When work, vacation or other travel brings you to Japan, if you are reading this newsletter, chances are you will be interested in checking out something sake related. If you are here during the brewing season in the winter, many if not most sakagura breweries are open to tours, although in almost all cases you would need to call ahead and make reservations and arrangements. So if you or someone you are with speaks the language, this should be no problem.
If you do not have the linguistic wherewithal, though, all is not lost. In the Kobe and Kyoto areas are several museums attached to sake breweries that have plenty of information in English, and have normal business hours that provide flexibility in allowing guests to drop in almost any time with no reservations.
While museums might not seem like the most sake-intensive experience you can have, these are actually quite informative, interesting and fun.
MUSEUMS: Nada Region of Kobe
1. The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum
This museum is constructed in one of the old brewery buildings. You need to check in at the main gate, as if it were some secret science compound. But once that formality is over, you wander into a beautifully preserved building with a gorgeous garden at the entrance, a stark juxtaposition to the steam-billowing, ultra-modern sake brewing plant all around you.
Be sure to get an explanatory brochure upon entering (available both in English and Japanese). Then, explore the self-guided tour on the first and second floor. There are, at each of perhaps eight stations, television monitors with wonderful two-minute videos showing the major steps in the brewing process, complete with old film footage.
Narration is available in either Japanese or English - just select the right button. There are also extremely detailed scenes with manikins and old brewing tools that convey quite a realistic feeling of the workload of old. When you are finished, there is a small sake sample of which to partake, along with a video of how to properly taste sake. All in all an excellently informative tour. If you have time for only one place, this would be it.
4-5-5 Sumiyoshi Minami-machi
Higashi Nada-ku, Kobe
Open daily 9:30 - 4:30, closed Mondays.
Access: Five-minute walk from Hanshin Sumiyoshi Station.
Access: Fifteen-minute walk from JR Sumiyoshi Station.
2. The Kiku Masamune Sake Brewery Museum
Perhaps a ten-minute walk away, this museum was destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake that devastated Kobe several years ago, and reopened in January of 1999. The gate and entranceway have been well restored to their original rustic beauty.
Be sure to grab one of the lovely brochures (in English or Japanese) at the entrance when you sign in, and look for a detailed map of the breweries in Nada if you do not already have one. In the first large room is an excellent video from 1934 showing black and white brewing scenes, to vintage music.
The narration is all in Japanese, but the scenery is easy enough to understand, and the accompanying music is classic. Excellent coverage of large-scale brewing back then, with dozens of men at one time mixing moto (yeast starters) or stirring vats.
A small model of a Tarukaisen, the ships that went back and forth between Kobe and Edo, doing nothing but delivering casks of sake, sits near the entrance. Here there are less large brewing implements (although there are some), and more small storage vessels, like bottles and tokkuri and red, lacquered tsuno-daru. When you are finished, there are several sakes to be sampled in the tasting and retail purchase room.
1-9-1 Uozaki Nishimachi,
Higashi Nada-ku, Kobe
Open daily 10:00 - 4:00, closed Tuesdays.
Access: Five-minute walk from Hanshin Uozaki Station.
Access: Two-minute walk from Rokko Liner Minami Uozaki Station.
3. Sawa no Tsuru Sake Museum
A short taxi ride away is Sawa no Tsuru's wonderfully charming museum. Originally constructed in 1978, it was totally destroyed in the Great Hanshin Earthquake. It was reconstructed as a replica of the original, and opened in March 1999. Here, you start with a short film as well, half modern reenactments and half cartoons. But it gets the point across visually.
You then follow the flow of the original brewing steps in the old kura. Of particular interest are the reconstruction of the kama rice steamer area, and the sunken funaba sake pressing box area. Dozens of wooden brewing vats, lined up as they might have been long ago, convey a feeling of what it must have been like.
A model of a Tarukaisen is on the second floor. Each of these ships could carry about 1000 koku, or 180 kiloliters, in small casks. That is equivalent to the yearly production of many kura today. When finished, there is a tasting room which offers only one sake for tasting, their genshu honjozo, but there are plenty of interesting things like pickles and snacks to purchase.
1-29-1 Oishi Minami-machi
Open daily, 10:00 - 4:00, closed Wednesdays.
Access: Fifteen-minute walk from Hanshin Oishi Station.
There are several other museums and points of interest in Nada, both museums and restaurants. A very useful map, entitled "Sake Breweries of Nada" is available from the Kobe Information Center at 078-322-0220. It shows the sights on one side, and lists the contact information on the other.
MUSEUMS: Fushimi Region of Kyoto
In Fushimi, there are almost 40 sakagura, many in one tight neighborhood worth a walk-through. But the best museum (albeit not as big as the Kobe places) would be Gekkeikan's Okura Memorial Hall sake museum. Arguably the most significant brewer across the history of the sake world, many of Gekkeikan's industry firsts are on display here.
There is a partially viewable mini-kura attached, and a restaurant just around the corner. It is in the opposite direction from JR Kyoto station as most of the traditional Kyoto sights, but by no means out of the way. If you go to Kyoto, get here.
Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum (Okura Memorial Hall)
More information, a photo and a map can be found on their Website.
A five minute walk from Chushojima station (Keihan line)
Phone No. 075-623-2056 Admission fee 300 yen
Open 9:00 - 16:30 Closed Mondays