Saijo Sake Festival
The happiest place on earth is loud, crowded and just a little bit gross, but it’s something worth experiencing for sure.
Picture this: all the sake available from all over Japan, meaning over 1000 different brands, freely available to sample for a mere $25, in a park at the centre of a city bustling with festivities. The ‘Saijo Hiroba’ where this happens was where I found myself on a Monday afternoon in Japan, and where all stereotypes about introverted, uptight Japanese people go to die.
Every year in early October, the city of Saijo in the Hiroshima region of Japan holds the Saijo Sake Festival. With several of Japan’s most historic sake breweries within walking distance of the JR Saijo Station, this is definitely the place to be for sake and rice wine enthusiasts, especially as not a lot of sake is exported outside Japan.
The festival itself and especially the ‘Saijo Hiroba’ was chaotic, crowded and filled with festive energy. Despite being pressed in with the crowd, you couldn’t help but smile at the excited chattering and laughter, the flushed faces, groups of friends loudly objecting to a friend taking the last bite of takoyaki, guys weaving through the crowd with arms around each other looking around for their next sake sample, friendships being established between happy strangers and frequent exclamations of ‘kanpai’ filling the air.
Vendors selling grilled octopus, hot dogs, takoyaki (octopus balls) and barbeque vegetables filled the entire city with the scent of food; there are concerts, taiko drum performances and a bustling sense of good cheer in the air everywhere you walk.
There’s so much that could go potentially wrong with a public alcohol festival, but the most I ever saw of any unruly behaviour was people moving in a less-than-straight line down the road. It is still Japan, after all.
Kamotsuru Sake Brewery
You will spot the tall red-brick chimneys marking the entrance to Sakagura-dori street, a short walk from JR Saijo Station, which is where the main sake breweries in Saijo are located. They once expelled smoke used to power sake machines but now stand as a symbol of the city’s sake-making history, marked with the names of their major breweries.
You can take a guided tour of the big sake breweries, which is what we did at Kamotsuru Sake Brewery. As we learned on the tour, sake-brewing is a long and specialised process that can often take months or even years, for the more premium brands. The rice is firstly steamed in huge steamers before dried in a special room at specific temperatures with koji mold spores that give the rice its sweetness (as steamed rice doesn’t contain any glucose, only starch). It is then mixed with water and yeast, then left to ferment in gigantic cooled vats for weeks, and finally pressed and distilled. I also loved seeing small details, like tiny shrines dotted around the brewery for the shinto gods in Japan to watch over the process.
After the tour, we got to sample three types of Kamotsuru sake. They all have their distinct flavour and when everyone on the tour was asked to vote on their favourites, the vote was a pretty even split. Mine was the sweeter, slightly milder white bottled sake above.
If that’s not enough sake for you (or if crowds are not your thing), a couple of JR stations away is the city of Takehara, a short drive from Hiroshima Airport.
It has recently been the backdrop setting for the anime Tamayura a fact proudly paraded by the absolutely wonderful man running the Tourist Information Office at Takehara station. If you’re looking to just do a quick stop, the Tourist Information Office even has a convenient luggage-storing service during the day.
The Takehara Historic District (Honmachi) is a maze of narrow streets filled with old buildings preserved from the Edo era and you can wander through to admire the beautifully dark, aged wood and get a feeling for history being preserved in these low houses and carefully maintained streets.
Fujii Shuzou Sake Brewery, Takehara
Tucked inside this district is the Fujii Shuzou Sake Brewery, established in 1863. The brewery specialises in junmai style sake (pure rice sake with no additional distilled alcohol) and the traditional kimoto style of brewing where they use natural lactic acid instead of factory-produced yeast.
On our tour, we learned so many small details, like how important the water ratio and soaking time is to the flavour of the sake (potentially just as important as the quality of the rice), or the fact that sake rice isn’t actually very nice to eat because it’s long grain and quite hollow in the centre to better soak up the water. The brewery here also uses water from a well high up in the mountain because tap water has traces of iron through the pipes. If Kamotsuru is the picture of large scale sake brewing, Fujii Shuzou Sake Brewery is the boutique equivalent – the rice is washed by hand and the mixing of the koji rice, water and lactic acid is also done by hand.
You can also take the opportunity to grab some handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles at Tanizaki, a small restaurant located right inside the brewery. Accompanied by tempura vegetables, seafood, pickles and a sticky rice mochi filled with red bean, it’s the perfect complement to sake-tasting. Everything was just the definition of fresh and carefully crafted, the soba noodles robust and cooked perfectly in a light soy broth.
Our first sake was the Onmochi, which was quite a sweet sake. Taking small sips allows the sake to dissolve on the roof of your mouth and it evaporates with a slight alcoholic sting.
The Ryusei Bekkaku is one of Fujii’s specialties – a smoother but more intensely flavoured sake, very strong and sweet with a definite bite to it.
You can pick up a bunch of charming souvenirs and pottery at the small store in front of the brewery. And to anyone doubting the beautifying effects of sake…let’s just say all the sake brewers we met had pretty incredible skin.
3-4-14 Honmachi, Takehara, Hiroshima, 725-0022, Japan
Web: Fujii Shuzou
I Ate My Way Through travelled as a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation