Sake is a drink that born in Japan and has been loved for ages. Today, it is widely loved in many countries outside of Japan as well. This article will introduce some basic sake facts and its brewing process, and recommend 7 places in Japan for sake lovers.
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. Though it is commonly referred to as “sake” overseas, it is called “nihonshu” in Japanese. “Sake”, in Japanese, means “alcohol”, and can be used to point to any alcoholic drink.
Sake can largely be divided into two types: Tokutei meisho-shu and Futsu-shu. About 70% of sake in the market is classified as futsu-shu, or regular sake.
Tokutei meisho-shu, or Special Designation Sakes, are premium sakes. They must achieve a certain rice polishing ratio and use less than a certain percentage of brewer’s alcohol.
Special Designation Sakes can be categorized in three different categories: Ginjo-shu, Junmai-shu and Honjozo-shu.
The three ingredients used in ginjo-shu are rice, kome-koji and brewer’s alcohol. Kome-koji is a kind of mold made with rice that helps ferment the sake.
For a kind of sake to be classified as ginjo-shu, it must have a rice-polishing ratio of 60% or below.
Ginjo-shu is fermented carefully, and gives of a fruity scent that is similar to that of bananas or apples. It is a smooth, tasteful sake.
The highest-grade ginjo-shu is called dai-ginjo, and uses high quality rice. It is known as one of the best kinds of sake in the market.
■Recommended drinking temperature: cold or room temperature (5 to 16℃)
Junmai-shu is made from rice, kome-koji and water. It doesn’t use any brewer’s alcohol.
Since it doesn’t use any brewer’s alcohol, junmai-shu has a thick, strong taste of rice.
Some sake is made with the ginjo-shu technique with a junmai-shu base. These kinds of sakes are acalled junmai-ginjo-shu.
■Recommended drinking temperature: cold, room temperature or lukewarm (5 to 25℃)
Honjozo-shu is made from rice, kome-koji and brewer’s alcohol, but its rice-polishing percentage is a bit higher than that of ginjo-shu.
It has a junmai-shu-like scent but is smoother than junmai-shu.
The highest-grade junmai-shu is called tokubetsu-honjozo-shu, and is made a bit differently from the classic honjozo-shu.
■Recommended drinking temperature: cold, room temperature, lukewarm (5 to 18℃) or warm (24 to 40℃)
Sake is a product of fermenting rice. The brewing technique was invented in Japan. Professional sake brewers are called toji, and delicious sake is made with their hard work and skillful techniques.
There are three main steps in sake making, called ichi-koji (koji first), ni-moto (moto second) and san-tsukuri (tsukuri third).
Though there is some sugar content in rice, it is very minimal. This means that if rice is fermented on its own, the sugar content levels are too low to produce alcohol.
Koji, a kind of mold, is added to the rice in order for the rice to produce alcohol when fermented. Koji helps the starch in the rice turn into sugar, helping to increase the sugar content of the rice.
The koji is sprinkled onto steamed rice, and left in a warm, humid room for cultivation.
Moto is a mixture of koji, water, yeast and steamed rice. It is often referred to as shubo (酒母), meaning “mother of sake”, as it is an extremely important step in sake making.
Tsukuri is the processs of making moromi. Moromi is the fermented version of the previous moto mixture.
The moromi is squeezed and separated into sakekasu (solids) and sake. After being pasteurized or filtered, the sake is complete!
6 Cities and areas for Sake
Though sake is made throughout Japan, some cities and regions are especially well known for sake.
In particular the cities of Nada in Hyogo, Fushimi in Kyoto and Saijo in Hiroshima are known as the Three Major Sake Breweries of Japan.
Here are six cities and regions in Japan, including the three mentioned above, that are famous for sake.
1. Nada (Hyogo)
Sake from Nada
Nada is known as one of the Three Major Sake Breweries of Japan.
The water of the Nada area has been known as extremely suitable for sake making. In fact, even today, around 25% of all sake is made here in Nada.
There are 26 sake breweries in the area, with some being mirin (cooking rice wine) breweries.
Brewery in Nada
The “Pashuport” guidebook is nice to have when going brewery hopping in Nada. The guidebook has information on the breweries in the area, and has discount and special gift coupons for some stores.
If you want to try out sake from all over Hyogo, then you can visit Kokoromi, located near JR Himeji Station. There, you can try over 300 different kinds of sake brewed throughout Hyogo prefecture (including Nada, of course).
Kokoromi locates right by the train station, and is great for those who don’t have the time to go brewery hopping.
2. Fushimi (Kyoto)
Sake from Fushimi
The next area is Fushimi, Kyoto. Fushimi is home to many famous sake brands, including Kizakura and Gekkeikan.
Fushimi has flourished as a city of water transportation and as a castle town. On the streets of Fushimi, you can find breweries with long histories, former brewery buildings that have been transformed into restaurants and more.
In Fushimi, you can find the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Here, you can learn about the history of Gekkeikan, a brewery that was established in the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912).
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
Of course, you can do some sake tasting here too.
3. Saijo (Hiroshima)
Nishijo is an area in the city of Higashi-Hiroshima, and is known as the birthplace of ginjo-shu.
When visiting Nishijo, vising Sakagura-dori, right outside of the eastern side of JR Nishijo Station, is a must.
Sakagura-dori is a street with many sake breweries. The street retains a traditional Japanese atmosphere.
The red brick chimneys serve as the signboard for the breweries. This is a unique tradition in Nishijo.
Hakubotan Shuzo Chimney
At Nishijo, you can enjoy delicious sake and beautiful, retro scenery.
4. Niigata prefecture
Sake from Niigata ©Niigata Visitors & Convention Bureau
Niigata prefecture is famous for its brand of rice called “koshihikari”, and in general for its high quality rice.
Niigata is also a major producer of rice used for sake making. The climate, water and rice in Niigata are all fit for sake production.
In Japan, there are around 1,000 sake makers. Niigata has 84 sake makers, which is the highest number out of all prefectures (as of 2016).
At Ponshukan, you can try out over 100 different kinds of Niigata sake.
Ponshukan (Nagaoka) (Photo credit: 株式会社トッキー)
There are three Ponshukan shops throughout Niigata: in JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station, Niigata Station and Nagaoka Station.
At the Echigo-Yuzawa Station branch, you can order a sake tasting set. In this set, you can try up to 5 different kinds of sake for just ¥500. Sake tasting is also available at the Niigata Station and Nagaoka Station shops.
There is also a hot spring bath at the Echigo-Yuzawa Station shop. The bath here is infused with sake, which helps smoothen your skin.
5. Nagano Prefecture
Sake from Suwa
Nagano prefecture has the second most sake makers in Japan after Niigata.
The rich nature in Nagano produces the clean, clear waters and high quality rice that is needed for sake making.
In particular, the Suwa area in the central Nagano is known for its sake. In Suwa, you can find Suwa Gokura, a group of five sake breweries on one street. The five breweries, in no particular order, are Maihime, Reijin, Yokobue, Masumi and Honkin.
Masumi, one of the Suwa Gokura (Photo credit: 長野県観光誘客課)
With the purchase of the Suwa Gokura Sakagura Meguri Set for ¥1,800, you can sake-taste at all five breweries and receive a sake glass, bag and coupons.
There is a stamp rally at the breweries as well. Collect all five stamps and you can apply for a special Suwa Gokura gift.
6. Fukushima Prefecture
Fukushima, in northeastern Japan, is a bustling sake producing prefecture.
Fukushima has won the gold prize for its sake at the Annual Japan Sake Awards for six years in a row, which is the number one record in Japan.
To try out sake from Fukushima, visit the Fukushima Prefecture Tourist Product Center in Fukushima City. Here, there are around 500 different sakes from over 40 different breweries throughout the prefecture.
You can enjoy the sake with some local side dishes, such as pickled vegetables. It is located near JR Fukushima Station.
When in Japan, taste local sake!
Many cities and regions all over Japan have their special, local sake. Next time you visit an area in Japan for the first time, don’t forget to try out the local sake there!
Taste All of Japan's Sake in Tokyo!
If you want to taste sakes from all over Japan in one go, go visit the Kurand Sake Market.
Please enjoy to your heart's content with the all you can taste sake tasting. There are over 100 kinds of sake, and better yet, there is no time limit! A total of 7 stores, including Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, and Shibuya are located near you with easy access.