Besides premium ingredients and the right climate, you need toji (sake maker) at a sake brewery to create high-quality Japanese sake.
In Japan, there’s a distinction between ‘sake’, which means alcoholic beverage, and ‘nihonshu’ that translates to ‘the drink of Japan’. In many ways, the sake that many outsiders come to recognize is precisely it: a fermented, rice-based alcoholic drink that has seeped into the country’s identity.
To live in Japan is to have sake present at every point of your life. Synonymous with Japanese culture, sake is served at weddings, poured from children to their parents when they come of age and enjoyed at sushi restaurants.
In recent years, the national drink has expanded beyond national obsession — and finally received the global attention it deserved.
In this article, we’ll be discussing the rich history behind sake and the need-to-know things about sake brewery. Most breweries also offer tours and tastings, so, if you are planning to dive deep into sake, make sure to visit these places when you go to Japan.
This article is a part of our extensive series on our Japan Switch Blog about the Japanese language and culture.
What You Need to Know About Sake
Rice in Japan goes beyond being a staple for Japanese meals, meant for lunch bento and donburi. The ‘sake’ that we know (also referred as nihonshu) is made from the rice grain
Nowadays, sake breweries in Japan are experimenting with new styles and production techniques. Things like the cultivar of rice and extend of polishing and fermentation are taken into heavy consideration. Because of the filtration process at sake breweries in Japan, sake has a slight yellowish color with an alcohol content of 15%.
The taste of sake is complex, delicious and, to some, surprising. It has less acidity than wine (only a fifth of the acidity). However, it makes up for its lack of acid bite with its smooth, subtle flavor. Flavor profiles range from crisp to rich — some with fruity notes, even.
This is why you can find a lot of fine-dining and omakase restaurants stocking their shelves with sake — not just in Japan, but around the world. It goes well with almost any kind of food, but its delicate flavor especially pairs well with hearty traditional Japanese meals.
Types of Japanese Sake
The world of sake is also increasingly diverse. There are about 70 rice varieties used to make the alcoholic drink. There are three types of rice commonly used: yamadanishiki, gyohakumangoku and miyamanishiki.
Even then, you will notice a hint of uniqueness from one sake brewery to another. Sake’s history dates back to over 1,000 years ago, yet it is still a craft in the making until today. After all, sake making process has been refined over the centuries by sake masters (toji) in their regional sake brewery.
There are five main types of sake, each brewed in different ways and made through different percentages of milling. The degree of milling, in particular (also known as seimai buai) is what sets sake apart from each other.
This type of sake contains pure unadulterated sake with no brewer’s alcohol, starch and sugar are added to it. It has the least polishing ratio.
40% of the rice is milled for ginjo-shu, giving it a wonderful aroma and light flavor. This particular type of sake is considered as a premium form and was only developed around 50 years ago.
In Japanese, ‘dai’ (大) means ‘big’. You can think of daiginjo as the more premium version of ginjo-shu. The small amount of distilled alcohol added allows the flavor and aroma to enhance.
The degree of milling for honjozo-shu is 70%, and the sake is added with brewer’s alcohol. It is known for its distinct aroma and smooth body. Unlike ginjo-shu, which is usually served chill, honjozu-shu is ideally enjoyed warm.
The word ‘nama’ in Japanese means raw. In essence, namazake is unpasteurized alcohol; all types of sake listed above can be considered namazake as long as they don’t go through the pasteurization process. However, the drink must be refrigerated and consumed quickly.
How Sake is Made in Japan
Like wine and beer, sake is made through the fermentation of yeast. The foundation of sake is high-quality rice, koji (mold strain) and water. The special sake rice is stripped of the bran to remove the protein and oil.
In the brewing process, the polishing ratio (seimai buai) determines the quality of sake. The number indicates how much of the rice remains after the rice grain is milled; the lower the percentage, the more expensive the sake is.
The starchy core is then ready to be converted by the koji mold. First, rice is washed, steamed and chilled before being spread out on wooden tables. Steaming makes the rice starch easier for the koji to break down. The next process relies on the koji, where the starch is finally broken into fermentable sugar.
Besides being used as a fermentation mash, water is used to wash and soak the rice. Because of this, toji masters pay attention to the quality of water. These master sake brewers have their specific techniques that overall affect the final sake flavor and style.
What You Need to Know About Sake Brewery in Japan
Most sake is produced in small to medium-sized sake breweries in Japan, where regionality and climate contribute to the quality.
Typically, sake brewing is most effective in the winter because this is when the yeast is most active. Sake brewers will often benefit from the cold period, which usually falls around November to February. However, bigger sake breweries with air-conditioned facilities and advanced storage systems can make sake throughout the year.
The practice of making sake in the winter is called ‘Kanzukuri’, while sake brewing year-long is called ‘shikizukuri’,
Becoming a Sake Sommelier
Some people drink sake for special occasions, while some people consider sake their passion. If you fall on the latter (or at least, plan to), there’s a few resources and community that can help you get closer to the art of sake.
Sake on Air is a podcast, where the hosts invite sake and shochu industry professionals in Japan to join an open-aired question.
If you’re looking to take things more seriously, there’s an English certification exam launched in 2018 called the J.S.A Sake Diploma International. There’s also the Sake Sommelier Course for those living in the US. Students can expect educational training that includes analyzing over 12 premium Japanese sake. At the end of the course, you’ll participate in an exam to test your knowledge before you become an official sake sommelier (also known as Kikisake-shi).
The Best Time to Visit a Sake Brewery in Japan
Typically, sake production relies on seasons in Japan, with the most active time being in the winter. Sake brewers will often benefit from the cold period, which usually falls around November to February. However, bigger sake breweries with air-conditioned facilities and advanced storage systems can make sake throughout the year.
Because winter is when the busy sake-making time falls, access to breweries may be restricted. When planning your itinerary to any sake brewery in Japan, think about the off-season. Although some breweries do have museums and shops, there won’t be a lot to see.
The end of the cold season marks the final sake brewing process. Around the end of January to early May, each brewer — especially in Kyushu — celebrates the completion of sake production through holding an event called ‘kurabiraki’. There, visitors can sample freshly made sake from each brewery and get a tour of the place. Stalls with local food are erected, and you might even get the chance to talk to the toji.
Besides that, you can also enjoy traditional art performances and fun stage events. It’s not rare for renowned sake breweries to include Japanese drum performance and lion dance in their yearly festival.
Many sake breweries in Japan have also hosted special events like the ‘Summer Sake Festival’ and ‘Autumn Sake Festival’ before the start of sake brewing.
Where to Visit Sake Brewery in Japan
Most sake breweries in Japan are located in the countryside. As mentioned above, the quality of water is important for the taste of sake. Specifically, the amount of iron contained in the water will greatly impact the taste and aroma of sake. If the sourced water contains too much iron mineral, the sake will have a reddish-brown color. It comes as no surprise that where there are excellent water sources, you’ll mostly find sake breweries around.
Currently, there are about 1800 sake breweries in Japan. A lot of them are centered in Niigata, Kobe and Kyoto. They are considered among the 100 best water resources by the Ministry of the Environment.
Sake Brewery in Fushimi, Kyoto
Prized for the clean, pristine water that flows from Horikawa River, Fushimi has been a leading sake brewing district in Japan. The traditional sake brewing area is home to roughly 40 sake breweries.
Many of the buildings there maintain a traditional appearance, decked with wood and traditional Japanese lime plaster. You can find a handful of sake breweries that is open to the public. You can purchase their exclusive products, take a stroll around their museums and have a tasting. Among them is the famous Gekkeikan, one of the oldest sake and plum wine company in the world.
Sake Brewery in Nada, Hyogo
Alongside Kyoto’s Fushimi district, the Nada area is revered as another superior sake production region in Japan. Not just its soft water, the region is able to produce high-quality rice grains and boasts the perfect weather condition for fermentation.
The area is also close to Kobe Port and Osaka, making it a strategic point for sake distribution. Many sake breweries in Nada, like the Sawanotsuru Sake Museum, have open stores and exhibition rooms. A lot of the sake breweries also offer free guided tours of the warehouse that includes sake tasting.
Sake Brewery in Kyushu
Also another famous sake place in Japan following Nada and Fushimi, Kyushu is particularly famous for its kurabiraki festival. Its largest one is the Jojima Sakagura Biraki, which welcomed 100,000 visitors every year (before the COVID-19 pandemic). The festival is held for two days around early to mid-November.
Sake Brewery in Saitama
Saitama Prefecture also has a long history of sake brewing. There are two major rivers in Saitama: the Arakawa and Tone River. Sake breweries would use underground water from both rivers to prepare sake. The overall water quality can be described as ‘soft’, which allows sake masters to make sake with a mellow, pleasant taste.
In 2004, the prefecture successfully developed a new type of sake rice called ‘Sake Musashi’, which combines two types of sake rice. Characterized by its circular white part in the center of the rice grain, Sake Musashi is the key ingredient to making the area’s specialty sake.
Things You Need to Know Before Visiting a Sake Brewery in Japan
1. Book a reservation before
Surprisingly, private tours on many sake breweries in Japan aren’t expensive — some of them being free, even. However, most of them require reservation before your visitation. Another thing to keep in mind is that tours, particularly in the countryside and outside prefectures, will be done in Japanese — so make sure you’re bringing a friend who’s ready to translate on the go.
2. Wear comfortable clothing
This applies when you’re doing a tour inside the brewery and not, say, a museum. Chances are, you’ll find wet floors, slippers, and humongous brewing tanks. If you’re inside the facility, you might also need to wear a hairnet, coat and special shoes. That’s right — you better abandon that cute dress or iron-pressed shirt for a loose t-shirt.
3. Do not wear perfume or eat anything fermented
Sake brewers are very meticulous about the production process. Every detail counts and could effectively alter the end taste of sake. Although it sounds odd, a lot of toji believe that having odors from natto bacteria, cheese, pickles or yogurt can suppress bacteria activity for the sake of fermentation. The same thing goes for perfume.
Must-visit Sake Brewery in Japan
Of course, if you can’t catch a flight to visit the Fushimi or Nada sake district, a number of great sake breweries and museums still remain if you’re planning for day trips from Tokyo.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
This sake museum is the top recommendation for anyone looking to dive deep into the culture of Japanese sake. Located in a renovated brewery in Fushimi, the place is built in 1909 and intended to showcase the history of Geikkeikan, one of the biggest (and oldest) sake makers. You can expect displays of sake production tools and full explanations of sake procedures.
The museum is also designed to recreate a traditional sake brewery. Stepping into the place will feel like a portal back in time to 400 years ago. After you finish the tour, stop by the tasting corner to enjoy three types of sake and plum wine. There’s also a museum gift shop and mini brewery, where anyone can live brewing processes.
Location: 247 Minamihama-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Administration fee: Adults ¥400 | Students ¥100
Opening hours: 9:30-16:30
Kizakura Kappa Country
Inside the theme park owned by the famous Kizakura sake maker, you can find a refined sake brewery called Kappa Sake Brewery. The place comprises of sake and beer brewery, a restaurant that stocks up local beer and a sake museum.
The sake makers make new sake in the cold months, and you will smell the aroma of fermenting sakes as you stroll around the facility. In the Kizakura museum, you can take a look at the rich history of Kizakura and the origin of its mythical mascot, kappa.
Location: 228 Shioya-machi, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
Opening hours: Mon-Fri: 11: 30-14: 30, 17: 00-21: 30 | Weekends and public holiday: 11: 00-14: 30 (LO14: 00), 17: 00 ~ 21: 30
Administration fee: Free
Bukou Brewery sits in Chichibu, Saitama in a 200-year old cultural building. It is known for its clean water that is sourced from the well. The underground water is so clean that you can actually fill your own bottle with it in the brewery’s courtyard.
Tours are available by reservation — but better book fast, because the area attracts many celebrities and media attention. Inside, you can find historical objects, like time-honored old wooden signs, iron pots and old wooden pillars. If you think that traditional sake is too strong, try their amazake, a sweet, low-alcohol version.
Location: 21-27Miyakawacho, Chichibu-shi, Saitama
Opening hours: 8:00-17:30
Otokoyama Sake Brewery
If you’re planning on a trip to Hokkaido, make sure to put this one into your itinerary. As one of the most famous sake brands in Japan — and possibly the world, Otokayama Sake Brewery has been in the game for more than 300 years. Inside the sake museum, you’ll find works of artists who’ve made ukiyo-e prints that feature Otokayama sake. Besides that, you’ll get the chance to learn the history of the brand.
Location: 7-1-33, Nagayama 2-jo, Asahikawa-shi, Hokkaido
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00
Admission fee: Free
The leading sake maker first started in 1850 and has since honed its sake technique. With natural spring water and rice grains, the brewery integrates the latest technology into the production process. What came after are lines of prestigious national sake awards. You can rest assured that the chief brewers take it seriously when it comes to quality. You can drink the water immediately during the tour. In addition to that, they have a shop that sells unique sake-flavored ice cream and amazake.
Location: 7-2 Shimofurutera, Ogawa-machi, Hiki-gun, Saitama
Opening hours: 9:00-17:00
Admission fee: Free
Koedo Kagamiyama Sake Brewery
This is the heart of Japan’s little edo: the Kagamiyama Sake Brewery of Kawagoe. In 2007, the Koedo Kagamiyama Sake Brewery was established as an effort to revive the area’s sake culture. As a local sake of Kawagoe, it’s a small sake maker nevertheless, with visitors coming mainly from Saitama. In recent years, however, it has garnered media attention from TVs and newspapers due to its relatively recent birth. You can find the depths of the gastronomic heritage as much of the building’s interior and architecture is still reserved for its traditional form.
Location: 10-13 Nakacho, Kawagoe-shi, Saitama
Yokota Brewery (Gyoda, Saitama)
Yokota Sake Brewery was founded in 1805 by Shoemon Yokota, who found clean water in Gyoda city. The water is collected from a private well, where the underground water flows from the Arakawa River. The sake brewery uses Asano-hikari and Wakamizu brown rice. The fermentation process is gentle, creating mellow-flavored sake.
Visitors can take a tour of the brewery with prior reservations.
Location: 2-29-3 Sakuracho, Gyoda-shi, Saitama
Opening hours: 8:30-17:00
Ozawa Sake Brewery
The brewery is located in Ome, the western part of Tokyo. Despite being part of the city, the site commands spectacular views of the mountains. You can enjoy a full day in the facility. There are sake breweries, restaurants, shops and art museums. Besides that, the brewery also makes tofu and offers a 10-kind sake tasting.
Another thing: the place has special tours held a few times a month which is conducted in English. Even if you attend the regular Japanese tours, English brochures are available so you’ll never be lost.
Location: 2-770 Sawai, Ome, Tokyo
Opening hours: 10:00-17:00
Another sake brewery near Tokyo, Toshimaya Shuzo source their spring water from Mount Fuji. Tours are held on weekdays and come with an exclusive tasting service. About sake brewery tour (reservation required)
Location: 3-14-10 Kumegawacho, Higashimurayama, Toky
Opening hours: Tours on 10:00, 13:00 and 15:00
Fee: ¥550 per person | Up to 8 visitors | Reservation required