Walk a few yards from Saijo Station in Higashi Hiroshima City and you’ll find yourself in ‘Saijo Sakagura-dori Street’ - the heart of sake-making in the region. Here, you can find seven traditional breweries that continue to produce some of the finest sake in Japan.
Old Time Sake
Kamotsuru’s visitor and tasting center
One of the first breweries you’ll see on the Saijo Sakagura-dori Street is the Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company. Established in 1873, the brewery produces over 2.5 million liters of high-quality sake every year and only uses rice sourced from inside the prefecture.
I navigated my way through the brewery’s white-walled warehouses to the visitor’s center where I met the master brewer, Kouichiro Okinaga.
Okinaga has brewed sake at Kamotsuru for over 20 years. When I met him, he was busy preparing an enormous wooden barrel for the new sake brewing season.
“In the past, the drink of choice was sake because there weren’t many alternatives. Now beer, wine and cocktails are popular,” explains Okinaga who has seen a shift in drinking patterns during his time at Kamotsuru. “But there is a growing interest in Japanese sake, especially from younger generations and from overseas.”
According to Okinaga, the sake on offer today is possibly the best-ever in terms of quality. It combines the best aspects of the traditional methods (like the enormous wooden barrel at Kamotsuru) with advanced quality control technology. If ever there was a time to dip into Japanese sake - it’s now.
Master brewer Kouichiro Okinaga
The wooden barrel used for sake brewing
One of the brewhouses at Kamotsuru
All That Glitters is Gold
One of the highlights of walking through Saijo is tasting the produce. At Kamotsuru’s visitor center, there was a stellar line up ready for inspection.
I made my way towards the distinctive teardrop-shaped bottle of the Daiginjo Tokusei Gold Kamotsuru. Sake is often graded by the percentage of rice shaved off during the polishing process. Daiginjo is one of the highest grades - over 50% of each grain of rice is removed during polishing.
This particular sake shot to fame in 2014 when Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe served it to President Obama during the much-publicized dinner at a Tokyo sushi restaurant.
The Daiginjo Tokusei Gold Kamotsuru tasted every bit a Daiginjo. The refined sweet and fruity flavors were enough to make me reach for my wallet.
Kamotsuru’s famous Daiginjo Tokusei Gold Kamotsuru
They have a big sake lineup you can taste
There are plenty of sakes to choose from in the shop
The ingredients of the bishu hot pot
The bishu hot pot has been a part of the food culture in Saijo for 70 years. Originally prepared as a meal for brewery workers, it used readily-available ingredients like vegetables, meat, and…plenty of sake.
I ordered my hot pot at the popular France-Ya restaurant located outside the Kamotsuru Brewery. The restaurant manager Seiji Kuramoto presented the carefully-diced ingredients and began to fry them slowly in the middle of the pot. After a few minutes of cooking the vegetables and the meat, he added the all-important sake. As it bubbled inside the pot, the sake gradually began to reduce.
By the time the hot pot was ready to eat, all the alcohol had evaporated. It left the ingredients infused with the aroma of sake, but none of the punch. Unlike the taste of regular hot pots fusing all the ingredients into one flavor, every part of the bishu hot pot seemed to maintain its own flavor and texture.
“In recent years, we’re seeing more young women come to the restaurant to eat the hot pot and drink sake,” says Kuramoto. “We have a fun system where you can choose your sake cup for the evening from the selection on the wall.”
The wall was decorated with hundreds of colorful sake cups. Along with their bishu hot pot and vast range of sake to boot, this was the place to come to get a real taste of Saijo.
Adding the all-important sake
You can choose your sake cup for the evening
Words & Photography by Tom Miyagawa Coulton (Visited in November 2017)