Sake is so central to life in these islands that the name of the fermented rice drink is also the Japanese word for all alcoholic drinks.

Now, though, the venerable world of sake-brewing faces a critical challenge. Though there's no chance of it dropping out of the drinkers' lexicon, for decades now, less sake has been consumed every year. With the relentless attrition among kura (breweries) that this is causing, at best the industry could be said to be in the throes of a major shake-out.

Ironically, this same industry is now making by far the best sake that's ever been sipped.