A Sake Sojourn – Part 1
For my 40th birthday, I knew I wanted to take a break from work and my kids for a long-awaited luxury tour around the Honshu island of Japan, specifically the Kanto, Kansai and Chubu regions. I knew I wanted to wine and dine in style and that meant one of my favourite beverages, sake, would be an important part of the trip.
Doing some initial research, I discovered there were really three primary sake areas to visit in the three regions I’d be traveling – Nara, Kyoto and Hyogo prefectures. I was used to the wine tasting tours popular in the Napa/Sonoma areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and in Australia, so I naively thought maybe sampling “cellar door” sake would be similar. However, as a Gaijin with no Japanese language skills, I quickly determined I’d need local Japanese help to visit sake breweries.
For this initial article, I’ll focus on the first sake brewery area I visited during my trip, Nada. The Nada area around Kobe has been called Japan’s sake “mecca,” in part because it’s home to the brewery producing Japan’s number one selling brand of sake, Hakutsuru. My wife and I arranged at tour through Voyagin and met the guide at the Hankyu Mikage train station for what was a well-planned walking tour to three nearby sake breweries: 1) Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum ; 2) Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum; and 3) Hamafukutsuru Sake Brewery.
The first stop was at the very large and industrial looking Hakutsuru Sake Brewery established in 1743 with its famous flying crane logo. It made a great start for our sake sojourn because it had a very large museum with English-language videos. However, we were told by our guide that the sake was considered to be of lower quality as it was mass produced leveraging modern technology. Regardless, Hakutsuru is renowned for innovations such as "draft sake" (Namachozo-shu), a new variety of rice ("HAKUTSURU Nishiki") and sake-based cosmetics (Komeno Megumi).
We then walked to the more picturesque Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery down the street, which is apparently an arch rival of Hakutsuru and prides itself on using more traditional seasonal brewing methods. Kiku-Masamune focuses exclusively on authentic dry sake with a “refreshing” flavor and “crisp, clean finish,” complementing all styles of cuisine. They use the painstaking Kimoto method which takes twice as long as compared to most brewers. Interestingly, they promote sake as good for health (which reminds me of the early Guinness toucan advertising campaigns) stating:
“Consumed in moderate amounts, sake is believed to (1) stimulate the appetite, (2) soothe the mood and relieve stress, (3) promote cheerfulness, and (4) facilitate a good night's sleep as a nightcap. It also gives the skin luster, promotes beauty and prevents aging, and helps combat colds when used to make tamago-zake, a mixture of sake, eggs, and sugar. Based on these and similar health benefits, an old Japanese proverb describes sake as the best medicine.”
The last stop of our Nada sake tour ended up being our favourite, Hamafukutsuru Sake Brewery. However, having a Japanese guide with us was essential to communicate with the master brewer. The jovial gentleman was surprisingly serving as something of a brand ambassador working as a “bartender” in the onsite sake tasting part of the gift shop. He answered the many questions we posed through our guide, including what his mission was for making so many innovative sakes. His answer was he wanted more young people to drink sake and felt new variations would cause more Millennials to try sake over beer, wine and whisky. We greatly appreciated Hamafukutsuru’s wide variety of non-traditional sakes as well as the freshly pressed, unpasteurized namesake, which became a favourite during the whole Sake Sojourn. Look out for part two of Sake Sojourn next month where we visit the famous sake area just south of Kyoto.