A train for sake lovers: Koshino Shu*Kura
Are you a sake aficionado? Do you enjoy a cup of aromatic rice wine from time to time? If your answer is yes, then the Koshino Shu*Kura (越乃Shu＊Kura) is the train for you! Celebrating one of Niigata Prefecture’s top products, sake (酒 rice wine), the Koshino Shu*Kura is a sake-themed Joyful Train offering a fun ride filled with events, performances and scenic views.
Being Japan’s top producer of sake, Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken) is well-known to produce some of the finest sake and rice in the country. This is mainly due to the high amount of snowfall that the mountains surrounding Niigata receives each year. Water is an important ingredient in the production of sake and rice, and the pure melted snow from the mountains provides pristine water for the rice fields to flourish and grow.
The Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Koshino Shu*Kura was created to pay homage to Niigata’s delicious sake, and aims to bring you on a delightful and enjoyable train trip. It has amassed an avid fanbase since its inception in 2014, and recently celebrated its 5th anniversary last year. The train’s exterior is a deep blue, which is meant to symbolise the Sea of Japan. Large windows provide natural lighting for the event space, as well as a great view of the outside scenery.
Inside the specially-designed event car
Event space on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
From the outside, the Koshino Shu*Kura looks like an ordinary train, but don’t be deceived – the inside is where the magic happens. What left the greatest impression on me was the design of the event car, which epitomises the name of the train! Shu (酒) means sake, and kura (蔵) means warehouse. The Koshino Shu*Kura’s event car was built to resemble the sake casks in a brewery.
The event space is accessible to all passengers, so if you prefer to be where the action is, you can hang out in this car instead of sitting in your seat. This car is where the sake tasting events and musical performances are held, and is also where the counter selling drinks and snacks is.
Sample sake from local breweries
Sake sampling event on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For sake lovers, one of the highlights of the Koshino Shu*Kura is definitely the sake tasting! The brewery providing the samples changes depending on the day of operation, and brewery usually provides a few different types of sake to try.
Don’t be shy, just head towards the event table and ask the staff to fill (or refill) your cup. The sake tasting event lasts for 20 minutes between JR Kashiwazaki Station (柏崎駅) and JR Miyauchi Station (宮内駅).
Grab food, drinks and souvenirs from the Kuramori service counter
Drink and snack counter on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If samples aren’t enough, the Kuramori (蔵守) counter on board sells a selection of specially curated sakes from various cities around Niigata. There is the sampler set of five, where you get five servings of your choice.
You might be feeling peckish from drinking all that alcohol, but don’t worry, there are also bentо̄ (弁当 lunch boxes) and snack choices available for sale. If you’re craving a dessert, try the miso-flavoured Yukimuro gelato (雪室ジェラート) (¥330), which combines sweet and salty, and makes a great companion for sake.
Sake sample set. (Image credit: JR East)
My top pick and recommendation would be the sake sampler set (¥2,000), which comes with three types of sake, and a side dish (おつまみ otsumami) which is usually a thick slice of juicy and delicious grilled salmon!
Koshino Shu*Kura souvenirs. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you’d prefer to bring back something as a souvenir, there are Koshino Shu*Kura sake cups (¥700–¥1,800), Koshino Shu*Kura original sake (¥1,000), keyholders (¥950) or even souvenir boards (¥1,700).
For something special, I recommend a bottle of Koshino Shu*Kura original daiginjо̄ (大吟醸) sake. The portable 180ml bottle size means that you can even bring it back home for your family and friends.
Take commemorative photos
Photo props on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
On board, there are also props for you to take photos with, saying things like 「越乃Shu*Kura乗ってるよ 」, which means “I’m riding the Koshino Shu*Kura~”. You’ll find that many of the riders of the Koshino Shu*Kura are very friendly, often striking up conversation and volunteering to help you take photos.
Chill to the live jazz performances
On-board jazz performance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another beloved event on the Koshino Shu*Kura is the jazz performance. Not only is it live, but the musicians take requests, and the audience can join in the performance by shaking the egg-shaped maracas provided. It is really a fun and memorable experience to enjoy with the other passengers!
Get up close to the sea at JR О̄migawa Station
Taking a commemorative photo at Omigawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
At JR О̄migawa Station (青海川駅), the train stops for 20 minutes, and you can disembark to enjoy the scenery and take photos. JR Omigawa Station is the train station (in the whole of Japan) that is the closest to the sea. Depending on the season, you might even be able to catch the sunset here if you are riding the afternoon train in autumn or winter, when daylight hours are shorter.
Platform performance at Omigawa, the train station closest to the sea. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The jazz performers will also get off at Omigawa and play at the platform, so you can continue to enjoy the music while you take in the scenic view of the Sea of Japan.
Seats on the train
Car 3 on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The Koshino Shu*Kura is made up of 3 cars. Car 3 has regular two by two seats, with a free-to-use sofa area at the end of the car. Sometimes, you can catch the friendly train staff coming in and out of the driver’s cabin. Car 2 is the event car, which can be accessed by all passengers.
Car 1 on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Like the KAIRI, the Koshino Shu*Kura also has special meal packages. Car 1 is the package-only car, which features paired seats, window-facing seats and boxed seats.
Travel package for the Koshino Shu*Kura
Package on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East)
Being a sake-themed train, the focus of the package is of course the sake! Other than the food, there is also locally-produced rice (Niigata’s top produce), a sparkling alcoholic welcome drink, an ochoko full of the season’s sake, and a bottle of original Koshino Shu*Kura sake. Ochoko (おちょこ) is a sake cup, and as a souvenir, you get to keep the ochoko, which also comes with a pouch.
If you are travelling with minors (below 20 years old) or companions who do not drink, there is also a non-alcoholic version of the set, where the alcohol is substituted with juice, tea and coffee.
The travel package costs ¥7,600–¥7,800 for an entire one-way journey, and comprises of:
- Train fare
- Reserved seat
- Souvenir (ochoko and pouch for alcoholic, alternative for non-alcoholic)
o Welcome drink (juice for non-alcoholic)
o Bottle of sake (bottle of tea and rice flour cookie set for non-alcoholic)
o Bottle of water
o Ochoko sake (donut and coffee set for non-alcoholic)
Reservations for the package can be made at JR East Travel Service Centers at major train stations like Tokyo Station, Ueno Station, Shinjuku Station and more. The ones at the major stations even have English-speaking staff to better assist you with your travel needs.
A trip on the Koshino Shu*Kura
A trip on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Video credit: JR East Niigata Branch Office)
Ponshukan at Nagaoka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Ponshukan is a must-visit for sake lovers! If you have time while waiting for the train at JR Nagaoka Station, JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station or JR Niigata Station, head over to Ponshukan (ぽんしゅ館), an amazing store where you can sample sake to your heart’s content. For ¥500, you get five coins, which you can use at the store’s 100+ machines.
Sampling sake at ponshukan. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Place your cup on the marked spot, insert the required amount of coins into the machine, and watch your cup fill up with your choice of sake. There is a huge selection of sake from all over Niigata available here. If you like what you tried, you can also purchase bottles of sake.
A large variety of salt and miso is also provided to enhance the flavours of the sake.
Sake sampling on a brewery tour. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you have time, why not go on a brewery tour? Niigata is one of the top producers of sake in Japan, and has the largest number of sake breweries in Japan. You can find sake breweries dotted all over the prefecture. Some offer brewery tours, where you can learn about how sake is made, as well as sample and purchase some of the sake and other alcoholic beverages that the brewery produces. Do note that reservations might be required, and the tours are usually conducted in Japanese.
Here are some breweries within walking distance of stations:
Imayo Tsukasa Shuzо̄ (今代司酒造) – 15-minute walk from JR Niigata Station
Kiminoi Shuzо̄ (君の井酒造) – 10-minute walk from JR Arai Station
Hara Shuzо̄ (原酒造) – 8-minute walk from JR Kashiwazaki Station
Shirataki Shuzо̄ (白瀧酒造) – 4-minute walk from JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station
Aiming to increase the profile of the Niigata area through its major produce, rice and sake, NIIGATA SHUPOPPO currently has four types of junmai ginjō (純米吟醸) sake, all made with JR Niigata Farm’s Gohyakumangoku (五百万石) variety of rice.
NIIGATA SHUPOPPO. (Image credit: JR East)
Although the rice used to make the sake is the same, polished to the same ration, the four different breweries have come up with their own sakes, each with a different aroma and flavour profile. The four breweries are Tsurukame (鶴亀), Imayo Tsukasa (今代司), Kiminoi (君の井) and Yoshinogawa (吉乃川).
One brand, many different tastes – this is what NIIGATA SHUPOPPO is about. If you are a fan of sake, check them out on your next visit to Niigata. NIIGATA SHUPOPPO sakes are sometimes served on board the Koshino Shu*Kura (depending on the season), and are available at NewDays convenience stores around major stations in Niigata.
Running mostly on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and Japanese public holidays, the Koshino Shu*Kura makes one round trip per day between JR Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station (上越妙高駅) in Niigata Prefecture and either JR Niigata Station (新潟駅), JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅) or JR Tо̄kamachi Station (十日町駅), all also in Niigata Prefecture. Check out the timetable and schedule here. All seats on board this special train require reservations, which can be made here. Cars 2 and 3 are free to ride if you have a JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).
Routes of the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East)
The Koshino Shu*Kura runs on three routes, so be sure to check the schedule to see which one is operating on your day of travel. According to the routes, the train name changes.
- Koshino Shu*Kura (越乃Shu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Tо̄kamachi Station
- Yuzawa Shu*Kura (ゆざわShu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Echigo-Yuzawa Station
- Ryuto Shu*Kura (柳都Shu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Niigata Station
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of riding the Koshino Shu*Kura or exploring Niigata Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains and Joyful Trains like the Koshino Shu*Kura) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Tokyo and Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ (~¥19,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh