Rail Report: Kanpai! Savouring Niigata’s sake with the Koshino Shu*Kura
Ever heard of the phrase “wine and all things fine”? If you love sake (酒 rice wine), one fine experience you wouldn’t want to miss out on is riding the Koshino Shu*Kura (越乃Shu＊Kura) train, a sightseeing train running in the snowy prefecture of Niigata (新潟県).
Niigata experiences high snowfall, which melts to produce high quality water, that irrigates the abundant rice fields in the prefecture. Niigata is known not only for its delicious rice, but also delicious rice wine—sake!
Earlier this year, my colleagues—Sue and Julia—and I took a trip on the Koshino Shu*Kura, enjoying the exclusive meal package. If you’re a sake aficionado, read on to find out how you can enjoy a scenic train trip along the coast of the Sea of Japan while sipping on sake.
Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh and Sue Lynn)
Our journey on the Koshino Shu*Kura began at Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station (上越妙高駅). While waiting for the train to arrive, we enjoyed the view of the majestic mountains in the distance. Did you know? In the Koshino Shu*Kura’s name:
- “Koshino” (越乃) means “belonging to Niigata”
- “shu” is another pronunciation of “酒”, the kanji for “sake”
- the asterisk (＊) represents a snowflake, and also resembles the kanji for rice (米)
- “kura” means “sake brewery”
The Koshino Shu*Kura’s package-only Car 1. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
As a self-professed sake-lover, words could not describe the anticipation and excitement I was feeling. I had ridden this train a few times pre-COVID-19, but this was my first time trying the meal package on the package-only Car 1. The Koshino Shu*Kura is a sightseeing train, and although rail pass holders can sit in Car 3 (regular two-by-two seats) for free and use the event space in Car 2, Car 1 is exclusively for passengers with a dining package.
Upon entering the carriage, I instantly noticed the large windows, wood-grain finishes, and aesthetic patterns on the seat covers. The car was very spacious, and the weather outside was picture-perfect.
Sipping on sake
Goodies awaiting at our table. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The friendly attendants guided us to our table, where an assortment of goodies awaited us. Passengers riding the Koshino Shu*Kura with a dining package get an ochoko (お猪口 sake cup) and pouch set in an original Koshino Shu*Kura design. A cute postcard featuring an anime version of the train, as well as the meal menu, were also laid out for each guest.
Welcome drink. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
To start things off, a welcome drink was served in a rather large glass. The glass was larger than most sake cups, but hey, the more the merrier! The drinks and food menu on the Koshino Shu*Kura changes every season, and June was part of spring. Exuding the fresh energy of spring, our welcome drink was a sparkling sake from the Yoshi no Gawa (吉乃川) brewery, which was light, delightful, and a wonderful way to start the morning.
Today’s meal. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After the welcome drink, out came a tray of savoury treats. It was 10:02 when we boarded the train, so this meal was like a brunch for us. People often say that it’s not good to drink sake on an empty stomach, so the light meal helped to fill and prepare our tummies for the sake to come.
Each tray also came with a 180ml bottle of exclusive Koshino Shu*Kura daiginjo sake, an overflowing ochoko full of the seasonal sake, and a little dish of salt. If you’re a fellow sake-lover, you wouldn’t be surprised—salt can help to bring out the sweetness of sake.
Delicious food. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
For the food, we were served light bites consisting of:
- Slightly spicy spring rolls filled with asparagus and cheese (アスパラとチーズのピリ辛巻き)
- Spring fish with mountain vegetables (春の魚と山菜のぬた)
- Taro yam takiawase (帛乙女の炊き合わせ)
- Fluffy egg rolls with dashi stock (ふっくら出汁巻きたまご)
- A bite-sized portion of locally grown rice from Niigata (新潟米一口ごはん)
Kanpai, again and again! (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
The highlight of the Koshino Shu*Kura is of course the sake, and we were treated to cups and cups of it. Other than the welcome drink, bottle, and overflowing ochoko, the attendants would also pour little cups of other types of sake for us to sample.
Happy to be on board. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
Kanpai (乾杯 cheers)! While we couldn’t remember exactly how many varieties we tried, we know were very happy to be on board.
If you do not drink, or are travelling with minors, don’t worry, the Koshino Shu*Kura also has an alcohol-free package available. For the welcome drink, the sparkling sake is replaced with cidre (non-alcoholic). Instead of the overflowing ochoko full of sake, you’ll get a donut set with coffee. The special bottle of Koshino Shu*Kura sake will be substituted with a cookie and tea set, and for souvenirs, instead of the ochoko and pouch set you will receive different Koshino Shu*Kura merchandise.
Exploring the rest of the train
Sake corner on the Koshino Shu*Kura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you do drink, if you find yourself craving more sake, you can always purchase more at the Kuramori (蔵守) sales counter in Car 2. Here, a curated selection of local Niigata sake is available for purchase, starting from ¥300 per cup. The sake selection changes with the season, and there are usually five to choose from. Of course, the special Koshino Shu*Kura daiginjo sake can also be bought here.
Sake is best enjoyed with tasty treats. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The counter sells a variety of ekiben (駅弁 lunch boxes to eat on the train), as well as snacks that pair well with alcohol like grilled salmon, dried megisu fish, onigiri (おにぎり rice balls), and others. The items available for sale regularly change, so do check the counter for what’s available when you ride the train.
You can also purchase special Koshino Shu*Kura souvenirs such as ochoko cups, pens, keychains, and more.
Don’t the counters look like casks in a sake brewery? (Image credit: JR East)
Other than the sales counter, Car 2 is also home to a very unique event space. Don’t the standing tables resemble casks in a sake brewery? The side of the train facing the Sea of Japan has very large windows that stretch from the ground to the ceiling, so this space is great for observing the scenery and enjoying the atmosphere.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, musicians would perform jazz and classical pieces here, and passengers could have a fun time dancing and chatting with each other. Sake tasting events were also held here, which let passengers try a variety of beverages from a local brewery. Currently, in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, these activities have been suspended.
Stunning sea views
Approaching О̄migawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
It’s easy to get lost while enjoying delicious food and drinks, but the stunning scenery of the sapphire waters of the Sea of Japan were hard to miss. On the day of our trip, the weather was perfect, with clear blue skies and deep blue waters that stretched as far as the eye could see. As we approached О̄migawa Station (青海川駅), we noticed that we were getting closer and closer to the sea.
Wonderful weather at О̄migawa Station, Japan’s train station closest to the sea. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
О̄migawa Station is Japan’s train station closes to the sea. See? The platform is so close to the waters, and it felt like we could hop over the railing and jump straight into the sea! Staring at the scenic seaside scenery from the door of the train, it looked like a real-life painting, and I was mesmerised.
The Koshino Shu*Kura makes a brief 5–15 minute stop at О̄migawa Station. If you are riding the afternoon train heading towards Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station, you might be lucky enough to catch a sunset at О̄migawa while the train stops there.
Fantastic views from the train window. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Even after the train departed О̄migawa Station, we could still enjoy the seaside views as the train plied the tracks along coastline. I know many visitors to Japan enjoy riding high-speed and high-tech bullet trains, but I really love local lines and their accompanying countryside views, which often look like scenes out of paintings.
Final kanpai. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
If you ride the Koshino Shu*Kura from end-to-end, it takes about 3 hours, but as we had to catch another dining train later in the day—the inbound KAIRI—we had to get off at Nagaoka Station (長岡駅). As we neared Nagaoka Station, we savoured our last remaining drops of sake, and got ready to disembark.
Saying farewell to the Koshino Shu*Kura and arriving at Nagaoka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
More sake at Ponshukan
Taste a huge variety of sake at Ponshukan. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
After we reached Nagaoka Station, we still had some time before connecting to our next train bound for Niigata, so we headed to Ponshukan (ぽんしゅ館) for guess what? More sake!
Ponshukan: a sake-lover’s heaven. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Available at three stations along the Joetsu Shinkansen (Echigo-Yuzawa Station, Nagaoka Station, and Niigata Station), Ponshukan is an amazing store where you can sample sake to your heart’s content. It houses over 100 types of sake and alcoholic beverages from Niigata’s 90+ breweries.
How do you enjoy it? Start off by paying ¥500 at the counter. You will receive five tokens and an ochoko to hold the sake. Information on each sake like the alcohol content, dryness, aroma, and richness are displayed on the machines, so you can browse through the collection to find a drink you want to try. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, 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.
Happy to taste more sake. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
We only had a limited time (10–15 minutes), so we couldn’t leisurely browse through the 100+ varieties, but we did get to sample some of the ones that caught our eyes. If you’re having a tough time deciding what to get, you can refer to the store’s popularity board or recommendations.
Fancy a ponshukan original souvenir or some sake? (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Before running to the platform to catch our train, we took a look at shop outside Ponshukan, which sold a huge variety of sake, local Niigata souvenirs, as well as Ponshukan-themed souvenirs. Fancy getting an ochoko just like the one at Ponshukan? You’ll be glad to know that they’re available for purchase, and come in a variety of generous sizes.
We love Niigata. (Image credit: JR East / Sue Lynn)
I’m glad to report that we were able to catch our train to Niigata, where we headed towards Sakata to catch the KAIRI. If you enjoy sake, I highly recommend visiting Niigata and taking a ride on the Koshino Shu*Kura, together with a visit to Ponshukan, and if you have more time, a visit to one of the many sake breweries in the area.
How to ride the Koshino Shu*Kura
The Koshino Shu*Kura’s routes. (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 service name changes.
- Koshino Shu*Kura (越乃Shu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Tо̄kamachi Station on the Shin-etsu Main Line / Jо̄etsu Line / Iiyama Line
- Yuzawa Shu*Kura (ゆざわShu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Echigo-Yuzawa Station on the Shin-etsu Main Line / Jо̄etsu Line
- Ryuto Shu*Kura (柳都Shu＊Kura): Jо̄etsumyо̄kо̄ Station ⇄ Niigata Station on the Shin-etsu Main Line
The Koshino Shu*Kura’s Car 1 dining package can only be booked online on JR East’s website.
Price (one-way): ¥8,500/adult for Koshino Shu*Kura, ¥8,700/adult for Yuzawa Shu*Kura and Ryuto Shu*Kura
Booking limit: Minimum one pax / maximum four pax per booking
Booking deadline: 3 days before departure
Note: The Koshino Shu*Kura’s Car 1 is a package-only car. You will not be able to board this car with just a rail pass. However, rail pass holders who wish to board the train without meals can reserve seats for Car 3. This train is all reserved seating only, so advanced seat reservations are required.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
If you want to know what it’s like to ride the Koshino Shu*Kura without the package (Car 3), check out my previous article here. Did you know? Users of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can ride the Koshino Shu*Kura’s Car 3 for free.
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is 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.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh and Sue Lynn