The sights, sounds, and smells of Japan have implanted themselves deep into my mind. I will never be able to forget the peaceful gardens or the vibrant Tokyo streets. I can still practically taste the delicious food on my tongue. Even the sounds – of the subway, the language, the noisy electronics – seem so clear in my mind. Japan was both overwhelmingly foreign and still incredible welcoming.
It’s hard to let the country go, even though it has been years since I first visited. Whenever I hear a Japanese word or recognize the name of a Japanese place, I’m taken back. Living in California, this happens all the time. When I do get a little nostalgic for Japan, I usually make a point of having sushi for dinner. No, it is nothing like the stuff I actually had in Japan, but it is at least close. And better yet, I order something else with my sushi that really does take me back – sake.
Sake, Japan’s most iconic alcoholic beverage, is actually fermented rice. While it is often called rice wine outside of Japan, the process of making it is more similar to making beer. It has a unique alcoholic taste and is even sometimes rated on its Aminosan-do – the savory umami taste. There are also sakes with undertones of fruit, herbs, or spices added depending on the brewing process. While I’m not a big drinker, and I still have yet to understand the complex process of wine tasting, a simple taste of sake is my favorite way to relive my Japanese travel memories.
A good deal of my first trip to Japan was spent in the city of Kobe, on the southeastern coast of the main island. While in Kobe, I ended up spending a full day with a local woman who was part of a hospitality club. The club’s official goal is to show visitors to Kobe the beauty and uniqueness of the city. The wonderful woman who met up with my friends and I had joined the club to practice her English and made sure we saw the best of the best in Kobe. You’ll find these hospitality clubs all over Japan and while the easiest way to connect is through a personal reference, you can also sometimes find them by searching google for “Kobe hospitality club” or checking a site like couchsurfers.
The highlight of the day with our Japanese guide was a visit to Kobe’s famous Nada district, known for producing some of the finest sakes in Japan. The fresh water from the hills combine with local rice and traditional brewing techniques to produce some of the best sake you’ll ever taste. The Kobe sake is also some of the most popular internationally, due to the Nada district’s location near the major Kobe shipping port. If you are a fan of sake and want to try some of Japan’s best, the Nada district is where you head.
Covering approximately 12 kilometers between Kobe and Nishinomiya, you can think of the Nada district, which is home to many top sake breweries, as sort of the Napa Valley of sake. Top breweries are closely linked and yet each is distinct in the type and quality of sake they produce. Some have been producing sake for generations, while others are much newer. Sakagura-no-michi, or the so called Sake Brewery Street, is the center of the action. Here you can literally walk from brewery to brewery, creating your own tasting experience. In addition to tasting sake, the district is also a great place to learn about the history and process of sake making, as many of the breweries have their own sake museums and tours.
Many of the top sake breweries in Kobe require reservations for tastings and tours. This can be a bit intimidating if you don’t speak Japanese and we were lucky that our host made the arrangements for us. That being said, many of the breweries have English language tours and others work with local tour companies to combine a brewery tour with a longer tour of the city. Depending on how serious you are about your sake tasting, you can also consider arranging a private guide who will schedule visits and tours to all the top breweries.
For us, one great brewery was enough. Our host chose the Kobe Shu-shin-kan Brewery for our visit, due in part to their English language “tour.” Established in 1751, the Shu-shin-kan Brewery creates a “fukuju” type sake and is known as one of the top breweries in Kobe. For English speaking guests, the sake tasting and tour here starts off with a video in English which explains the process for creating sake. It is quite a good video, which clearly explains the process, spanning from ancient times to the present large scale manufacturing process. After the video, we were lead past the brewery rooms themselves, where you can look in and see the process through large glass windows. Finally, we arrived at the best part – the tasting room.
Before I tell you about the tasting itself, I have to tell you about the incredibly funny sake “sommelier.” The older Japanese gentleman was in charge of our tasting and yet he spoke absolutely no English. He also apparently didn’t get the memo that we had just watched a video explaining the sake brewing process. Instead, he processed to act out the entire brewing process, charades style. It was like taking an incredibly fun test as he would act out a piece of the process and we would try and remember which part of the video his charade acts matched up to. As a reward for guessing correctly, or at least pretending we knew what he was talking about, he would joyfully fill another tasting glass full of sake.
Even without speaking English, our sake sommelier was able to help us understand the difference between the various types of sake. Some were heavy and strong, others light and fruity. All the sakes we tasted were served at room temperature, which is common across Japan. In general, high quality sakes are served chilled, like white wine, while low quality sakes are heated. We also learned why sake bottles are often so small. Unlike a wine, which can be aged, sake is meant to be drunk no more than a few months after buying the bottle. Once the bottle is opened, it is also important to finish the bottle soon. In many cases a single bottle of sake is finished the same night it is opened as the alcohol very quickly looses its “best flavor” once opened.
After tasting a half dozen or so sakes and admiring the beautiful bottle designs of the more expensive, top shelf sakes, we thanked our sake sommelier and headed from the tasting room to the main section of the brewery – the gift shop. Here our Japanese friend met back up with us; she had skipped the sake tasting itself since she had already toured this particular brewery many times. In addition to sake bottles, the gift shop also had a large selection of Japanese snacks and picnic food, perfect for pairing with a good bottle of sake. One of my favorite finds in the gift shop though were these little glass jars of sake, labeled with bright red characters, and almost looking like a child’s drink, both in size and style. After buying some snacks, a small bottle of sake, and a small good luck charm, we left the gift shop and headed out into the courtyard of the brewery. Here you are welcomed to sit and enjoy the small garden, decorated with old, large wood brewery barrels.
For us, the brewery was just the first stop on a long day of sightseeing around Kobe. That being said, it stands out in my mind as one of the best experiences. Combining history, culture, and pairing so nicely with good Japanese food, sake is at the center of many of my favorite Japanese memories.