Sake workshops in Tokyo spotlight Japan's lesser known regional breweries

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

On a recent chilly evening, I found myself in the heart of Tokyo’s touristy Asakusa district for the first time in many years. I came to visit Kurand Sake Market, a popular standing bar that specializes in the offerings of local brewers, where Chris Hughes, a U.K. sake expert who is helping Kurand reach non-Japanese drinkers, led me through an impromptu tasting.

“This is what I’d give to someone who’s not sure of the style of sake they like,” he says, pouring me a sip of Jinya Daiginjo from Fukushima Prefecture. “The first time I tried this one it knocked my socks off.”

The Jinya was a great way to start; it had an attention-grabbing fruity impact, ample body and a pleasantly dry finish. I’d originally planned to sample only three varieties, but by the time I left Hughes had persuaded me to taste 10 of his personal favorites — including two enticing brews from the tiny and idiosyncratic producer Miyoshikiku Shuzo in Tokushima Prefecture.

Hughes is tall and thin, with expressive eyebrows that twitch with enthusiasm when he talks about sake. Before moving to Tokyo, he’d worked at Tatenokawa, Inc. in Yamagata Prefecture, and had sold sake for importer Tazaki Foods in London. Last October, he joined Liquor Innovation, Ltd. — the company behind Kurand — to head marketing projects aimed at travelers and international residents. He has been turning Kurand’s outlets in Ikebukuro, Shibuya, and Asakusa into gathering spots for sake lovers from around the world.

Inside the Asakusa branch, signs listing recommendations are posted in Japanese and English, and Hughes has developed a color-coded flavor chart with icons to help guests navigate the roughly 100 kinds of sake on offer. A picture of a melon, for example, is used to indicate sake with a fruity character, while the symbol for Japanese yen signifies a rich flavor profile style. Hughes is also translating the bar’s extensive sake menu, which includes profiles of each of the 42 small breweries represented at Kurand.

An entrance fee of ¥3,000 allows guests to sample freely from 5-10 p.m. After grabbing a tasting cup, you can choose any sake from the two large refrigerators at the center of the room. While five hours of unlimited sipping may sound like a dangerous proposition, Hughes is quick to point out that the concept is all-you-can-taste not all-you-can-drink. First-time visitors should note that the food menu is limited to small, sake-centric snacks such as shiokara (fermented fish innards), but bringing outside food is permitted.

Kurand has begun holding regular events, called Sake Exchange Tokyo, where sake fans can mingle. Each is based on a theme and starts with a short presentation in English about sake basics, followed by guided tasting. The next event, which will take place on Jan. 17, will showcase shinshu, the freshly pressed brews that mark the start of the sake-making season.

“It’s like a workshop and an international party where people can learn more about sake and each other at the same time,” Hughes says.

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