GOING WALKABOUT IN THE SAKE TOWNS OF TAKEHARA AND SAIJO

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Words and photography: Kazuya Baba

In early October 2017, I departed Sydney on an ANA flight headed for Japan. Early the next morning, I arrived at Haneda Airport and transferred onto a domestic flight. My destination? Hiroshima. As you are probably already aware, Hiroshima, along with Nagasaki, were the only tragic towns to fall victim to atomic bombings during World War II. This devastating past has led to the opening of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to honour the victims of the bombings, as well as the symbolic Atomic Bomb Dome, which stands in place to promote world peace and is a highly popular tourist attraction.

However, the aim of my trip was not to visit those widely-known sites, but rather sake breweries with their roots in Hiroshima. In fact, Hiroshima is a rather prolific sake (Japanese rice wine) producing town and renowned for the sake event that is held there annually on the second Saturday of October. As of the 1st of October 2017, foreign tourists to Japan are now exempt from liquor taxes. This change is expected to spur on a highly increased demand for Japanese rice wines. The abolishment of liquor taxes is to encourage international tourists to visit sake breweries, distilleries and wineries, and, in turn, increase consumption in those regions whilst boosting the demand for Japanese alcoholic beverages around in the world.

With that in mind, I decided to visit the breweries around Hiroshima and have a peek at the big festival myself.

A BREWERY OF OLD IN THE PICTURESQUE TAKEHARA – FUJI SHUZOU

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Situated an approximate 30 minute drive away from Hiroshima airport is a town called Takehara. The charming streets of Takehara have served as the backdrop for many a drama and anime because of how photogenic they are. Takahara has the Seto Inland Sea at its doorstep that helped to create its once booming salt industry and its stunning scenery earned it the nickname, “The Little Kyoto of Aki” (Aki was the former name for Hiroshima). Old wooden buildings still line the beautiful streets to this day, whilst the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, filled with their rich histories, continue to uphold the town’s olden-day atmosphere.

One major characteristic of the town, which cannot be overlooked, is the district of buildings which has remained untouched in terms of historical appearance and usage. The streets of Takehara, which were completed during the early Edo period, are comprised of the main road in the centre of the town running from north to south and most street blocks branching out from there. I looked up and down the main street to see a sight dominated by predominantly merchant houses and warehouses – a snapshot of traditional Japan in the modern day.

I walked through the historic streets and arrived at a long-standing sake brewery – Fuji Shuzou. Takehara is blessed with a cool and pure underground source of water which it draws upon for tap water. The founder of Fuji Shuzou Brewery pinpointed Takehara over 150 years ago as the perfect location to produce sake due to its high quality water.

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Sake, in the simplest of terms, can be described as wine made by filtering fermented rice. While it may sound simple when broken down into a one sentence description, it is an extremely complicated process. I was fortunate enough to observe this whole process at Fuji Shuzou on my visit there.
The first process is to polish the rice to be used in making the sake. Polishing the rice involves removing its outer layer and the type of sake to be made will determine how much the rice is polished. It goes without saying that, the more the rice is polished, the smaller the grain of rice becomes and the higher the cost of brewing the sake will be. After the rice is polished, it is then washed and allowed to soak in water. When it comes to producing the top-line ginjo variety of rice wine, it becomes a precise process decided by mere seconds.

The rice is then steamed to a very particular standard where the outside is slightly hard and the inside is slightly soft. Once the rice has been steamed, it is then cooled to varying temperatures depending on whether it will be used to make koji, yeast mash or unrefined sake. The steamed rice destined to become koji is sprinkled with koji mould and is allowed to sit for 2 days under strictly controlled temperatures to ferment. This process causes the rice starch to turn into glucose, which is the source of sweetness and umami in sake.

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Next, the process to create unrefined sake begins by combining steamed rice, water, koji, yeast and lactic acid together. As the name suggests, unrefined sake is used to produce the sake we are all familiar with, and the process to create this vital product churns out what is known as “moromi”. Once the moromi has been mixed together, it is left to ferment and age for a month whilst being monitored and subjected to meticulous tweaks.

The fermented moromi is strained to give us sake. Freshly strained sake still contains some sediment, so it is left to rest to allow the clear layer to float up and separate from the sediment. The clear sake is then filtered and heat treated to kill off any bacteria and stabilise the wine itself. Finally, it is stored away and diluted with prepared water to create the perfect flavour.

After learning about the complicated processes behind producing sake, I tasted one of Fuji Shuzou’s creations – Ryusei. It was so delicious that it was impossible for me to stop at just one drink. I had to almost be dragged away as I tottered through the beautiful streets of Takehara with a cheerful sake glow on my way towards my next destination.

KAMOTSURU SAKE BREWING AND THE SAIJO SAKE FESTIVAL

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I left Takehara and headed towards the town of Saijo. Saijo is one of Japan’s most prominent sake towns and is the home to a number of sakebreweries. The chimneys littered around the streets give the town its characteristic appearance as a brewing capital. As previously explained, rice must be steamed in order to make sake and while boilers are used nowadays, stoked fires were traditionally used, which is why the chimneys still stand today. Although the chimneys are no longer in use, they have been maintained as symbols of the town’s brewing culture.

Of the many sake brewers who flocked to Saijo for its ideal sake-making weather and water, I decided to visit Kamotsuru Sake Brewing for a tour. While each brewer essentially carries out the same process to make their wines, facilities differ from place to place. For those who are particularly interested,
it might be worth taking tours of different breweries to discern the various differences. A fun little aspect of the tour at Kamotsuru is the ability to experience what it is like to mix up the ingredients to make sake yourself.

The sake produced by Kamotsuru is said to be characteristically dry. They are harked to be the pioneers of producing the daiginjo style of sake. Kamotsuru are also known as the producers of the gold-leafed infused “Gold Kamotsuru” that Prime Minister Abe poured for the (then) President Obama to drink. Visitors can taste and compare the many different sake Kamotsuru has to offer whilst reading up on serving suggestions and flavour profiles.

The day I visited Saijo was also the day of the Sake Matsuri (festival) which explained the sounds of taiko drums echoing about, shrines being carried around the streets and the town overflowing with people. The main event of the day took place at the Sake Hiroba. Purchasing a 2000 yen ticket to the event granted me access to a park filled with over 1000 different sake from all over Japan and the prerogative to drink all I wanted to. The grounds were opened from 10am to nighttime which allowed for a day full of enjoying sake with friends.

While Japanese people are often seen as shy and reserved, they tend to let their hair down when it comes to festivals. The vibrant energy in the event area was somewhat chaotic, however, it was also another prime display of Japanese culture to soak up. There were also lots of snacks to complement the sake so it’s definitely an event for sake lovers. The festival is the perfect opportunity to dive into the sake culture of Japan and I highly recommend visitors to check it out on their next trip over there.

The exemption on liquor tax only applies to sales from breweries and wineries that have been approved for the exemption. At this stage, general retailers are not exempt. Make sure you pick up a bottle or two of sake if you happen to find yourself at a brewery.