Chubu Almost in the center of the Japanese archipelago, about a three-hour drive from Tokyo, lies Nagano Prefecture. The clean air and clear water from its massive mountain chains help create the perfect conditions for brewing sake. We asked him what was so fascinating about sake and why it had permanently captured his heart.
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Chubu Almost in the center of the Japanese archipelago, about a three-hour drive from Tokyo, lies Nagano Prefecture. The clean air and clear water from its massive mountain chains help create the perfect conditions for brewing sake.
We asked him what was so fascinating about sake and why it had permanently captured his heart. We also asked him to give us some tips on how best to truly enjoy this distinctive Japanese beverage. They were offering hot sake to go along with their sashimi and appetizers. At the time I had only ever drank wine or beer, so the first thing that surprised me was that they were serving alcohol hot.
It also seemed high in alcohol, so to be honest my first impression was that sake was pretty hard to drink. So how did you get from there to working at a sake brewery in Nagano? It must be an interesting story. NH: I spent some time in Japan as an exchange student, and worked as an English teacher here once I graduated university.
The place that hired me was in the village of Nakagawa, Nagano. I grew up in a rural part of New Zealand, and I really enjoy the close communication I have with the locals outside of the big city. So I was so happy to be placed in this village. Onbashira Festival NH: The Onbashira Festival held in Nagano Prefecture, which involves dragging and then raising an enormous pole at Suwa Taisha shrine, is counted among the top three unconventional festivals in Japan.
There are also Onbashira festivals held in various places around the prefecture that are full of local color. The Onbashira festival that I participated in was the one held at a shrine in a Nagano town called Matsukawa. Part of the festival involves the tradition of serving sake along the roadside to help liven up the event, so I spent the entire day drinking with the locals. It was right as my contract for my English teaching job was expiring, so I made up my mind to seize the moment and apply for a job at the Yonezawa Shuzo brewery.
Terraced fields where the rice used to make sake is grown NH: I thought really hard about what a foreigner like me could contribute to the Yonezawa brewery. The Rugby World Cup was held in Japan in , and the Summer Olympics will be held in Tokyo this year, so it seems that the world is gaining an increasing interest in Japan.
Given that, I hope to give people outside of Japan a better understanding of sake, which is an important part of Japanese culture, and then have that understanding catch on with a broader audience. It is made using an alcoholic fermentation process with yeast and malt. The ingredients used to make sake are rice, water, and koji rice malt.
Unlike wine or beer, the koji malt turns starch into sugar at the same time that the yeast is used for fermentation, so one of the unique characteristics of Japanese sake is the need to use sophisticated techniques to manage the temperature in just the right way, for example. Because the ingredients are simple, each step of the manufacturing process can result in huge differences in aroma, taste, and so on.
NH: The next thing people need to understand is the different types of sake. The rice that is used to make sake is first polished to remove the surface layers, and sake are named differently depending on the percentage of the rice grain that is removed.
The rice used to make junmai daiginjo sake is polished the most, followed by junmai ginjo, tokubetsu junmai, and junmai. When brewed alcohol is added to the sake along with rice and rice malt, the categories from most polished to least polished are daiginjo, ginjo, tokubetsu honjozo, and honjozo. NH: The surface of the rice grains contains nutrients like protein and fat, but if there are too many of these nutrients, it can quash the aromas of the sake.
These are top-shelf bottlings where the brewers have spent a long time milling the rice. NH: That said, a high-quality bottling is not necessarily one that tastes good. We have a tasting area and shop at the brewery where I work, and there are naturally lots of customers who select the junmai sake. I think they really understand the value of a good everyday sake.
Poured in a wine glass and enjoyed with some cheese? The way you enjoy sake is up to you. I think the best way to figure out what you like is to taste two completely different sakes side by side—by trying a light, easy-drinking dry sake, for example, and then going right to a rich, strong-tasting sweet one.
In addition to flavor, sakes also vary widely in terms of their aromas. There are those with vibrant, fruity aromas, those with strong, complex aged aromas, or those that are more straightforward where you can enjoy the pure, natural aroma of rice. NH: There are even multiple ways to enjoy the same bottle of sake. You can chill it, drink it at room temperature, or warm it up, for example. NH: I like to pour an aromatic junmai ginjo into a wine glass and enjoy it that way. When I do that, I typically pair the sake with cheese.
Find a place where the locals like to hang out, order appetizers one at a time, and pair different sakes with them. Some izakaya even offer all-you-can-drink plans. You just pay a flat fee and then get access to whatever you want during a set time—usually two or three hours. I come from an area of New Zealand called Marlborough.
Japanese sake is such a recognizable part of traditional Japanese culture that they use the name of the country nihon in the Japanese word for sake, which is nihon-shu.
An introduction to sake from a New Zealander studying the craft in Nagano
Planning a Trip to Japan? Share your travel photos with us by hashtagging your images with visitjapanjp My Favorites Ski Nagano Follow in the tracks of Olympians at the home of the Winter Olympics, Nagano, and nearby Niigata, as you carve down spectacular ski slopes and kick back in comforting resorts, just a train and bus ride away from Tokyo. Nagano and Niigata are the twin sister-cities of snowy fun on Honshu island, both very close to Tokyo. Nagano has been known around the world as a must-ski, must-snowboard destination since it hosted the Winter Olympics. From the rolling slopes perfect for families to the challenging runs ideal for snow-venturers, Nagano is well equipped to provide world-class holidays for any visitor.
Bicycles are available to rent in both towns so you can have a fun-packed day. Rental bicycles, a great way to get around, can be found at a shop near the station. Cycling while viewing the far-off snowy landscape of the Northern Alps is a spectacular experience. You can take a tour of the facility where glass is blown at the Azumino Glass Studio, only 20 minutes away by bicycle. Ride another 10 minutes to reach Daio Wasabi Farm. Admission is free. The farm has a truly Japanese farmland landscape with wasabi fields and a mill.
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