When it comes to Sake, you should never miss Haikkasan Sake! Niigata Prefecture, which located on the main island on the coast of the Sea of Japan, is known as the place with largest rice production in Japan. Covered with white snow in winter, this place has a good reputation of being called as “Snow Country”.
The famous author who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in Japan, Yasunari Kawabata, ever described this beautiful winter scenery of Niigata in his novel of 《Snow Country (雪国)》: 「Passing through the long tunnel of the county is called as Snow Country. The ground looking all white under the night sky.」
Because of its low temperature in winter, Niigata is an absolutely the most suitable place for brewing sake and is the place with the third largest production of Sake in Japan. Every March, in Niigata City, an annual sake fair known as Sake no Jin that is visited by people from many cities and countries is held here.
This grand festival is attended by over 90 exhibitor of brewers with more than 600 types of Sake that still increases year after year. You should never miss this festival if you are one of the sake lovers!
Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, that was established in 1992, is located in Minami-Uonuma City. This place is different with other places in Niigata, surrounded by one of the hundreds of famous mountains in Japan with the altitude of 1778 meters high, known as Mount Hakkai.
There are eight springwater ponds on the top of Mount Hakkai, which overlapped on the peak, forming a shape of staircase. The water source of Hakkaisan Sake Brewery is also taken from these spring water ponds – known as「Water of Thunder and Lightning God」; this water texture is considered as soft water, also being awarded as one of the finest water of Niigata Pref. in June 1986.
The annual production of Hakkaisan Sake Brewery is about 33,000 tons, ranked the tenth in Japan and second in Niigata Pref. That’s why when you arrive at the station of Minami-Uonuma, you will first see the advertisement of Hakkaisan!
This time I was invited to visit Hakkaisan Sake Brewery. The manager of the brewery, Mr. Sasagawa Shinsuke, and Mrs.Miyagami Yuzi welcomed us with full of passion. The beautiful scenery of snow outside the car on the way to the brewery was really breathtaking. We couldn’t help but keep on pressing on the shutter of our camera.
We were lucky that the fog was dispersed so that we can get this panoramic view of Mount Hakkai. At the night, we stayed in the ancient and antique Japanese-style of architecture. The ancient vibe created the illusion of time tunnel to the past. Mr. Sasagawa Shinsuke said that by the end of 2017, there will be hot spring club built in the area of Okaryo. Just by imagining the view of bathing in the hot spring while tasting Sake in this Snow Country, makes everyone feel really excited.
The next day, we visited the brewery. There are 3 breweries in Hakkaisan Sake Brewery, including the oldest brewery that was built in 1961, the brewery that was built in 2004 with common sake production, and brewery that was built in 2014 with high-class sake production.
The producing percentage of these breweries are 24%, 75%, and 0.4%. With the half-century of brewing experience, Mr. Takeshi led us to look around these three breweries, explaining every detail of the brewing processes and answering all kinds of questions that we asked. He is a serious man with a good sense of humor, who sometimes made a funny expression while introducing the brewery. I will later introduce every detail of the “secret” of sake brewing in Hakkaisan Sake Brewery to you all.
At lunchtime, we went to the most famous noodle shop「Nagamori」 in Minami-Uonuma City to try its delicious soba noodles. Of course, it is a must to drink Hakkaisan beer that is brewed with spring water with it – there are three types of beer series of Hakkaisan: Weizen, Alt, and Pilsner.
Because of the unfiltered brewing process, the storage life of this beer is just about two months and is sold only in Niigata Pref. A bowl of hot soba with chilled beer is just way too delicious to describe.
In the evening we continue our trip to snow room (Yukimuro), which had been awarded for its architectural design. Yukimuro is the biggest and lowest temperature of a natural refrigerator for sake ripening in Japan, with capacity storage of 2000 tons of sake.
There are many shapes of snow room, mainly Dome Shaped and Ice Box Type. Dome Shaped snow room is using the snow directly to preserve the food inside, while Ice Box Type snow room is using the cold air of snow that is accumulated inside the room to preserve foods inside. Yukimuro is one of the Ice Box Type Snow Room.
The construction materials were specially designed with thermal insulation materials, with the thickness of about 15 cm. Opened snow room design in winter and stored about 1000 tons of snow inside. Using the cold air that is produced by the slowly melting snow, keeping the temperature inside the stable at about 3℃ which is both low-temperature and high-humidity that is beneficial for sake ripening.
The melting snow also has the function as an air purifier. The black-grey color on the snow stored inside is the color of pollutant absorbed from the air. By using the cold air from the snow, keeping the low temperature inside the snow room without using electric supply, making it an eco-friendly architecture.
Another part of this snow room is used for the storage of shochu, which is produced by three-stage yeast brewing technology and reduced-pressure distillation method, and then preserved in a large oak barrel.
Also in the snow room, there are some occasionally limited edition「Face the Future」series of honkaku shōchū, allowing every buyer to design their own words of blessings on the label, for example, birthday wishes, graduation wishes, wedding anniversary, etc. After glancing around to see what others wrote, it seems that everyone was really creative!
Finally, at night, we had a hearty dinner feast with Mr. Takeshi in the guesthouse, that started with a toast of Hakkaisan Awa Sparkling Sake. The unlimited servings of Hakkaisan Junmai Ginjo all the night, made everyone’s face beamed with delight.
Mr. Takeshi also generously warm the sake up to 45℃, making the sake tasted milder and more savory, completed with the warm and smooth texture of sake body, just like the warmth of the sun on the snow land, and moreover symbolized the open-heart and hospitality of people in Niigata.