on the sake trail in Yamagata

Japan’s national drink may have hundreds of years of tradition behind it, but contemporary breweries are diversifying when it comes to new flavours. Forward-thinking brewers are fine-tuning the simple production process to highlight their unique terroir. From the bold, juicy sake produced in balmy Saga to Niigata’s famous tanmei karakuchi (crisp, dry) style, each region of Japan has its own unique take on the spirit.

One of the most exciting regions for sake is Yamagata, in the northwest of Japan’s main island, Honshu. Sitting between the coast and the narrow Ou mountain range, Yamagata has something of a mythical air about it. Ascetic yamabushi priests roam the mountainsides of Dewa-sanzan and meditate under waterfalls; in Zao Onsen, frozen trees loom out of winter nights like snow monsters; and at Yamadera, mountaintop temples gaze over the valleys below.

In the last few years, Yamagata has become famous for something else: having some of Japan’s highest quality sake. It’s even become known as ‘the kingdom of ginjo’, as around 80% of the sake produced here falls into that premium category — more than twice the national average. Only sake made with rice polished down to 60% or less of the original grain — a time-consuming process — is allowed to be named ginjo. Sake created using polished rice has a deeper taste with a notable fragrance of rice.

The region has all the right conditions for brewing, with soft, clean springwater in abundance, and fertile plains between the mountain ranges perfect for growing rice. As part of Japan’s ‘snow country’ it also has deep, cold winters following the autumn rice harvest, ideal for limiting bacterial growth during fermentation. The result is a light sake, not too dry, which pairs well with even delicately flavoured dishes like sashimi.

But what really sets Yamagata sake apart isn’t its raw materials, it’s the people who make it. The prefecture didn’t become the kingdom of ginjo by accident. Local brewers decided in the 1980s to focus on quality over quantity and bucked the tradition of closely guarding secrets. Instead, they began sharing techniques to keep the prefecture’s standards high and their knowledge alive. Their work was recognised in 2015 when Yamagata became the only sake region to receive a Geographical Indication (GI) — the same quality indicator as Champagne and Parma ham.

Dewazakura sake brewery makes a great first visit. Located in Tendo just seven stops north of Zao on the Yamagata train line, Dewazakura recently became Yamagata’s only member of the national Awasake Association. Awasake (sparkling sake) is a fairly new innovation, and Dewazakura’s four varieties range from sweet and full-bodied to light and refreshing.

Mitobe brewery is just 20 minutes’ walk away, but its sake tastes completely different. While Dewazakura uses Yamagata’s typical soft water, Mitobe draws from a different spring with much harder water. This gives their Inazo sake a sharp minerality which complements its characteristic Yamagata-style sweetness — a great match for creamy dishes and seafood. Inazo is also made entirely with rice grown by Mitobe’s own rice farming company, an unusual setup similar to domaines in winemaking.

Five stops north of Tendo on the JR Yamagata train line is Murayama, where you can enjoy tastings and pre-booked tours at Rokkasen Brewery. Along with classic Yamagata sake styles, you can try special seasonal brews like fragrant Sakuri – packed in snow, then dug out and sold in early March – and refreshing Kirari – aged for six months in ice-cold storage, and released in early June.

On the other side of the prefecture, coastal Sakata is another sake hotspot. The city’s name is made up of the characters for ‘sake’ and ‘rice paddy’, and as well the local breweries visitors can see a picturesque row of black-painted wooden rice warehouses which date back to the nineteenth century.

Just east of Sakata is Tatenokawa, a brewery which produces daiginjo sake made from 50% polished rice. The young team of brewers has also created Komyo sake, which uses grains polished down to just 1%. Alongside their eye-catching innovations — low-alcohol sake, aged varieties, and even collaborations with rock stars — is a solid selection of very high-quality drinks. Their Utsukushiku Keiryu is a classic Yamagata-style sake: clean, well-balanced, and focused on elevating its locally sourced ingredients — a perfect pairing with the region’s famous marbled Yonezawa beef.

Further south is Oguni, which sits between two sections of Bandai-Asahi National Park. The town’s 300-year-old Sakuragawa Brewery makes sake with techniques maintained over centuries, using water from the Iida mountains and locally grown rice. The Oguni Rice Miyama Nishiki Junmai Ginjo has a clean, smooth flavour which goes well with steak.

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