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Explore Japan’s sake-making tradition in Nada

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By Vicki L Beyer

The dead of winter is prime sake brewing season. So what better season to explore sake breweries? Kobe’s Nada district, home to several major sake breweries for nearly 400 years, is the perfect place to do so.

It is said that sake requires three major ingredients: rice, water and people. Nada has always had a natural congruence of these three. Situated near the sea, with mountains behind it, there were once several short rivers that flowed through this area, bringing in fresh, clear water. The location is also said to bring cold winter winds that facilitate winter brewing. Additionally, Nada sits between two major ports, Kobe and Osaka, meaning it’s never had a shortage of people and it can readily receive shipments of rice. The location also means Nada can easily ship its product, a factor that particularly fostered the area’s development early on.

Years ago, there were five villages in this area known for sake brewing. The tradition continues in three of them: Nishi-go, Mikage-go and Uozaki-go. Today, 16% of all Japan’s sake comes from here.

One could easily spend the better part of a day wandering through the area from village to village exploring the breweries (known in Japanese as “sakagura”) and other historical buildings of the area, as well as soaking up the general atmosphere of the warehousing/port district it has become. Modern brewing facilities sit alongside historical buildings. Sometimes the modern and the historical are seen operating together, such as traditional wooden barrels in use alongside gleaming aluminum.

Often a traditional “sugi-tama” (cedar ball) can be seen hanging above the entrance to a modern warehouse. Although in some areas the “sugi-tama” is said to be the timer that indicates when sake is ready for drinking (when the green cedar turns brown), in Nada the ball is the token the brewery receives from the local shrine when the appropriate blessing ceremony has taken place. It is worth noting that the production processes for many comestibles in Japan are linked to a Shinto calendar.

Nada is accessible from several stations on the Hanshin Railway line that runs between Kobe and Osaka. Several of Nada’s breweries operate museums and offer tastings, and each is careful to have something distinctive so that visitors cannot feel “seen one, seen ‘em all”.

Some of the highlights include:

Sawanotsuru Sake Museum

Although it dates back to the early 18th century, Sawanotsuru Sake flourished from the early Meiji Period. It is this history that is most reflected in the current museum in Nishi-go, in the western-most part of Nada, less than a 10-minute walk from Oishi Station.

The museum itself was opened to visitors in 1978, but was completely destroyed in the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake. During its reconstruction, archeologists discovered an underground “funaba” (fermentation pressing room) believed to date back to the 17th century. The new museum has been constructed in such a way that the “funaba” is in its central hall, to provide visitors with a better understanding of more ancient brewing methods.

Other particular highlights of this museum include a display on sake distribution featuring a scale model of the kind of ship used in the late Edo period and the malting room, with its evocative aromas. The museum shop offers tastings of several varieties of Sawanotsuru Sake, as well as selling both sake and traditional food items that complement the drink.

Kobe Shushinkan Brewery

Situated in Mikage-go on a narrow lane lined with cherry trees, Shushinkan, home of the Fukuju brand of sake, sits behind a traditional Edo-style wall/gate. Stepping through the gate, visitors find themselves in a garden with a Japanese restaurant on the left, a shop on the right and the sake cellar straight ahead. The restaurant, Sakabarashi, offers light lunches featuring tofu and soba as well as kaiseki meals.

Visits to the sake cellar, including an introductory video, require advance reservations. Phone 078-841-1121 for details. Winter tours include a chance to see actual sake production.

But perhaps the real fun of Shushinkan is its shop, Tomyogura. This is a virtual supermarket of sake and traditional Japanese gourmet foods. There is a large corner given over to tastings with several experts available to explain each variety offered.

Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum

Hakutsuru, established in 1743, is perhaps one of the best known national brands of sake. Its museum sits in a massive traditional warehouse built over 100 years ago. Here you can appreciate the architecture of such large open wooden structures while also viewing reconstructions of each stage of the sake brewing process with live-sized mannequins taking their place beside traditional wooden barrels and other equipment. There are video explanations along the way as well.

At Hakutsuru the tasting center is discretely separated from the shop, but visitors are no less welcome. It seems there are always at least two varieties of sake available for tasting, with staff available to find others the visitor may be interested in and to explain the virtues of each sake.

Kikumasamune Sake Museum

Sitting alongside the Sumiyoshi River in Mikage-go, the garden in front of the Kikumasamune Sake Museum features a waterwheel that once operated a rice polishing mill, a well, and a number of the wooden tools used in sake production. Stepping inside, the front hall contains ceramic sake barrels and a scale model of a sake warehouse, with the exterior walls peeled back so viewers can understand the intricate structure of the supporting beams.

Similar to Hakatsuru, there are displays on the sake brewing process and the tools involved. But the layout and focus here is slightly different, making this a completely different experience. The shop here also offers different items, some only available here, including a self-branded gelato (one in a sake flavor). Usually tastings of Ume-shu are also available.

Sakuramasamune Sakuraen

Like Shushinkan, Sakuraen features a restaurant and a café and offers “raw” sake to complement its meals. It is just a short walk from Uozaki Station. The displays in its exhibit room focus on vintage sake labels, sake receptacles and—the true highlight—vintage video footage of the brewing process.

Sakuraen’s shop doesn’t seem to often as many varieties of sake to taste, but they also have traditional Japanese pickles available for tasting.

The Kobe Convention & Visitors Association has prepared a convenient map of the area to facilitate self-guided visits. Don’t worry about buying too much sake along the way; each museum shop is happy to arrange home delivery for you.

Use the above as major touch points, but be sure to seek out the smaller, historical sites along the way as well. You’ll find waterwheels, wells, shrines, minor breweries, and who knows what else.

Just be careful not to taste too much sake. You’ll find it gets difficult to read the map.

© Japan Today

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