For The Sake Of Sake: A Sake Brewery Tour Near Tokyo Tells Visitors Everything They Need To Know About Japanese Sake
Japanese sake is loved by people all across the world but few actually know how sake is made. A new tour is aiming to change that, not only by explaining the making process of sake, but also by touring two sake breweries. Visitors will discover more about the secrets of famous sake breweries and have the opportunity to take part in sake tasting to get an even deeper understanding of Japan’s most famous alcoholic drink.
“Sake Brewery Tour Near Tokyo” With Toshihiko Tsuboi
What image do you have of Japanese sake? The dry taste? A strong alcohol? Perhaps that Japanese people only drink it with Sushi? According to Toshi, the tour guide, all those stereotypes are wrong. His catch line “Let’s find out the TRUTH of sake” especially caught my interest. Who wouldn’t want to know the truth of real Japanese sake?! So I quickly booked my day with Toshi over the WOW U page and was ready to go.
Meeting My Guide
Toshihiko will offer to either meet with you in Shinjuku, Tokyo or on the first stop of the journey, Haijima station. From the moment we met, I could tell Toshihiko would be a charismatic tour guide. He greeted me in fluent English and with a good firm handshake. He had not only prepared a name sign for me but also several brochures in English that contained more about how to enjoy Japanese sake and how the brewing process worked. While walking to the first brewery, he supplied me with some extra information about sake and made sure I understood some of the basic terms in the brewing process. Toshihiko has a personal interest in fine alcohols. He comes from a family of sake lovers, but he is also a connoisseur of other fermented beverages such as wine and spirits.
He wanted to personally find out about the secrets and truths of sake making, and did his own research in order to get a better insight. When he created this tour, he visited several of the breweries around Tokyo and picked the ones that were best suited for a tour. He also visited the brewer association to get English brochures and more to help understand the brewing process. I could tell he was passionate about the tour he designed and that made the walk to the brewery very entertaining.
A large wooden barrel and traditional kura-style house architecture gave away the first stop of our tour; the Ishikawa Brewery. Going underneath the archway, we found ourselves in the inner yard containing a little Japanese garden among several other buildings. Our English guide Ms Ishioka is actually a higher-up of the public relations of Ishikawa Brewery. By her English fluency and technical know-how I could tell that she must have presented her brewery abroad as well.
Inside The Brewer’s Den
We entered the main brewing house of the complex. The traditional wood around me seemed to have seeped up the fumes of sake itself so that the inside of the building was rich with the smell of it. To my surprise it was also slightly colder. Ms Ishioka said that traditional Japanese architecture had made the storage house very robust. Several generations ago the building had been designed to keep the temperature inside just right for the process of sake making.
From there on she explained the process of sake brewing, the time needed, the ingredients used and also about the importance of starting and stopping the process of fermentation. Whenever I had extra questions, she was willing to stop and answer my questions in immaculate English.
One thing that surprised me was that the Ishikawa Brewery will stop their brewing process in March and pick it back up in July, due to the rise in temperature in Japan. Air conditioned breweries can brew all during the year, however for the sake of history and taste, the Ishikawa Brewery is brewing sake the way it has been done for many generations.
She also supplied some extra facts. Sake brewing had been forbidden to women in Japan for centuries but now, 30 Touji, sake brewers, are female. There is also one foreigner who started brewing sake in Japan, and his products have won prominent prizes. With the popularity of Japanese sake on the rise, accessibility in brewing is expanding as well.
Walking Around The Ishikawa Premises
After exploring and seeing some of the brewing tools we went outside to see more of the premises. To my surprise, there were many people on the premises that were not part of the brewery. Ms. Ishioka explained that the premises are rather popular for a variety of reasons. Not only sake lovers but also locals and general visitors spend time inside the brewery.
The water supply there was used to polish rice. The Keyaki trees inside the garden are said to be 400 years old and some people will come to pray at this “power spot.” They also displayed an old steamer in the inner yard and a caldron for brewing beer, that had been buried in the times of the second world war. A gate there is a registered as national heritage and there is also a sake museum on site. She also noted the popularity of an Italian restaurant on site.
Ishikawa Brewery Sake Tasting
The sake tasting at Ishikawa brewery is part of the English tour. The Japanese tour charges extra, so be sure to check with Toshihiko to book you a slot for the English tour. In small plastic cups, you can enjoy sips of different sake that are brewed on site.
Our first sake was JYUNMAISHU which only uses rice, yeast and water for brewing. Ms Ishioka said that she can recommend this sake hot and cold. It spread evenly across my tongue and I enjoyed the sweet aftertaste.
The second sake was “raw” Junmai-syu sake, thus unpasteurized. As the fermentation continues even after serving, heating it up would destroy the flavor as the yeast is still active. It tasted rather strong and pungent, and the smell was new to me.
Finally, the last sake was Umeshu, plum wine. A ladies’ favourite according to Ms. Ishioka. She also recommended trying it with Japanese shaved ice. The fruity sweetness made it my favourite of the tasting session.
Luckily Toshihiko had reserved a seat in advance at the Italian restaurant inside Ishikawa Brewery, as it turned out to be rather popular. Several locals, visitors and foreign tourists mingled and enjoyed their meal inside or in the sunlit inyard. The lunch menu is around 2000 JPY for a main dish, salad a non-alcoholic drink. The restaurant also serves sake brewed by the Ishikawa brewery, so if you want to try more, you can ask Toshihiko for his recommendations.
During lunch it was great fun to learn more about Toshikiho’s passion for Japanese sake. He is an experienced guide, but this sake tour is his very own creation he is proud of having created. I could tell Toshikiho had turned his hobby into his profession, as he had the answer to all sake related questions I asked him. We had a nice meal and then went back to the train station.
This brewery is a little further out on the same train line. This made the journey there feel shorter, as we had already come half way out of Tokyo for the first tour. Flipping through Toshihiko’s brochures and looking out the window, I could see the landscape change from cities to more mountains and fields. We were greeted by fresh air, birdsong and sunshine. Perfect for a trip furter out of town.
Ozawa Brewery only has a limited number of English tours. Therefore, the tour will be held in Japanese with Toshikiho translating for you. Our tour guide Mr Yoshizaki took us inside the building. Low and behold, they also use traditional brewing architecture together with modern electronics to brew their sake since about 1702 which means they are currently the 23rd generation of sake brewers.
The first thing that surprised me upon entering was the large shrine at the entrance hall, hanging over us. We were told that workers will come here every morning to pray for a good day of work, as working with sake can potentially be dangerous. There was also a wet patch to disinfect our shoes before venturing inside.
The building of the Ozawa brewery is approximately 300 years old, and still going strong. Barrels, bottles and machinery there are a mix of traditional and modern. We were told the steps of their brewing process and later taken outside to see the well that had been created to draw fresh water from the mountains and create clear tasting sake.
Ozawa Sake Tasting
The sake tasting is a real experience at Ozawa brewery. Sitting lower on the hill, overseeing a garden, is the Sake tasting area. Bottles and bottles of all kinds of sake are lined up and a friendly elderly lady will give helpful advice to everyone interested. Good news: For tour visitors the first cup will be free.
We sat and tried our different first choices, comparing and voting for our favourites. By this point our group had expanded to Toshi, two foreigners and one Japanese lady. It was nice to chat about our likes of sake. We all had a different favourite sake during our first taster session so we decided to keep trying what other goodies Ozawa brewery had in store.
If you feel like trying several types, I can highly recommend getting their cup + drink sets. The prices there include the price of the alcohol plus a labelled sake cup of the brewery. The sake there was priced really reasonably too. Get yourself a drink and re-use the cup for the second drink and you will get ¥100 off the original price. I liked the fact that I didn’t only get to taste, but also take a cup home. Sweet, fragrant, charismatic, fruity, I was glad I got the chance to experience a wide variety of sake flavors this day.
I also purchased a ceramic sake bottle, for warming up sake before leaving, that had the same logo of the brewery on it. It made a really cool keepsake. Now I have my own sake bottle and cup set at home.
Toshi and I said goodbye at the bigger station. I really feel like my original dry and harsh image of Japanese sake has changed thanks to this tour. If you’re interesting in finding out your very own truth of Japanese sake, he does several tours with WOW U. Be sure to drop him a message if you have extra questions.
Toshihiko: “I want visitors to enjoy the taste of sake but also experience the beautiful area it is made in. I hope visitors can find out more about the truth and secrets of Japanese sake and Japan itself.”
PRO: From alcoholic connoisseur to sake newbie, this tour is for everyone. Japanese sake is linked to many aspects of Japanese culture too. The tour will take you out of the heavy buzz of Tokyo and show you more of the traditional process of making great sake.
TIP: Don’t drive on that day, you want to make sure you can taste all the delicious flavours of sake on your trip. Remember, if you have any alcohol in your blood, it is illegal to drive or bike in Japan.
GUIDE: Toshihiko speaks fluent English. He knows a lot of technical language around the subject too, but you can always ask him to explain the steps in easier English too.
LANGUAGES: English, Japanese
TIME: This time it started 8:30 at Tokyo or Shinjuku station. You can meet your guide on the first stop too, by former request. It finished around 16:30 at JR Ome station.
PARTICIPANTS: The WOW U page said minimum of 3 participants, but feel free to ask Toshi if you come as a pair if he is willing to show you around.
RESTRICTIONS: Children are allowed on the tour but all minors will not be allowed to drink. In Japan the legal age for drinking is 20 years. You cannot consume alcohol if you are not of the legal drinking age in Japan.
EXTRA EXPENSES: On top of the tour price you will have to pay for your own transportation. If you want to taste more sake, than is included in the tour, it will cost an extra fee per cup. Lunch and transportation for your guide is already included in the tour price.
OPTIONAL: I recommend getting your own sake cup at the Ozawa brewery as keepsake. I actually bought two cups and later a bottle too, so I now have my own set at home to enjoy my sake in.