A dream came true for me recently and it was courtesy of the Japanese Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF). That might sound unlikely when one’s dreams are often woven around the acquisition of something small and sparkling, a new 3D TV, or designer shoes. MAFF invited me on my first trip to Japan for sake and that surpassed any gratification from transient gifts.
I embarked on this first visit with a degree of trepidation. Several people told me that at least my lone arrival would be fraught with linguistic impossibilities. I would not be able to read station signs, I don’t speak Japanese – in short I would be lost from the start!
I have few calls to fame but one of those is a complete lack of sense of direction. Initially, I was not going to be part of an organised group. I was fed a diet of ill-informed negativity before I even left Heathrow, and 12 hours on the flight to Tokyo allowed me to grow the already-sown seeds of apprehension into a quiet dignified panic.
Tokyo airport is huge but friendly. I was beckoned with animated cordiality, directed with cheer and welcomed with smiling eyes over the ubiquitous white mask. Well, I mused, perhaps an airport isn’t representative of ‘outside’. I found my terminal transfer bus with ease and a fellow passenger escorted me to the correct gate. It was evident that I was a tourist. I don’t look Japanese and so the population at large seemed to be keeping a parental eye out for me.
Modus operandi of ticket machines
Nagoya airport was going to be my next challenge. The mission was to find the station, buy a ticket and reach my hotel in Nagoya city. I had already checked out the modus operandi of ticket machines on Youtube, and those machines were just the same in real life, complete with English translation button (top RH corner). I found my platform and train by asking. Yes, dear timid reader, I asked, and my couple of words of Japanese served me well. A polite apology for interruption and the flourishing of my ticket was met with more smiles and a ‘You want platform 3, just down there.’ I was now enjoying my dream. I was in Japan.
Japan is surprisingly good value for money these days, with return tickets to Tokyo being found for under £600. Any experienced traveller will have no problems with language. A pocket phrase book and a civilized demeanour will, like everywhere in the world, serve you well. But there is more to Japan than the buzz of the big cities, although these are worth the time to explore. There are small towns that are historic, beautiful and full of unique character. There are artisan shops where one might watch traditional candles being made, for instance. The food lover will be blessed with opportunities to taste local specialities and meet the makers. And then there are those sake breweries.
Taste in situ
MAFF were not supporting this trip in order for me to make friends with railway workers. I was here to indulge a passion – Sake. I have enjoyed tasting sake in London, and had already studied and gained a very modest qualification in the subject, but this was my chance to actually visit breweries and to taste in situ, so to speak. Nothing can beat seeing the production of anything first-hand. I was part of a group of sake educators who were sitting their final Wine & Spirits Education Trust Sake Level 3 exams. Also in attendance were the two tutors, Natsuke Kikuya and Antony Moss, who have supported this multi-national bunch on their paths to sake knowledge.
Obviously I had seen pictures of the sake-making process but they mostly consisted of shots of anonymous stainless steel vats, crates of bottles and perhaps a few sacks of rice. Not much charm there, I supposed. But once again the reality of Japan surpassed the expectation. We visited breweries that could be mini tourist attractions in their own right.
It’s obvious that sake professionals will want to visit breweries. They will already have their favourite bottles tagged with reminders to visit the originators. They will know about the steps to making perfectly balanced and delicious sake and they will relish the prospect of discussing the niceties of brewing with the Toji (brew master). But there were breweries on this trip that should be incorporated into any visit to Japan, and they will be a delightful addition to any tour even if the tourists are sake virgins.
Include a sake brewery or two in your visit
I know that it’s unlikely that a sake novice will embark on a solely sake-dedicated vacation to Japan. I can promise you, however, that if you include a sake brewery or two in your visit, you will become a convert. There is much more to Japan’s iconic beverage than you might find at your local sushi bar, where there will probably be only two varieties available – hot or cold. Many breweries will offer tours and some offer food. They will convert the sceptical.
Kamoizumi brewery in the sake town of Saijo is well worth a visit. The town is a magnet for local sake lovers and should feature in any itinerary. It’s family-run and they produce both first-class sake and some of the best Japanese food I personally have ever tried. The huge Hakutsuru factory brewery in Nada has been around since 1743 and shows the high-tech face of modern sake brewing. There is a sake museum on site and a sizable shop for sake and sake-related gifts.
The delightful Tenryou in Hida with 8 generations of history is unmissable. This was the first brewery I visited and I was impressed by the warm hospitality of a family who are justifiably proud of their sake. The area would be a calming base from which to travel around some unspoilt countryside, and perhaps you’d like to take advantage of staying at an Unsen hot-spring spa for a few days of pampering.
The hand-made element
Hirata brewery in picturesque Takayama is beautifully traditional, as is the town, which has the most photogenic wooden buildings – like a mini Kyoto. They present award-winning aged sake in a brewery that still shows the hand-made element of the industry.
The Watanabe brewery in charming Furukawa is among my favourites. One of the brewers here is American, so able personally to guide English-speaking visitors. They take tender care of their sake and believe that a few kind words and cheery sounds help to improve the brew. A visit here will be fascinating.
I will write more about these individual sake breweries in the near future; the list below includes their internet sites.
Japan is accessible and open for tourist business. It’s polished and safe and good value for money. I have been enchanted by the country and its people, and have learnt more about sake than I ever could from books and bottles alone. It’s a cultured land that welcomes visitors who are interested in and respect its traditions, and it offers so much to lovers of food, sake and history. One visit is not enough and likely will only act as the introduction to a lifelong travel addiction.
Some useful links:
Sake Brewery websites:
Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018