This Epic Train Ride Pairs Sake Tastings With Beautiful Scenery in the Japanese Countryside

Designed to attract train and sake fans in equal measure, the Shu*Kura offers an immersive experience showcasing the best of Japan's Niigata Prefecture.

Exterior view of train going over water via bridge
Photo: Courtesy of Shu*Kura

Some trains are simply a means to get from point A to B. On others, like the East Japan Railway Company's Shu*Kura, it's all about the journey.

This train operates along a few routes in northwestern Japan's Niigata Prefecture, a place known for its rice, water, and snow. Nicknamed "snow country" for the deep drifts that blanket the towns and cap the majestic mountains during winter, the prefecture is verdant come spring and summer, with bright green foothills and rice paddies carpeting the countryside.

It's through this bucolic scenery that the sightseeing train runs, trundling through rural villages, passing wooden farmhouses embellished with hollyhocks and hydrangeas. It winds along the valleys of the Hida and Echigo mountains, and runs along the Sea of Japan for part of the route.

Niigata is famous for rice and water — two key ingredients in making nihonshu (sake). The Shu*Kura, which means "sake brewery," showcases some of Niigata's best sakes on board, and passengers are encouraged to taste the local brews while gazing out at the rice that's used to make them.

The Shu*Kura is a diminutive train, with only three cars, fashioned from retrofitted KiHa 40 and 48 diesel series railcars. The first car holds rotating reclining seats, picture windows, and a small event space, while the third features pair and quad seats and tables designed to maximize both sightseeing and dining. The middle car, meanwhile, operates as a bar, fitted with dark wood, sake barrel tables, and attendants who can explain the characteristics of each brew. Passengers can buy whole bottles to drink, share, or take home, and it's also possible to sample a tasting flight from only 300 yen a glass.

Though getting quietly buzzed while staring out at the breathtaking scenery is reason enough to book a ticket, passengers can also enjoy brief jazz performances and other events during some stretches of the trip.

The Shu*Kura runs between Joetsu Myoko and either Tōkamachi (this route is called the Koshino Shu*Kura), Echigo Yuzawa (called the Yuzawa Shu*Kura), or Niigata city (called the Ryuto Shu*Kura). The train operates on weekends from spring to autumn, and makes one round-trip ride per day, with routes rotating weekly. The one-way journey takes approximately three hours.

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