The city of Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture may be best known for its griddled gyōza dumplings, but a group of sake makers and chefs are working to show that the area has much more to offer culinary-minded visitors.

Leveraging the proximity of their sake breweries to Tokyo, longtime friends Kenichi Shimazaki of Shimazaki Shuzo; Shigeki Tonoike of Tonoike Shuzoten; Yasuhiro Watanabe of Watanabe Sahei Shoten; and Tomoyuki Katayama of Katayama Shuzo formed the Yottemikke Sake Tourism Association last year to entice travelers to explore the prefecture’s gastronomic delights.

Tonoike Shuzoten, located in the pottery town of Mashiko, features a charming museum with artifacts from sake-making history. | COURTESY OF SAKE VOYAGE
Tonoike Shuzoten, located in the pottery town of Mashiko, features a charming museum with artifacts from sake-making history. | COURTESY OF SAKE VOYAGE

In addition to offering tasting experiences and tours in Japanese and English, the group has started partnering with restaurants in Utsunomiya to host “Sake Voyage” drink-pairing dinners, and plans to collaborate with local farmers and artisans for other events.

“Our goal is not only to promote sake, but to show how it’s connected to the people and the place where it’s made. Local food is an important part of the culture,” Tonoike says.

Excited by the prospect of a day trip out of the capital, I revisit Shimazaki Shuzo, where I’d previously joined a sake-making experience that covered every stage of production, from rice planting to brewing. The brewery is renowned for its award-winning Uroko koshu (aged sake), matured in a hillside cave that was dug during World War II. Inside the stone vaults, the temperature fluctuates between 5 and 15 degrees Celsius, resulting in a drink with complex, elegant expressions. Uroko Daiginjo aged for 5 years tastes of toasted grains, with notes of sweet soy sauce, while the 10-year vintage has hints of butterscotch, salted caramel and dried plum.

A 30-minute drive from Shimazaki Shuzo, another partnering brewery, Tonoike Shuzoten, is located in the pottery town of Mashiko. It features a charming museum with artifacts from sake-making history and a marvelous tasting room inside a renovated Edo Period (1603-1868) building overlooking a Japanese garden.

The brewery specializes in luscious brews sold under the brand names Sanran and Bo. That day’s on-site tasting set included a special treat: a glass of Tonoike Authentic Junmai Daiginjo Fukurotsuri Shizukukaze, a rare sake produced exclusively for competition, paired with locally grown strawberries. In every generous mouthful, flavors of candied strawberry and stone fruit, and the sake’s velvety texture and rounded sweetness, bloom across the palate.

Also offered in the tasting set is a glass of Sanran Yamahai Junmai, served warm in a ceramic vessel from a nearby kiln. The drink balances umami with acidity and is an outstanding accompaniment to cream cheese topped with green-chili miso.

Shimazaki Shuzo's Uroko sake, paired with an abalone pie at Otowa Restaurant | COURTESY OF SAKE VOYAGE
Shimazaki Shuzo’s Uroko sake, paired with an abalone pie at Otowa Restaurant | COURTESY OF SAKE VOYAGE

After touring the breweries, I join the four Yottemikke brewers for a Sake Voyage dinner at the acclaimed Otowa Restaurant, founded in 1981 by chef Kazunori Otowa. A pioneer of French fine dining in Japan, and longtime champion of regional ingredients, Otowa trained under legendary chef Alain Chapel in Lyon before opening his namesake restaurant in Utsunomiya. Otowa’s eldest son, Hajime, now leads the kitchen, while siblings So and Kana are in charge of service.

The meal begins with homemade soba noodles in anchovy and olive sauce, topped with translucent raw shirauo (icefish). Paired with Seikai Junmai Daiginjo from Watanabe Sahei Shouten, the sake’s gentle sweetness and bitterness echo the spring flavors in the dish. Otowa’s signature dish — delicate pink Yashio trout encased in an emerald-green chaud-froid (veloute sauce thickened with gelatin) — is complemented by the anise and chestnut aromas of Sugao Daiginjo, an unpasteurized and undiluted brew from Katayama Shuzo.

Thinly sliced wagyu beef, bathed in a pool of consomme alongside buckwheat risotto, harmonizes with Tonoike’s Bo Tokubetsu Junmai Miyama Nishiki, a sweet and layered sake with pronounced acidity. Abalone, set amid a pillow of scallop and aonori laver and wrapped in puff pastry, is a showstopper; the rich and loamy flavors of 5-year-old Uroko match the dashi broth-laced cream, encircled in a nimbus of earthy abalone liver sauce, note for note.

As much as the beautiful food and drink, it’s the affable company of the Yottemikke brewers I enjoy most. Along with tasting, the best part of touring sake breweries is always the chance to talk with the makers. Before catching the bullet train back, I resolve, sated and happy, to return for another Sake Voyage later in the year.

For more information about the four breweries and Sake Voyage experiences, visit sakevoyage.com.

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