Located in the northwest of the main island of Japan, Niigata Prefecture is divided into four geographical areas: Joetsu in the southwest, Chuetsu in the centre, Kaetsu in the northeast, plus Sado Island.
Until 1869, Niigata Prefecture was called Echigo – a name still used with pride – while Sado Island was an independent province. The areas were merged in 1876, in the second prefectural integration after the Meiji Restoration.
Niigata City is currently served by an international airport, the seaport, high-speed and regional trains, and numerous highways. The city also boasts an extraordinary local culture, rich agricultural land and a wide range of local products.
A port city at the mouth of the Shinano River, Niigata was one of the largest rice producers on the Japanese coast during the Edo period, and the city still has remnants of its past, such as traditional restaurants and traces of geisha culture. Once a major port of call, the city retains its important role as a centre of business and cultural exchange.
Sado Island, 45 km off the coast of Niigata, is an ideal destination for nature lovers and hikers, with its beautiful indented coastline, two mountain ranges and central plain. It is also a cultural and historical destination: the land of exile for many intellectuals hostile to the government in the Middle Ages, and the source of a local aristocratic culture – including a real craze for Noh theatre. The discovery of the Sado-kinzan gold mine on the island in the Edo period caused a rush that left a lasting impression on the landscape. The mine still produced several tons of gold and silver annually until it was closed in 1989.
Sado is also world famous for its Japanese taiko drums and its traditional Ondeko show based on these drums and characters dressed as demons. Each village has developed its own style and the best performances are presented at festivals.
Niigata is a major agricultural prefecture and one of the main growers of the Koshihikari and Gohyakumangoku rice varieties. Koshihikari is a table rice that benefits from the nutrient-rich water from the mountains at the time of snowmelt, as well as from the wide temperature range between the sowing and harvesting periods. These elements give Koshihikari rice the unique taste that makes it the country’s favourite rice.
Gohyakumangoku is a sake rice (sakamai). It is distinguished by its large grains and above all by its large, well-centred starchy core, which makes it ideal for polishing. Its high starch content also ensures vigorous and stable fermentation. A sake made from Gohyakumangoku rice is generally light and fresh, typical of the Niigata style of sake, and contrasts with the richer, full-bodied sakes made from Yamada Nishiki rice.
Niigata is also known for its considerable fishery resources. Water from the snowmelt enters the rivers in the spring and feeds excellent plankton in the region’s two major rivers: the Shinano and the Agano. The nutrients are also consumed by the region’s fish, particularly small fish and whitefish, many of which are prized for their refined flavour.
While sake is the result of complex craftsmanship and thousands of years of mastery in Japan, in Niigata the secret can be summed up (almost) in one word: snow. The snowfall is two to three times higher than the national annual average. Niigata is therefore renowned for the quality of its rice and the purity of its water, two crucial elements in the making of sake.
Most of Niigata’s 90 sake houses focus on high quality handcrafted sake, producing just 8% of the sake made in Japan.
Niigata is also home to the Sake Research Institute, a pioneering and innovative institute established in 1930 as a forward-looking professional organisation whose sole mission is to improve the quality and variety of Niigata sake. This includes research into the koji fungus, the development of new rice varieties, and temperature control during fermentation.
For example, the Institute has recently developed a new rice-sake variety called “Koshitanrei” which is expected to become the flagship rice for sake producers in Niigata, especially for their Ginjo and Daiginjo sakes.