Food & Drink

Craft Sake Week set to bloom in Tokyo's Roppongi Hills

by Robbie Swinnerton

Special To The Japan Times

Sake and sakura. Cherry blossom and Japan’s traditional tipple make for a heady combination, wherever you put them together.

One of the best parties this year is likely to be in the heart of Tokyo’s Roppongi district, at the upcoming Craft Sake Week.

Over 10 days from April 7 to 16, a total of 100 artisan sake producers from around Japan will gather to serve some of their best brews to thirsty city dwellers. There will be food and music, too, plus guaranteed cherry blossoms, thanks to an “installation” curated by Sou Fujimoto, one of Japan’s top young architects.

This will be the second incarnation of this event. Last year, it took place in chilly February conditions in the open-air Roppongi Hills Arena, but still drew more than 75,000 people. This time around an even bigger turn-out is anticipated.

Craft Sake Week is the brainchild of former soccer star, design icon and sake apostle Hidetoshi Nakata. His aim is not to preach to the converted, the enthusiasts who already know their sake. Rather, he hopes to create a deeper awareness of the drink, especially among Japanese people — most of whom, he says, can’t even name 10 brands of sake out of the thousands made in Japan.

Each day will have its own distinct theme: The Sparkling Sake Day (April 12) will showcase fizzy celebratory sake, a category that has grown tremendously over the past few years. The Women of Sake Day (April 10) will introduce breweries either operated by women or where women are the brewmasters, challenging a traditional gender stereotype. And April 14, the anniversary of the first Kumamoto earthquake last year, will be devoted entirely to brewers from Kyushu.

Food, a crucial component of all good hanami (blossom viewing) parties, will be provided by a bank of food trucks. As last year, Nakata has invited some major names to take part. Japanese Chef Hiroki Yoshitake has flown in from Paris where he runs his Michelin-starred French restaurant, Sola. Much closer to home, Chef Makoto Okamoto of La Bombance (also with one Michelin star) will be premiering his new brand, a restaurant specializing in deep-fried foods, called Agemonoya Okamoto.

L’Effervescence the ever-innovative modern French restaurant in Tokyo’s Nishi-Azabu district (two Michelin stars) will also be there. It plans to offer snacks made with traditional Japanese ingredients such as sake kasu (the lees from sake-making), tofu and even shottsuru, a pungent fish sauce from Akita Prefecture.

There will be live music and DJ sets on both weekends. In a considerable coup, top techno star and sake evangelist Richie Hawtin is due to fly in especially for the Sake x Music Day (April 9). With the arena filled throughout with cherry blossoms, it promises to be a long and fun “week” — even for those who are not big drinkers.

Craft Sake Week: April 7-16 in Roppongi Hills Arena, 6-11-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; open noon-9 p.m.; entry ¥3,500 (includes drinking glass plus six “coins” for sake/food); craftsakeweek.com/en.html. For more details, visit Sake World.


The craft of brewing sake

So what exactly is craft sake? That depends on who you talk to. It is not official terminology in the industry. In fact, the term is rarely used outside the context of events such as the Craft Sake Week.

Drawing inspiration from the craft beer movement, the term is being applied to smaller, regional brewers who are more hands-on artisanal than the national brands that have dominated the sake market since World War II. Specifically, it refers to premium sake brewed in small batches without the use of artificial enhancements such as brewing alcohol (junmaishu, or pure rice sake), and especially those made with highly polished rice (ginjo or daiginjo).

According to veteran sake educator (and former Japan Times columnist) John Gauntner, overall sake shipments last year sank to their lowest level since 1955. But that covers the 75 percent of the market covered by cheap “ordinary sake.” By contrast, he points out that demand for premium sake is growing healthily, by as much as 6 percent to 13 percent per year.

As he writes on his Sake World website, there are other reasons to be cheerful. “The number of active breweries actually grew last year by 16, to 1,241. In my 24 years in this industry, I have never seen the number of breweries actually increase. This, to me, is very encouraging and positive news. It made my day, in fact.”