If there is one drink that represents Japan, it is sake. And as this is its origin, there is no better place to taste Sake than Japan. So while you’re you’re in Japan, why not pick an entire town that brews sake. This is Saijo Sake, the Japanese sake brewery town. You’ll find Saijo close to Hiroshima, easily reachable by JR Train and wonderfully easy to visit. Here’s everything you need to know about tasting sake in Saijo and Japan!
What is Sake?
Sake also spelt saké is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice which has been polished to remove the bran. Sake is neither wine nor a spirit, although it is also known in some places as Japanese rice wine. The sake brewing process is more like that of brewing beer than making wine, although the process for making sake is two-fold. First, the starch in the rice is converted to sugar, then in a separate process, this sugar is converted to alcohol.
In the Japanese language, the word “sake” is often used to refer to any alcoholic drink.
A Brief History of Sake
The earliest recorded reference of alcohol in Japan comes from a 3rd-century Chinese book, the Book of Wei. The most likely first mention of sake was though during the Nara period (710-794). The brewing of sake was strictly controlled by the government of the day until the 10th century when temples and shrines began their own product. Distillation techniques were introduced in the 16th century and it was in the Meiji Restoration period that specific laws were written enabling anyone with the know-how and the money to construct and run their own sake breweries. This led to more than 30,000 sake breweries appearing within a 12 month period. The government realized that taxes could be levied and this dropped to around 8,000.
A government-sponsored sake-brewing institute was opened in 1904, followed by a government-organized sake tasting competition. This government also controlled the taxing of sake. In 1904-5, when the government banned homemade sake (which was tax-free), sake made up 30% of Japans’ tax revenue. Homemade sake is still forbidden, but sake now only makes up 2% of the government tax revenues.
Sake popularity declined in the 1960s when beer drinking became the vogue. It has declined yet more since the 1970s. In 1975 there were 3,229 sake breweries in Japan, this dropped to 1,845 in 2007.
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How do you drink Sake?
Sake can be drunk hot, at room temperature or cold. In Japan, it is often served with ceremony, where it’s warmed in a small jar or bottle and then it is sipped from a small cup called a sakazuki. For hot sake, a small cup called a choko is used, and the sake is poured from a tokkuri into this type of cup, to ensure that it does not get cold.
Traditionally you do not pour your own sake, instead, you pour for other members in your group. While in recent years this has relaxed more, you’ll certainly find it is what happens at your first business meeting for instance.
Sake is usually served in 180ml (6.1 fluid ounce) servings.
A bottle of sake is at its best when it is consumed with a few hours. You can store sake in the refrigerator, however, sake begins to oxidise once opened and so the taste will change. If you need to store it for more than 1 or 2 days, then buy a vacuum seal and try and remove air from the bottle.
Why Drink Sake in Japan
While you may find sake now brewed in other countries, there is no drink, perhaps other than Japanese tea, which better sums up Japan. It is famous around the world and in Japan, the combination of available rice and water make this a unique place to drink sake.
There are many excellent breweries around Japan, but it is those in Saijo that are known for the superb combination of quality rice, spring water and natural weather conditions.
Why Drink Sake in Saijo
Several regions in Japan are famous for sake, but Saijo claims ideal natural conditions. These include the low temperatures of between 4 and 5 degrees centigrade during the brewing process to ideal sake brewing water and rice grown on Hiroshima’s plains and mountains.
Saijo has an excellent combination of factors to make it the ideal place to taste sake.
- The water. The town is famous for its excellent clear, clean spring water. You’ll see evidence of all the wells throughout the town.
- The rice. Many breweries here have existed since the Edo times (1603-1868), traditional methods of milling the rice have been passed on through generations and continue to be used today.
- The breweries. If you’re going to taste sake in Japan why not pick an entire town that brews it. This is Saijo Sake.
Saijo is located just 35 minutes from Hiroshima on your JR Pass (buy one here and save big time). There are 10 sake breweries, with 8 of them within easy walking distance of the JR station. Many of these offer a free tasting for visitors. It’s the perfect place to taste sake in Japan and learn about this important element of the culture.
It’s incredibly easy to get to the Saijo sake town, especially if you’re staying in Hiroshima and take a Saijo sake tour. Saijo also hosts an annual sake festival which is well worth a stop if you’re travelling at this time.
Where is Saijo Japan?
Saijo is located just 40 kilometres northeast of Hiroshima. The JR Sanyo line train takes just 35 minutes.
Map of Saijo Japan Location
Map of Saijo Town
How to Go Sake Tasting in Japan
There are several ways that you can go Sake tasting in Japan. We cover each of them here and go into detail on how you can sake taste in Japan’s sake capital, Saijo.
Take an organized tour to taste sake in Japan
If you just want to taste sake with an explanation of how sake is made, then it’s easy to arrange a sake tasting tour. Japan provides great sake brewery tours – and we’ve outlined the sake tours here.
Taste Sake in Tokyo with a sake sommelier – on this tour, lasting 2.5 hours, you’ll get to taste 5 different types of sake from across Japan. You’ll get Japanese snacks paired to the sake that you’re drinking too. Meets at the Sake Doron Bar, just 5 minutes from the JR Higashi-Nakano station. Book now and get instant confirmation!
Visit a Sake Brewery in Kyoto – this 3-hour tour will visit a large and a small sake brewery including a 400-year-old sake brewery and you’ll also visit Gekkeikan Okura sake museum to gain an understanding the history of sake. Various sake tastings are included and you’ll also get lunch at a local restaurant! Check availability and get an instant confirmation here
Combine visiting the snow monkeys, temples and a sake tasting in Nagano! – meet at the JR Station in Nagano and take a 1-day guided tour to visit Jigokudani or “Hell’s Valley”, home of the Snow Monkeys. You’ll also visit Zenkoji Temple and end your day by visiting a local Japanese sake brewery! Book your visit now!
You can now take a guided tour of Saijo, the sake town in Japan from Hiroshima. If you’d like to visit Saijo and taste sake but would prefer to do this with a local English speaking guide – then check out this tour. You’ll visit 4-6 sake breweries, have 2 food stops and meet at the Saijo JR station for this 3-hour tour. Book your guided tour to Saijo from Hiroshima now!
Visit a Bar to taste sake in Japan
If you’re not going to have the time to specifically visit sake breweries when you’re in Japan, then you’re going to want to check out a specialist Sake bar. This selection from Culture Trip showcases the best sake bars in Tokyo!
Visit the Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum in Kobe
The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum in Kobe is open from 0930-1630 (last entrance 1600). Admission is free and the museum is located a 15-minute walk from the JR Sumiyoshi station.
The original sake brewhouse is open to the public to show the traditional methods of sake brewing that were employed here. Hakutsuru has brewed sake in Kobe since 1743 and continues to do so. Visit here to see the old and new techniques and explore the world of sake in Kobe!
Buy sake from a store in Japan
To buy sake from a store in Japan in order to taste it you’ll want to take note of a few details on the label. You should be able to get a rough indication of its taste from the following terms.
Nihosu-do: (日本酒度) this indicates the sugar and alcohol content of the sake. You’ll typically find values between -3 (sweet) and +10 (dry).
Aminosan-do (アミノ酸度) details the savouriness or taste of umami.
Taste Sake in Saijo – Japan’s Sake Capital
There’s no better place to taste sake than in Saijo, just 35 minutes on the train from Hiroshima. You’ll find 8 sake breweries here where you can walk easily from the JR Sanyo line station and taste at each of them. And by walk easily we mean, literally 1-2 minutes between the breweries. Keep reading for details on each of the sake breweries in Saijo!
Visit the Saijo Sake Festival 2019
As the Japanese capital of sake, Saijo holds the famous Sake Masuri festival every October. More than 900 different sakes are available in Saijo and the festival takes over the town. It’s estimated that over the 2 day weekend more than 250,000 people visit.
The festival is held on the 2nd Saturday and Sunday of October. Saijo sake festival dates for 2019 are 12th and 13th October 2019.
The Saijo Matsuri Sake Festival has an entrance fee of 2,100 YEN, but once you have your ticket you’ll receive a small sake cup and be able to taste the 900 sakes on display and on offer here. You’ll also find snacks to complement your sake, from senbei rice crackers to chicken skewers. Find out what else yo eat in Japan with our guide to Japanese Food here.
How to Sake Taste in Saijo
It’s very easy, even if you don’t speak any Japanese t take a self-guided sake tasting tour in Saijo. Make your way to the JR Saijo Station (if you haven’t picked up a JR Pass yet, then get one here).
You can pick up a map from your hostel or hotel, grab a photo of the map at the train station, or head into the tourist information office close to the station. The tourist information office in Saijo is closed from 1200-1300 for lunch. It’s hard to get lost in Saijo though. And it’s easy to spot the sake breweries by their tall brick chimneys.
Sake Breweries to visit in Saijo Japan
There are 8 sake breweries in Saijo that you can visit very easily and within easy walking distance from the JR Sanyo line train station.
Make your first stop the tourist information office at the train station and pick up the map in English to find your way around.
The tourist office is closed for lunch between 1200 and 1300, but there is another just a few minutes walk away (out of the station, left at the traffic lights, about 4 minutes on foot). This map has suggested walking route and with all the landmarks pointed out.
Then, find one of the wells that supply the water to make the sake. You can drink for some of these wells. It’s worth tasting apparently. It just tasted like water to me, but, then I’m not a sake connoisseur.
While it is certainly possible to visit all 8 of the breweries within walking distance of the station, if they’re open, you might want to pace yourself. Most sake breweries in Saijo will give you 3 or 4 samples for free. You can also find the Saijo sake brewery hours on the individual websites below.
Kamotsuru Sake Brewery
Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company
4-31 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0011
Phone 082-422-2121, Fax 082-422-2300
This sake brewery has an informative video showing the sake brewing process, which includes details on how rice is milled. You can also taste a range of sakes here. It’s a good introduction to sake. There are a wide variety of sakes on offer here and the Kamotsuru brewery has won gold medal awards since 1970.
Kamotsuru was the sake of choice for feudal lords in the Edo period. The name Kamotsuru was adopted in 1873.
Fukubijin Sake Brewery Saijo
Fukubijin Shuzou Inc.
6-21 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0011
Phone 082-423-3148, Fax 082-422-7497
Famous for becoming the first sake brewery in Japan to be a legal corporation, Fukubijin has won awards in national sake competitions. They ran the Saijo Brewing School until 1970 and the brewery is known for “feminine sake: – deep, rich flavours, and a clean finish. You’ll also find sake ice cream here.
Kamoizumi Sake Brewery Saijo
Kamoizumi Shuzou Co., Ltd.
2-4 Saijo Kamiichi-machi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0006
Phone 082-423-2118, Fax 082-423-9217
Kamiozumi was founded in 1912 and focuses on original, traditional flavours in sake. They have been famous since 1971 for producing a junmai ginjo grade sake 60% milled rice. Their tori (sake brewer) is very well respected and is the oldest active master brewer in Hiroshima. Their sake is a light golden colour, as they do not filter through carbon. This also helps to give the sake from here a rich, mellow flavour.
At the Kamoizumi sake brewery, we were greeted by a flock of local women preparing for the festival. There was to be a display of traditional Japanese arts and this lady had been teaching them origata. It’s a form of origami the women were getting together to display their work in time for the weekend.
Our guide in perfect English – helped us through the tasting of fresh sake. Cold, refreshing, clean tasting. Then a second taste and then joined by a Japanese gentleman we tasted the special stuff. I clearly will never be a sake connoisseur, as the fresh, almost made this morning was my favourite.
Sake generally brews for a month and the season has just started. Some sake is aged and generally, the more polishing (the removal of the husk of the rice) the rice gets the better the sake. The last sake we tried had only 50% of the rice used. I suspect I am somewhat uncouth in my “gimme the cheap stuff because that’s the taste I prefer” thoughts, but that’s the taste that I preferred.
Kirei Sake Brewery Saijo
Kirei Shuzou Co., Ltd.
8-18 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0011
Phone 082-422-2171, Fax 082-423-8219
The name Kirei means “the age of a turtle” and indicates long life. It was chosen specifically for this purpose to indicate that f you drink Kirei you will have a long life! Kirei is known for a dry taste, unlike other Saijo sakes which tend to be sweeter. You can also buy noodles here which are called “Jokamachi Udon,” made using a sake.
Saijotsuru Sake Brewery Saijo
Saijotsuru Sake Brewery Co., Ltd.
9-17 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0011
Phone 082-423-2345, Fax 082-422-8272
A very traditional sake brewery, this is the only sake brewery in Saijo still using the tall brick chimney. They only produce sake during the coldest days in winter. This leads to their junmai and ginjo sakes having a very clean aftertaste.
In our sake tour, it was explained to us that they had just begun a new and our guide explained to us the three different sakes that we tasted. Most sakes are pasteurized, twice. So we tried first of all a fresh, light tasting sake. Easy drinking, no strong taste.
Then we moved onto the somewhat stronger tasting and not my cup of tea next sample. This sake had had its rice polished a lot more and also contained some distilled alcohol, the previous taste was just rice, water and koji (a Japanese yeast).
Finally, we got to try the unpasteurized version, that almost had an aniseed taste to it. “this is quite irregular, this sake”, it was explained to us. “we produce 200,000 litres a year, but none is exported”.
Hakubotan Sake Brewery Saijo
Hakubotan Shuzou Co., Ltd.
15-5 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0011
Phone 082-422-2142, Fax 082-424-4250
Tracing its roots back to 1675, Hakubotan was founded by a descendant of general Sakon Shima, who served the famous Mitsunari Ishida. The sake is characterized as clean and elegant.
Sanyotsuru Sake Brewery Saijo
Sanyotsuru Brewery Inc.
6-9 Saijo Okamachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0016
Phone 082-423-2055, Fax 082-422-7933
Founded late in the Edo period Sanyotsuru use rice from the northern region of Hiroshima. They also run pubs in central Hiroshima and Tokyo, where you can buy sake delivered fresh from this brewery. You can test and buy their Five Sake Sampler, which comprises five 180ml bottles of some of the types of sake that they produce.
Kamoki Sake Brewery Saijo
Kamoki Sake Brewery
11-3 Saijo Nishi Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-0043
Phone 082-422-2537, Fax 082-422-4895
This brewery is small and focuses on producing a wide variety of sake in small quantities. They’re famous for Malt Kamoki – sake that should be drunk on ice and a red coloured sake that is made from brown unmilled rice. Check out their Japanese sweet shop and coffee lounge.
Sakurafubuki Sake Brewery
Kanemitsu Shuzou & Co., Ltd.
1364-2 Nomino-o, Kurosecho, Higashi Hiroshima-shi, 739-2622
Phone 0823-82-2006, Fax 0823-82-7948
Producing hand made small quantity sake with a young team, goes against the norm in Japanese sake brewing where an aged tori master is revered. However, the mild-tasting and aromas of these sakes are well appreciated, especially by younger sake drinkers. This sake brewery is around 13 kilometres from the JR Saijo Station.
Drinking Japanese Sake FAQs
How do you make sake?
Sake is brewed from rice. It is neither a spirit nor a wine. During the brewing process, the starches in the rice first are changed to sugar and it is this sugar that is fermented.
Is there a particular time of year that Sake is brewed?
Sake is now brewed year-round, although in the past it was only brewed in the winter. A traditional sign that new sake has been brewed is a globe of cedar leaves, the sugitama (杉玉), which is traditionally hung outside a brewery. The leaves will start green but turn to brown as the sake matures.
New-season sake is called shinshu 新酒 (new sake). This new sake was traditionally transported in the spring. A second transport occurred in the autumn when the weather cooled again, this was known as hiyaoroshi 冷卸し (cold distribution)
Are there any special times of the year for sake?
October 1 is the official Sake Day (日本酒の日, “Nihonshu no Hi”) in Japan. The Sake Matsuri festival is held in Japan, in the town of Saijo on the 2nd Saturday and Sunday of October each year.
What alcoholic strength is sake?
Sake is usually between 13 and 16 per cent alcohol
How long can I keep sake?
Sake, with very few exceptions, should be drunk young – within a few months of purchase!
Do I need to keep sake in the fridge?
No. Unless you want it chilled, you don’t need to keep it in the fridge. However, if you have opened a bottle, you’ll probably want to keep it in the fridge.
Once the bottle of sake is opened does it need to be drunk immediately?
Sake has its best taste immediately on opening the bottle but should be ok to drink for around a week after opening.
What should I drink my sake out of?
A wine glass would work. If you want to buy a specific sake drinking cup then you can buy a choko or a sakazuki.
How to get to Saijo Japan?
Saijo is easy to get to. Take any JR Sanyo line train to Saijo from Hiroshima. If you haven’t bought your JR Pass yet, then get hold of it here. If you are travelling to Saijo from Tokyo, then the JR Shinkansen from Tokyo to Hiroshima will take just over 2 hours, then its 35 minutes from Hiroshima to Saijo.
Where to stay in Saijo Japan
We stayed in Hiroshima to visit Saijo at the excellent Court Hotel. It is quick and simple to hop on the JR Sanyo line train to reach Saijo and go sake tasting.
And finally – Saijo is a fabulous place to see the Japanese Cherry Blossoms – you can get more inspiration here on where to see Cherry Blossoms in Japan.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this overview of how to taste sake in Japan, and especially in the town of Saijo. How will you enjoy your sake in Japan? Let us know if you have any further recommendations!