Uonuma no Sato is a scenic collection of buildings in the shadow of Mt Hakkai. This mountain gives its name to a ski resort, shrine and power spot, and one of the most famous brands of sake from Niigata. The Hakkai-san brewers have built a sake producing facility here and surrounded it with restaurants, traditional cold storage, a cake shop and a cooking school. It is a great tourist destination with panoramic views of the mountains.
Whether you are a sake fan or not, a brewery tour is a very interesting hour. You learn all about how sake is produced and what makes it special. This particular brewery produces many of the standard versions of the Hakkai-san brand with the higher levels being made just down the road. Saying that though many things are done by hand or in small batches to ensure a really quality product - one of the reasons that this sake has such a good reputation.
Next stop for us was lunch. There are three options. A traditional soba restaurant, an udon version and the staff canteen. The staff canteen serves set meals (and sake) in a clean modern setting where you can sit down next to workers on their breaks. We opted for the soba restaurants which is housed in an old wooden-framed farmhouse. The soba and tempura was excellent, washed down with the recommended house sake. The pickles were coated in one of the bi-products of the sake making process and were delicious.
We then headed to the cold warehouse. 1000 tons of snow are bulldozed into one side of the warehouse each February. The cold from this pile of snow (which incidentally doesn't completely melt in the following 12 months) keep giant tanks of sake at a cool four degrees throughout the year. It also chills the storage rooms in the shop attached to the warehouse. It is a traditional technique that has been adapted to a modern use. The exit door from the warehouse brings you straight into the (free) tasting room where every single Hakkai-san product is lined up waiting to warm you after your trip through the huge refrigerator. Armed with your new-found sake knowledge it is a pleasure to taste. There are plenty of sake varieties (including sparkling), shochu and plum liqueur, as well as non-alcoholic amazake.
The tasting room leads into a shop with lots of Niigata produce, including vegetables from the cold storage warehouse. These vegetables are supposed to be incredibly sweet after a month in the cooler.
The cake shop was next. The specialty is baumkuchen which is cooked in huge log shaped rolls on a spit. You can choose from one with sake lees in it or one glazed in sake. There is also sake jelly and a few other kinds of cake, all with free samples to whet your appetite. There is cafe here too with views over the flower garden and forests.
We didn't get to the shouchu brewery, gift shop or cooking school but will be heading back as it was a great day out. It is a work in progress and more gardens were being planted while we were there so we are keen to check it out in spring and summer.