Learn about the story of sake in Japan's Kansai region

Japan’s ancient and fertile heartland has some of the best breweries in the country, and all offer something different to travellers looking to experience the world of sake.

Published 26 Feb 2021, 16:09 GMT
Visitors to Kansai can sip on sake at some of the oldest sakagura (breweries) in Japan.

Visitors to Kansai can sip on sake at some of the oldest sakagura (breweries) in Japan.

Photograph by Ben Weller

Kansai is Japan’s cultural and spiritual heartland, a region of craggy peaks, wild forests and rolling pastures. With its clear streams, fertile soil and temperate climate, it’s also renowned across the country for its produce, and is ideally suited for creating nihonshu (sake). In fact, Kansai produces the most sake in Japan, and brewing began at temples and shrines across the region more than 2,000 years ago. At first, sake was gifted only to the gods, but as time went on it became synonymous with Japanese culture. Today, sake retains a central role in society. It’s served at weddings, consumed merrily at festivals, and paired with kaiseki (traditional, multi-course meals).

Visitors can also sip sake at the breweries themselves, known locally as sakagura, often with the toji (master brewer) at their side. There are three key elements to producing excellent sake: the finest rice, the purest water, and a wise, knowledgeable toji, and Kansai has all three in abundance. Farmers carefully cultivate varieties of gold-standard shuzo kotekimai (brewing rice) with water from mountain streams, before sending it on to the toji, all of whom adhere to strict brewing standards and traditions.

At Takeno Brewery in Kyotango, a rural area in northern Kyoto, toji Yukimachi Yoshiki is on a quest for an elusive, singular sake, a flavour he’s yet to taste — and he’s tasted many. An artisan with a mad scientist streak (he holds a degree from the Department of Brewing and Fermentation at Tokyo University of Agriculture), Yukimachi spends countless hours in the brewery — even sleeping there during brewing season. He spends his time filtering sake to isolate flavour compounds:

“Making nihonshu is a science,” Yukimachi says. “While researching one area, I’ll find a branching area of enquiry: time, light, the rice-polishing rate. These branches are where discoveries are made.”

Centuries of innovation have contributed to a growing global appreciation for this sophisticated drink. Visitors to Kansai can experience the magic of nihonshu at the oldest sakagura in Japan. There are countless varieties to try, each with their own character, and all revealing something new about Kansai.

Listening to jazzy Japanese hip-hop on the turntable and sipping sake, while Yukimachi shares his passion for the drink is a special way to spend an afternoon.

Photograph by Ben Weller

Three of Kansai’s most atmospheric sakagura
 

1. Fukuju Brewery, Nada District, Kobe, Hyogo prefecture
Among the oldest of Nada’s famed breweries is Fukuju, a brand that’s growing in stature and reputation across the globe. Visitors can tour the brewery, learning about the art of sake making and witnessing ancient traditional brewing practices done on an industrial scale. After the tour, make sure to spend an hour or so sampling the sake, before buying a bottle or three to take home. Make sure to book in advance, as tours sell out quickly.

2. Takeno Brewery, Kyotango, Kyoto prefecture
Housing a brewery for 130 years, the traditional Takeno facility blends seamlessly into the surrounding rice fields and Meiji-period houses. Attached to the brewery, however, is a modern addition: Bar 362+3, a single room with a sleek bar where Yukimachi Yoshiki pours his delicious brew. Listening to jazzy Japanese hip-hop on the turntable and sipping sake, while Yukimachi shares his passion for, well, everything, is a special way to spend an afternoon.

3. Kizakura Brewery, Fushimi District, Kyoto
Kyoto’s Fushimi district is overflowing with sakagura, and is also home to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. Spend a morning wandering around the museum while learning about — and tasting — sake. Afterwards, why not move on to the Kizakura Kappa Country, a restaurant operated by the Kizakura Brewery, and try a sake sampler with your lunch. Both the food and the sake are renowned across the country for their excellence. 

Today, sake has a central role in Japanese society. It’s served at weddings, consumed merrily at festivals, and paired with kaiseki (traditional, multi-course meals).

Photograph by Ben Weller

Plan your trip

Getting there
Fly into Kansai International Airport, then make use of the country’s fast and reliable rail system to travel throughout the region. Buses, rental cars and even bikes are an easy and efficient way to travel around the 10 neighbourhoods of Shiga, Kyoto, Osaka, Hyogo, Nara, Wakayama, Tottori, Tokushima, Fukui and Mie.

For more information on Kansai and its sakagura, click here.

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