There’s no better place to taste Sake than Japan. And when you’re in Japan, why not pick and entire town that brews it. This is Saijo Sake.
If you’re in Hiroshima on the second Sunday in October then you’re in for a treat. In the town of Saijo, just a 35 minutes on the train from Hiroshima you’ll find the annual Matsuri Festival, for the weekend. During this annual festival more than 900 different sakes are in town and taking over the place. It’s estimated that 250,000 people visit over the two days.
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.
Sake is made from rice and water. Both of which need to be pure, and it’s easy to see where the water is, as that’s where the sake breweries are concentrated in the town, – they’re easy to spot – with the traditional red brick chimneys.
We were in Saijo on the Wednesday before the festival…. having legged it quickly from the super Mazda factory tour, caught the next train out and ended up here in Saijo.
Unfortunately with the festival coming up… that meant that most of the breweries in town were closed, but we did find two that were open for tasting and a further one open for a quick look around. Saijo is one of the major sake areas of Japan and from getting off the JR train at Saijo station you could be at your first brewery within 5 minutes walk – the rest are found through a very very short walking route.
We’d bought a small bottle of sake when we arrived in Nagasaki, but were saving ourselves for this trip to sake town.
The tourist information centre has an office right at the train station, (it’s closed from 12-1). There’s another office just a few minutes walk (out of the station, left at the traffic lights, about 4 minutes on foot) away. There we picked up a great map printed in English with a suggested walking route and with all the landmarks pointed out.
The Chuo Parks in the centre of town were a mass of small tents for the upcoming festival. We still manged to find seats our picnic lunch and then we set out to discover the town, which is known for its sake chimneys that dot the landscape. I’d expected a sleepy little tiny town. What we got was certainly a sleepy town, but not so little.
Saijo Sake Town Tour
First, find one of the wells that supply the water to make the sake and taste it. It just tasted like water to me, but, then I’m not a sake connoisseur. Then we found two open for tasting breweries.
Here we were introduced to sake. We’ve just begun a new season it was explained to us in English, as our guide explained the three different sakes that we tasted. Most sake’s 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 (middle bottle in the photos) and not my cup of tea. 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”.
The tall brick chimney of this brewery is the only one still in use of the 10 sake breweries here in Saijo.
With that we moved onto the Kamoizumi sake brewery, where 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 this time – again 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.
Our guide is off to London, England next week, she’s going to see how the English like sake and what they’re drinking and taking a little vacation too. She sent us on our way with two gifts. A folded paper crane and a folded paper samurai hat. We have a boys day in May she explained, when the grandparents give the boys a samurai hat.
In Japan I’d expected cold formality and polite aloofness. To date, I’ve seen only friendliness, inclusiveness and a genuine desire to help without going over the top. I’m loving this land of the rising sun and their sake ain’t bad either!
- Where we stayed in Hiroshima – the Court Hotel
- Like wine? Read about our experience of Wine Tasting India – it may surprise you!
- Sake Breweries in Saijo
- Saijo Sake Festival details
- Using a Japan Rail Pass in Japan
- What to Eat in Japan
- Our Guide book in Japan was the Lonely Planet Japan