So you want to visit a sake brewery in Japan?
Visiting a sake brewery in Japan is a lot more complicated than visiting a winery in Napa Valley. Like, about a thousand times more complicated. First of all – this is Japan. Unless you read Hiragana and Kanji, it’s often impossible even to decipher visiting hours of the brewery websites, let alone figure out maps and streets at your destination. Also, there isn’t a clear “sake route” designated for tourists. However, certain regions are highly regarded for sake making and it’s good to start there.
For English speakers, the Ichishima Sake Brewery in Niigata, Japan is a manageable and truly enjoyable sake brewery destination.
Here’s what to keep in mind when visiting a sake brewery:
1. Sake is made in the winter.
If you visit during the summer, there will be no brewing happening. All the action is during the cold months. When I left Tokyo on a January day, the weather was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. On the bullet train, I was amazed to cross mountains and valleys with deep snow, and by the time I transferred for the local train to Niigata the temperature had dropped about 30 degrees and the snow was everywhere. I’ve learned that this snow is important because sake depends on the purest water, and melted snow running off of surrounding mountains is a good source.
2. Prepare to learn a whole new style of fermentation
Even if you’re experienced in winery visits, you’re as unprepared as any newbie in sake land. First of all, unlike the picturesque Napa wineries with faux-Spanish stucco enveloped in ivy and surrounded by vines, Japanese sake breweries are in the middle of thickly populated cities or large towns. The rice fields are many miles away and definitely not part of the tour.
The equipment you’ll view in a sake brewery is also unique to this beverage, which has been a traditional favorite in Japan for more than 1000 years. At Ichishima Brewery, you can view well-preserved displays of both old sake-making devices in their small museum and see contemporary equipment in action.
3. Mold is magic.
Unlike grapes - which have yeast on them that naturally ingest the sugars to produce alcohol - rice needs a bit more encouragement to end up in our glass. That encouragement is in the form of a mold known in Japan as koji.
I was most interested to see the koji room - a warm, small, sterile room of wood walls, where rice is sprinkled with the fungus that needs to grow as an important part of the sake making process. I had to put on gloves in order to enter the room, and touch nothing. It was quiet and I walked through there gingerly, as if not wishing to disturb the microbial process in the air. I was able to see and taste the rice affected by the koji mold - it tasted a bit toasted and had a chewy texture.
4. Your guide may have been born for the job.
I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to share the day with seventh generation sake brewery owner, Kenji Ichishima. Kenji speaks perfect English and he was a wonderful guide. Kenji let me try sake right from huge vats at various stages in the fermentation process. After a full tour, I tried a variety of the brewery’s award-winning sakes as well as their plum wine.
Ichishima sake brewery is a fascinating day trip from Tokyo
It’s a huge advantage that English speakers can make arrangements to visit this brewery without turning to Google translate (if you've ever tried with Japanese you know you'll get dubious results at best.) If you’re truly interested in experience real sake brewing and you’ll be in Japan during the winter, I encourage you to hop on the bullet train to Niigata to visit the Ichishima Sake Brewery.