Sipping sake: a dispatch from one of Japan's oldest breweries

Sake is quickly replacing craft beer as the cool kid on the drinks scene globally – and a number of breweries have recently opened in the UK, USA and AustraliaBut the land of the rising sun will always be the true home of this potent, rice-based spirit. Tamara Hinson reports from one of Japan‘s oldest sake breweries. 

Outside a low-rise, wooden building in the town of Kawachinagano, huge balls of dried Japanese cedar sway in the breeze. They’re brown now, but a few months ago, their bright green hue was a reminder that sake season was underway. These bristly balls of twigs are Yozo Saijo’s pride and joy.

The region's connection with sake dates back to the 13th century, when a monk started producing the spirit at a nearby temple

Yozo is the chief executive of Amanosake, one of Japan’s most popular – and oldest – sake brands.

This month, when rice is harvested, he’ll string up fresh, green balls of cedar. These giant pom-poms are used by producers to represent sake season, which lasts from November until March.

Yozo’s neighbours are proud that their town, on the outskirts of Osaka, is associated with such an historic institution, and similar balls can be spotted all along the street.

“I’d like to see them hanging from every house!” says Yozo.

Amanosake is named after nearby Mount Amano. According to historical documents, the region’s connection with sake dates back to the 13th century, when a monk started producing the spirit at a nearby temple. It was a tumultuous time, with warring clans battling for power, and many temples burned to the ground.

I spot two Kamidanas, Shinto altars, each with tiny saucers of sake left as offerings

The monk produced his sake with even greater fervour, knowing his temple would be spared if it was seen as a centre of sake production. And he was right.

Yozo points to a scroll on the wall of his office. It bears the words of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a fearsome 16th-century warrior. His message reminds the region’s brewers that it’s their duty to continue to produce good sake.

And as much as Yozo loves his job, he certainly sees it as his duty, rather than a choice. His family has produced sake for ten generations.

Today, the brand’s headquarters are tucked inside a wooden building dating back to 1919. I spot two Kamidanas (Shinto altars), each with tiny saucers of sake left as offerings. One is attached to the wall, high above rows of enormous vats. A sign informing me I’m in a wi-fi hotspot is one of the few nods to modernity.

Sake is seeing a huge resurgence amongst young people – although for them it’s seen as a connoisseur’s beverage rather than a cultural one

Enormous cylinders contain the polished, washed and steamed rice. Powdered mould is then sprinkled on top, before yeast is added. The final stage, pressing, takes place after weeks of fermentation. The fragrant, clear liquid squeezed from the fermented rice is sake.

And Japan needs passionate, dedicated brewers like Yozo more than ever. “Sake consumption has dropped to less than seven percent of all alcohol consumption in Japan,” John Gauntner, a Tokyo-based sake expert who’s written five books about the subject, tells me later.

“Having said that, sake is seeing a huge resurgence amongst young people, although for them it’s seen as a connoisseur’s beverage rather than a cultural one.”

For many, though, the drink will always mean so much more. “Sake still pervades every aspect of Japan’s culture, at least historically,” explains John. “It’s used at religious and celebratory ceremonies, as well as at other important occasions, such as the blessing of ground on which a house is going to be built.

“It’s an important part of Japanese culture partly because it’s a drink which, eons ago, made people feel closer to the gods when they imbibed it. But also because it’s made from rice, Japan’s staple food, that itself has significant cultural weight.”

Sake still pervades every aspect of Japan’s culture, at least historically

But, back in Kawachinagano, despite Yozo Saijo’s dedication to sake production, I’m surprised to learn that he himself rarely drinks it.

“Sake brands managed by people who drink a lot have a high staff turnover rate,” he jokes. “And I can’t take my drink anyway!” On the plus side, should Yozo ever get lost after indulging in one too many sakes, he’ll always have those swaying, bristly balls of cedar to guide him home.

The best places to try sake in Japan

Beyond Kawachinagano, there are plenty of places to get a taste of Japan’s national drink. Here, we’ve picked four of our favourites:

1. Ozawa Brewery

The Ozawa Brewery can be found to the west of Tokyo, in Ōme City. It was founded in 1702 and is one of Japan’s oldest sake brands. On the daily tours you’ll learn about the country’s favourite spirit, before touring the brewery and visiting the nearby Chichibu rock formation – the holes dug into the stone allow the brewery to collect the spring water which is used to make the sake.

There are two restaurants here, along with a beautiful Japanese garden and temple – and don’t forget to pick up samples (or some beautiful sake glasses) at the gift shop.

2. Takeuchi Shuzo

The people behind this historic sake brewery, in Gifu prefecture’s Ogaki city, have been making sake for years – for seven generations, in fact.

This is largely down to the region’s ideal conditions – this part of Japan is otherwise known as the country’s rice basket, and the spirit is made with fresh spring water from the nearby Suzuka mountains.

Visit for guided tours and the chance to sample some of Takeuchi Shuzo’s best-selling sakes. There’s also a small museum, filled with the different tools used by sake brewers over the years. You’ll learn some fascinating facts, including how rice husks gathered during the sake-making process were used as insulation.

The land of the rising sun will always be the home of this potent, rice-based spirit

3. Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum

This sprawling Kyoto museum is owned by the Gekkeikan Sake Company. It’s housed in an old sake brewery which dates back to 1909, and contains hundreds of rice wine production tools, along with more unusual items, including sake gift vouchers used during Japan’s Edo period.

There’s a large courtyard filled with enormous wooden sake vats, and in the brewery, visitors can watch the fermentation process before heading to the gift shop to sample different types of sake and to purchase their own supply. Gekkeikan is known for its colourful, unusually shaped bottles, making them ideal souvenirs – just remember to pack carefully.

4. Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center

Head to the Tokyo-based Japan Sake and Shochu Information Center to learn more about sake and to admire spectacular displays of equipment. It’s a hi-tech affair –visitors can do their own research using the centre’s tablets and there are more than 50 sakes to try.

A concierge is also on hand to offer advice about the different types of sake, as well as the best breweries to visit. The centre is well known throughout Tokyo and holds regular events, including talks and tasting events, throughout the city.

Images top–bottom (left–right): Pixabay/CC0; Tamara Hinson; Tamara Hinson; Tamara Hinson; Pixabay/CC0; Yoshikazu Takada/Flickr; Patrick Vierthaler/Flickr

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