Chewing and spitting out rice, unseemly as it sounds, is a key step in making kuchikami (literally, “mouth-chew”) sake, an early form of the now world-famous drink. Fortunately, the brew has come a long way since then.

As production methods evolved and improved, one part of Japan was destined to become its mecca of high-quality sake: the Nada area, which now straddles the neighboring cities of Kobe and Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture.

Though famed since at least the 17th century, the Nada sake industry suffered a setback due to the magnitude-7.3 Great Hanshin Earthquake that struck on Jan. 17, 1995 — with its epicenter just 20 km south of Kobe. Despite the widespread destruction and some 6,400 people dying due to the earthquake, however, the setback to Nada’s sake industry was overcome before rivals could step in. Today, the area is still Japan’s leader, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all domestic production.

Many of the breweries in the area operate small museums that offer visitors a glimpse into the history, traditions and methods of this ancient craft. They also give visitors ample opportunity to find out what makes Nada sake so special — and to taste the difference.

Wedged between the green, tree-covered Rokko Mountains that follow the coast for 60 km and reach up to almost 1,000 meters, and the sparkling blue waters of Osaka Bay, Nada is not only blessed with fine water but superb scenery seen from its hinterland, too.

Stretched out in front of me from my perch on the slopes, houses and buildings now crowd the area below, with several rivers running down from the mountains and into this eastern end of the Seto Inland Sea.

If I’d had a special telescope that allowed me to see into the past, where now I beheld dense urbanization, I would once have seen an untold number of water wheels with sakagura, the long wooden buildings where sake was made, beside them. In fact, a number of sakagura still stand among the jumble of modernity, though spotting them from these slopes is nigh-on impossible.

So, armed with a map from the tourist information center in Kobe’s downtown Sannomiya district, my plan for the day was to enjoy visiting sake brewery museums.

First stop was the city’s Kiku-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum, and as the map showed I was getting near, my ears picked up the sounds of running water and creaking wood. Inside the courtyard there was a small shedlike wooden structure complete with a working water wheel. These wheels harnessed the power of the rivers and streams in the area to turn millstones used to husk and polish the rice that would become sake. I moved closer and paused to listen to the sounds that were like phantoms from the past in this brewery founded in 1659.

Inside the museum, a friendly member of staff appraised me of several factors that contribute to making Nada sake Japan’s top brew. Among these, first and foremost is of course the water that is the drink’s main ingredient.

He told me that sometime in the first half of the 19th century, a sixth-generation sake brewer named Tazaemon Yamamura tasted the latest batches of Nada sake from his two breweries — one in the Uozaki district of Kobe and the other to the east in Nishinomiya. Although he used the same process at both breweries, it seems he sensed the Nishinomiya brew was superior.

Puzzled by this, Yamamura conducted a number of experiments to solve the riddle of his sakes’ different tastes. Soon, he found that the secret was in Nishinomiya’s water, known as miyamizu, which is rich in minerals but has a low iron content when drawn up through wells tapping the aquifer into which much of the rain that falls on the Rokko Mountains percolates down through various strata. This is what makes it perfect for the production of top-quality sake.

Intrigued by this tale, I duly set off for Nishinomiya to try to track down some miyamizu and taste it for myself. The flat, mixed-residential and industrial area I encountered there was quiet except for the hum of cars on an elevated highway. There were, though, many large signs bearing the names of big sake brewers, and these clued me in to the location of a number of wells. However, I was disappointed to discover them fenced off and locked.

I continued walking around the area and almost passed by without noticing a slender stone monument with kanji characters carved into it. The small area, enclosed by a hedge, was covered with gray gravel, and a stone path led to the monument. A low chain, suspended between two stone posts, barred the entrance. The place had the air of a shrine, but when I deciphered the kanji I was delighted to learn it was actually the very well where miyamizu was discovered. It was amazing to think that here, perhaps on this very spot, Yamamura may have had his “eureka” moment.

Back at the museum, meanwhile, I’d also learned that, besides the water, there were other factors that had helped propel Nada sake to stardom. Rokko oroshi, the cold winter winds that blow down from the Rokko Mountains, for instance, cooled the steamed rice in the days before electricity. In addition, a special strain of rice for making top-quality sake had been bred in that region; while its ports allowed the brew to be shipped at its best to the huge population center of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

But above all these factors, the crucial component that had earned Nada sake its top ranking was, I was told, the expertise of the Tamba tōji, the master brewers who came from the Tamba hills more than 50 km north of Nada.

Although these people were renowned throughout the country for their highly developed skills passed down from generation to generation, beyond their technical know-how it was their finely honed intuition that made them true wizards in an age before chemical analysis was available. Interestingly, many Nada sake factories still employ Tamba tōji to help determine the precise timing of each process in the complex but age-old “multiple parallel fermentation” process used to make sake.

Having learned a lot, but having failed to drink any miyamizu, I decided to take the next logical step and wrap myself around some Nada sake itself. Most of the area’s sake museums offer tastings, so I made my way to one attached to the Sawanotsuru brewery, which was established in 1717.

“The building was rebuilt without using a single nail,” said the woman at the reception desk, describing how the old wooden two-storey sakagura in which the museum was housed had been destroyed in the 1995 earthquake, but was rebuilt using traditional methods — albeit with some modern additions, including a quake-resistance system.

Inside, the lighting was dim and a musty scent filled the air. Large wooden vats and a variety of sake-making tools and equipment were on display along with illustrated explanations of the sake-making process.

But this was and is no mere manufacturing business, and while walking through the museum I felt enveloped in the ancient traditions of both sake brewing and Japanese culture. Indeed, it was abundantly clear that sake production had been refined and developed until it became an art form, like so many other crafts in Japan.

I was so transported by these notions that it was almost as an afterthought that, before leaving, I popped into the small museum shop to finally taste some Nada sake. I lifted the small ceramic cup to my lips, took a sip, and let the cool liquid run smoothly down my throat. It was delicious — and I didn’t for a moment consider spitting it out!

The Nada area is easy to get around by train from Sannomiya Station in Kobe. The nearest shinkansen stop is at Shin-Kobe Station. The Hanshin Railway website at www.hanshin.co.jp has some useful access information in English. A map of sake breweries in Kobe is available from the tourist information centers in Sannomiya and Shin-Kobe stations. It can also be downloaded from www.feel-kobe.jp.

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