Fermentation Town: Sake, Miso, Beer, and More in the Rustic Streets of Nuttari

Nuttari, in central Niigata City, was once a thriving commercial hub famous for fermented delicacies like sake, miso, and soy sauce. While losing much of its former prestige, traces of its proud heritage remain, and the sleepy streets continue to attract fans of offbeat, retro Japan. From the long-established Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery to fresh ventures like Nuttari Beer, the quirky town of Nuttari still has a surprising amount of appeal!

Where Is Nuttari?

Nuttari is located in central Niigata City, a 20-minute walk northeast of Niigata Station. It is sandwiched between the enormous heads of the Shinano River, the longest river in Japan, and the Agano River, the tenth longest. While public transportation is lacking, the attractions of Nuttari are fairly concentrated, and the placid streets are ideal for strolling.

The Ancient History of Nuttari

While now a quiet, suburban neighborhood part of Niigata City, Nuttari once prospered as its own center of trade, commerce, and manufacturing, and could very well have become the capital of what is now Niigata Prefecture.

The earliest mention of Nuttari comes from the “Nihon Shoki,” the second-oldest chronicle of classical Japanese history. Here the area was recorded in 647 C.E. as “Nutarinoki,” and is thought to have been a fortress for the Emishi people, who inhabited northern Japan and resisted the rule of Japanese Emperors for centuries. The exact location of the Nutarinoki fortress remains unknown, and continues to be the subject of much speculation and research.

Skipping forward to the Edo period (1603-1868), the convenient location of Nuttari between the Shinano, Agano, and its own man-made Kurinoki River naturally lent itself to trade, and a burgeoning economy emerged. With easy access to ingredients from these rivers and nearby rice paddies, Nuttari also flourished as a brewing community, and rows of sake, miso, and soy sauce makers lined the Kurinoki River. At its peak in the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912), there were said to be around 8 sake and 40 miso/soy sauce breweries in Nuttari, earning it the well-deserved nickname “Fermentation Town.” In 1897, Nuttari Station opened as the final stop on the Hokuetsu Railway, the first trainline in Niigata and an essential transport vein linking the region, proving just how important Nuttari had become.

The first blow to Nuttari’s prestige came as it lost the rights to the “Kitamaebune,” a prosperous trading route connecting Hokkaido and Osaka, in favor of the nearby “Niigata Town.” Owing to this and more, Niigata Town rapidly grew to become Niigata City, and in 1914, Nuttari officially merged with Niigata City in order to strengthen its position as a harbor.

Nuttari Station closed its passenger service in 1958, giving way to the expanded Niigata Station, originally opened in 1904, to become the region’s major terminal station. In 1982, Niigata Station was connected to Tokyo via the Joetsu Shinkansen bullet train, making it the official gateway to what continues to be the largest city on the Sea of Japan.

In 1964, following the devastating Niigata Earthquake, the Kurinoki River, which diligently served as the heart of Nuttari for generations, was reclaimed to build the Kurinoki Bypass, a massive highway connecting the growing downtown of Bandai with the outer suburbs of Niigata City. Nuttari Station clung to life as a freight station until completely shutting down in 2010, closing the book on its 100+ years of history. By then, the majority of breweries in Nuttari were long gone, and scenes of the Kurinoki River buzzing with activity became a cherished memory reserved for older generations.

The Nuttari of Today

Despite its heyday long in the rearview mirror, Nuttari is enjoying a wave of popularity owing to its rustic, retro character. The streets are awash with grand wooden townhouses, many unfortunately abandoned and left to rot, weaving together an eerie yet strangely nostalgic ambience. This is accompanied by fascinating relics like the deserted trainline of the former Hokuetsu Railway, providing raw, unembellished insight into local history.

Today, hometown-loving locals are passionately endeavoring to kickstart a new golden era in Nuttari, balancing respect for their heritage with experimental, innovative ventures. Within this are four attractions standing proudly as modern Nuttari icons, drawing visitors back into this lesser-known bastion of history and culture.

Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery: Blending the Past and Present

Amongst the concrete of the Kurinoki Bypass shines one of Nuttari’s oldest and brightest gems: Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery. First established as a sake wholesaler in 1767, Imayo Tsukasa has been a staple of Nuttari for around 120 years after making the switch to sake brewing in the mid-Meiji period (1868-1912). It grew into one of Niigata’s most reputable breweries, becoming the preference of many local liquor stores for their refusal to dilute sake with water to increase volume, a common practice at the time.

Nowadays, sleek bottle designs, a chic brewery shop, and other refreshing embellishments excite the senses, encouraging younger generations to rediscover the time-honored drink of their ancestors.

However, despite these modern trimmings, Imayo Tsukasa are equally dedicated to tradition, and are passionate practitioners of cedar barrel brewing, an ancient artform largely lost to the convenience of steel tanks, and “junmai” (pure rice) brewing, which forgoes the use of added “brewer’s alcohol” to heighten the intrinsic flavors of rice.

Being the closest sake brewery to Niigata Station, Imayo Tsukasa is also the gateway to the world of Niigata sake. Niigata boasts the largest number of sake breweries in Japan, and is the country's biggest rice producer and highest consumer of sake per capita, making it one of Japan’s most renowned sake heartlands.

Keenly aware of this unique position, Imayo Tsukasa have taken it upon themselves to brush off the cobwebs of sake’s aging reputation with dynamic tasting courses, delicious non-alcoholic “amazake” drinks, and even sake-based gacha games! With the exception of one brew, Imayo Tsukasa sake uses 100% Niigata rice, along with natural spring water from nearby Mt. Suganadake, making each bottle an agglomeration of regional Niigata goodness.

Imayo Tsukasa also hold tours for a deeper understanding of the brewery and surrounding neighborhood, along with the craft of sake itself. While the brewery’s front and shop are fresh and new, the inner floors exude a heavy, somber ambience, brimming with the echoes of hard work and devotion.

Tours are free and are held multiple times per day, with English tours available on weekdays at 2:00 pm (see detailed schedule below). After the tour, you’ll be able to sample one seasonal sake brew and two kinds of non-alcoholic “amazake” for free, and over 10 different brews for 1,000 yen (including tax) with the “Premium Tasting” course. With such extensive offerings, the homely Imayo Tsukasa is not only a great introduction to Nuttari, but to the captivating world of sake itself!

Minemura Brewery: Continuing the Legacy of Fermentation Town

Just a 5-minute walk from Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery, on the opposite side of the Kurinoki Bypass, is Minemura Brewery, another remnant of Nuttari’s fermentation heritage.

Founded in 1905, Minemura Brewery is a traditional miso brewery with over 100 years of specializing in Niigata-style “Echigo miso.” Like Imayo Tsukasa, the brewery once sat upon the bank of the Kurinoki River, allowing easy delivery of essential ingredients like rice, salt, and soybeans. The brewery is now fronted by a grand-old historical “kura” warehouse renovated into a factory-direct shop, offering an accessible entrypoint into the vast and historic miso industry.

Alongside their mainstay of miso, Minemura Brewery have used their expertise to develop a wide range of fermented delicacies, aiming to further spread the fermentation culture of Nuttari and, in turn, revitalize the local community. One of the most famous is “misozuke,” which are small vegetables and more pickled in miso. While the tradition of misozuke started at Minemura Brewery all the way back around 1920, it really began to take off after WWII, when, as a free gift to customers, a single “daikon” radish was buried in each wooden barrel of miso on freight trains for delivery across Japan. The daikon would absorb the miso and become thoroughly pickled by the time it reached its destination, earning Minemura the reputation they needed to stand the test of time.

Nowadays, Minemura Brewery have used their fermenting technology and know-how to further bolster their lineup with hearty “dashi” soup stocks, frozen dishes like stews and hamburg, and the development of miso-infused desserts such as cheesecakes and baumkuchen. At the direct sales store attached to the factory, friendly staff (who are all experts in fermentation) beam with delight when asked by visitors to guide them through the immense range - including the irresistible take-out miso-flavored soft serve ice cream, a local favorite!

Many also flock to Minemura Brewery for their unique “miso packing” experience, where visitors can gather and bring home a batch of miso to further ferment at home (reservation required). As the subtle flavors of miso are colored by the surrounding environment, each batch will develop its own one-of-a-kind character, reflecting the nature of your home.

Nuttari Beer: A New Kind of Fermentation

In 2016, a new chapter in the legacy of Fermentation Town opened with “Nuttari Beer.” Neatly tucked amongst the retro residences of Nuttari, just a 15-minute walk from Niigata Station, Nuttari Beer is a quaint microbrewery and pub serving craft beers on tap with classic finger-food like cheese and sausages.

Nuttari Beer was conceived upon the idea of creating a small-scale, handcrafted, and high-quality craft beer fit for the town of Nuttari, with the dual aim of inspiring locals to remember their identity as residents of “fermentation town.”

Contrasting from the fresh, modern interiors of Imayo Tsukasa and Minemura Brewery, Nuttari Beer is housed in a 50-year-old traditional folk home with its rustic, wooden accents kept intact. Despite being the newest of the bunch, it melts seamlessly into the traditional townscape, exemplified by its elegant “washitsu” straw-mat rooms taking one back to Nuttari’s glory days. Remaining staunchly small-scale and local, Nuttari Beer brews can only be found at a few select shops outside of Nuttari and Niigata, so don’t hold off expecting to pick some up later.

The accompanying pub serves a stellar selection of draft and fresh beer for all palates, including classics like IPAs, weizen, stouts, and more, all with carefully selected, premium ingredients. The beer bottle art is equally endearing, featuring regional icons like the Shinano River and Nuttari Terrace, alongside gorgeous Nihonga paintings designed by local artists, doubling as collectable souvenirs.

Interestingly, Niigata Prefecture itself has a surprisingly intimate history with beer. Established in 1994, Niigata City’s “Echigo Beer” is recognized as Japan’s first-ever craft beer, spearheading a local brewing movement that continues to thrive. Nowadays, many visitors to Niigata make a point of touring the local microbreweries that have popped up since, much of which brew with local Niigata ingredients. Nuttari Beer are no exception, infusing their brews with delicacies like exquisite “Le Lectier” pears from Niigata City, “bancha” tea harvested on Sado Island, chokeberry cultivated in Gosen, and, naturally, Niigata’s illustrious “koshihikari” table rice, considered to be the best rice in Japan.

Nuttari Terrace Street: Reviving the Heart of Nuttari

A stone’s throw away from Nuttari Beer is Nuttari Terrace Street, a picturesque cluster of old-fashioned rowhouses tactfully renovated into trendy shops, cafes, workshops, and more. It has a quirky aesthetic merging antique storefronts with exciting, offbeat businesses, standing in polar opposite to the streamlined modern shopping experience now characterizing much of Niigata, and Japan.

Highlights include the photogenic storefront of furniture-maker “ISANA,” the rustic “FISH ON” used book store, and the fun-filled glass-making workshops at “taruhi glass works.” There’s also plenty to munch on, ranging from the 50-year-old masters of traditional Niigata cuisine “Osado Tamura” to the swanky independent cafe “Tsumugu Coffee and.”

The street, formerly named “Nuttari Market Road,” was originally a reclaimed moat hosting a bustling marketplace and hub of business and entertainment. However, as residents aged and the city urbanized, these simple, small-scale shops gradually disappeared in favor of department stores and online shopping, and the market was left to rust away as a row of forgotten shutters.

With the successful opening of delicatessen Ruruck Kitchen in 2010, new entrepreneurs were again attracted to the area, and it blossomed into a local hang-out. In 2014, the “Terrace Office” was founded, unifying the street under a single banner to more effectively work towards reclaiming its past glory.

The rebirth of Nuttari Terrace proves that traditional marketplaces can still be relevant in the modern age, serving as a blueprint on how to tactfully facelift a dying neighborhood without ruining its intrinsic character. For the best of Nuttari Terrace Street, line up your visit with one of its bustling morning markets, held on the first Sunday of each month.

As a poignant final stop on your journey through Nuttari, continue down Nuttari Terrace Street to the abandoned section of the old Hokuetsu Railway, one of the most powerful and surreal reminders of Nuttari’s history. The surrounding streets are criss-crossed by charming narrow laneways, while the opposite side of the terrace remains unrenovated and decayed, all exposing the original look of the neighborhood and demonstrating the sheer amount of work that has been poured into these restorative projects.

The Simple, Nostalgic Allure of Nuttari

After the closure of its train station and reclamation of its river, Nuttari seemed fated to become an unnoteworthy residential suburb of Niigata City. However, through the creativity, hard work, and passion of locals, Nuttari has made an impressive comeback to become one of Niigata’s most popular tourist destinations. The historical Imayo Tsukasa Sake Brewery and Minemura Brewery have worked tirelessly to bring Nuttari’s rich fermentation culture into a new age, while exciting ventures like Nuttari Beer and Nuttari Terrace Street have brought new, exciting businesses into the area. Next time you’re in Niigata City, cross the Kurinoki Bypass and dive into Nuttari to experience the tastes, sights, and ambience of retro Japan!

Thumbnail: Nuttari Terrace Street, Nuttari Beer, PIXTA

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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About the author

Steve Csorgo
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steve currently lives in Niigata City. His passions include discovering local sake, reading, and traveling to as much of Japan as possible. Hot springs, historical sites, and untouched nature are some of his favorite things about Japan. He enjoys writing about traditional crafts, offbeat yet charming towns, and interesting local stories.
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