Tokyo Jizake Strolling (To Niigata prefecture reopening after the Coronavirus Pandemic)

By Ryuji Takahashi

Restrictions across Japan, enacted following the state of emergency declaration due to the coronavirus outbreak, and preventative measures to prevent the virus from spreading were all lifted in March. As the warm spring weather in March signaled the beginning of rice and sake production season in Niigata prefecture, I paid a visit. Driving from Tokyo on the Kan-Etsu Expressway takes approximately three hours to reach my destination, Nagaoka city. First, I stopped in at the Takasaka Service Area of Saitama prefecture to enjoy a Char Siu Rice Bowl for breakfast. The meat was tender and the sauce was not too rich, very delicious. Service areas in Japan serve delicious food!
My delicious breakfast confirmed to me why more people are said to stop in at service areas on their way to their destination. After the rest stop, snow on mountaintops started to emerge from the Akagi Kogen in Gunma prefecture. Exiting the Kanetsu Tunnel revealed a snow-covered landscape with rice fields near Uonuma city still covered in snow. The arrival of spring was noticeable in Tokyo, yet still seemed a distant future for Niigata prefecture from the road.
This trip to Niigata prefecture is not to visit a sake brewery unfortunately, but a trip to attend a gathering with drinking buddies since a close friend and chef returned home with his family. After arriving at my destination in Nagaoka city, I greeted the chef’s family and went out to lunch with just my drinking buddies. We went out for “Ginger Shoyu Ramen,” representative of Nagaoka city, Niigata prefecture.
The most popular restaurant for this ramen is Aoshima Shokudo I wrote about before. However, we heard about another competing ramen shop also popular, and headed to ramen shop “Taichi.” Apparently, Ginger Shoyu Ramen fans in Nagaoka city are largely divided between Aoshima ramen and Taichi ramen. Only a few customers were seated at Taichi besides our group, seated at a table after approximately ten minutes.
Since this was our first visit, I ordered the standard Ginger Shoyu Ramen that turned out to be more voluminous than I anticipated. I quickly became full since I had Char Siu Rice Bowl only two hours before. Just the right amount of ginger flavor and smooth noodles were very delicious. Looking around the restaurant, I noticed many customers were ordering large portions of noodles. Even ladies finished a large bowl of ramen approximately 16 inches in diameter.
Leaving the ramen shop with a full stomach, we noticed a long line had formed in the storefront, no doubt a popular restaurant. We still had time before meeting up with the chef’s family, so we headed to Ponshu Kan at the Nagaoka Station to purchase snacks to accompany Japanese sake to drink at the hotel after dinner.
Despite my work pertaining to Japanese sake and my countless encounters with various regional sake brands, I can never ignore labels that read, limited edition released only in Niigata prefecture, etc. I bought several snacks and three bottles of Japanese sake, and then headed to the meeting point for the group to dine at a popular yakiniku (Japanese-style Korean BBQ) restaurant for dinner.
I’ll elaborate on our moving dining experience at yakiniku restaurant “Stamina-En” in Nagaoka city in the next issue.