gloves, caps, and shoe covers.
While the premises themselves aren’t very impressive, this complete tour experience alone makes Echigo-Sakura a must-visit. After the tour, you’ll be treated to a free tasting course, which includes some sweet non-alcoholic rice drinks for the designated driver. Tours run between 10:00am and 4:30pm, and no reservations are necessary.
Echigo-Sakura Brewery has plenty of parking for those driving. It is a 10-minute walk from nearby Suibara Station, which can be reached by train from Shibata Station.