Many of the well-known brands of sake are made in the rural, now snow-deep regions of Japan, including Niigata Prefecture, but what may not be widely known is that there are about a dozen breweries in Tokyo alone.
Although domestic sake consumption has been on a decline, it is gaining favor with non-Japanese consumers at home and abroad.
Now a growing number of foreign sake drinkers are visiting breweries to take a peek at the production process and indulge in some tasting, or simply to experience the atmosphere of a traditional storehouse-equipped brewery with a history dating back to the Meiji Era (1868-1912) or the Edo Period (1600-1867).
Some sake breweries in Tokyo’s suburbs, aware of the growing interest among non-Japanese, are offering tours in English, English-language brochures and lectures.
Here are some tips on visiting breweries near Tokyo for a day trip or on weekends. Sake brewing usually starts in November and ends in April, with December and January the busiest months.
Mieko Yoshino, president of Yoshino Shuzo, a family-run brewery in Katsuura, southern Chiba Prefecture, established in the early 1800s, offers tours in English.
Yoshino was one of the first to promote sake in the United States, venturing into the market in 1997 through an event arranged by the America-Japan Society. She lived there for five years.
Back in the 1960s, many American consumers said they couldn’t stand the smell of typical Japanese seasonings like soy sauce, Yoshino said. “But now, stores in New York sell sake . . . what a change.”
The brewery sells about 20 varieties of its Koshigoi brand made by its “toji” (brew master) and six “kurabito” (workers), who come down from Iwate Prefecture in the winter to brew the sake while the farms in their hometowns are idle.
Koshigoi’s sake has a light flavor because the water, drawn from a nearby reservoir, is soft, or contains less chemicals and minerals, according to Yoshino. The brewery’s high-quality “daiginjo” — made from rice that is polished to the core to create a pure taste, was featured on All Nippon Airways Co.’s first-class menu for six months in 2002.
Visitors to Yoshino Shuzo should get off at Kazusa Okitsu Station on the JR Sotobo Line, which is about an hour and 45 minutes by limited express from Tokyo Station. The brewery is about 10 minutes from the station by taxi.
Reservations must be made for tours. The brewery can be contacted at (0470) 76-0215.
Ozawa Shuzo is located in mountainous Ome in western Tokyo, which is about a 1 1/2-hour ride from Shinjuku on the Chuo and Ome lines.
Established in 1702, the brewery’s “treasure” is a well that provides it with abundant hard water that is mixed with soft water from a spring 4 km away, says Tsugio Nagasawa, who is in charge of planning.
“Ozawa Shuzo’s Sawanoi brand is light and dry, which allows it to complement the salty cuisine popular in Tokyo,” Nagasawa said. “But in recent years, we have been trying to make a richer sake with a unique taste.”
The brewery, built near the upper reaches of the Tama River, offers guided tours four times a day starting at 11 a.m. Although the guides only speak Japanese, there are English brochures that explain the brewing process to non-Japanese, who frequently trek from central Tokyo and other places to sample its products.
There are two restaurants where visitors can find the Sawanoi lineup, as well as a sake-tasting spot that offers up to 10 varieties for 200 yen to 500 yen per cup. Visitors can keep the sake cups as souvenirs.
Ozawa Shuzo’s main export to the West is Daikarakuchi — literally “very dry taste.” But its apricot-flavored sake is quite popular with foreign visitors, the brewery said.
Those interested in a tour should call Ozawa Shuzo at (0428) 78-8215 for reservations. The brewery is a five-minute walk from Sawai Station.
The Ishikawa family has been living in the western Tokyo area now known as Fussa since around 1600. They began making sake in 1863.
“At that time, this area was not fit for rice farming due to the frequent flooding (of the Tama River),” says Taro Ishikawa, president of Ishikawa Brewery Co. “But after our ancestors built a bank in the 1850s, we were able to cultivate rice.”
That rice, along with water pumped from 150 meters underground, are the two main ingredients of the firm’s Tamajiman sake. But the brewery now uses various types of rice especially grown for sake production, including Gohyakumangoku, and also brews beer.
Visitors to the brewery can visit five traditional storehouses, or “kura,” that were built in the 19th century, and a 230-year-old gate. Both have been designated as tangible cultural properties.
U.S. service members from the nearby Yokota air base often come to the brewery to dine at its “soba” buckwheat noodle restaurant and another eatery where visitors can find the brewery’s beer, Ishikawa said.
Ishikawa plans to hold a lecture on sake in English for non-Japanese in spring. The brewery says such lectures may be held three to four times a year in the future.
Getting to Ishikawa Brewery takes about 45 minutes on the Chuo and Ome lines from Shinjuku Station. It is a 15-minute walk from Haijima Station.
Call the brewery at 042 (553)-0100 for tour reservations or visit its English-language Web site at www.tamajiman.com/ english/top.html
Intrigued by the art of sake-making, some foreigners are working at breweries to study the production process and add new tastes to the traditional brew.
Philip Harper, a Briton who is a qualified brew master, works at Daimon Shuzo in Katano, Osaka Prefecture. He has over 10 years of experience working at other breweries.
Daimon Shuzo is a seven-minute walk from Kawachi Iwafune Station on the Gakkentoshi Line. The brewery provides tours on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until early March. English-language tours are available. Call 072 (891) 0353.
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