Japan’s master artisans are renowned for spending their lives perfecting centuries-old crafts and, when it comes to the national drink, this is no different. With only three simple ingredients — water, rice and a fermentation agent called koji — Japan’s master brewers have created countless stark and subtle variations over the generations. From bold and fruity to light and floral, each region has its own unique brews. Here are just three of Japan’s many excellent sake-producing areas, and the local cuisines that go with them.
Less than three hours west of Tokyo by bullet train, is the cultural heart of Japan — Kyoto. For centuries, the city served as the imperial capital, with its serene shrines and tearooms, forested holy mountains and kimono-clad geisha. But in the Kyoto’s southeast, there’s a district known for its down-to-earth atmosphere: Fushimi. Rather than nobles and priests, the well-preserved wooden houses here belonged to samurai and merchants, and its willow-draped canal is overlooked by historic warehouses — several of them converted into breweries.
One of the most popular global sake brands today, Gekkeikan opened its first brewery here in 1637, and the main building now houses a museum tracing its long history. Tours of the active brewery, Gekkeikan Uchigura, take you through the traditional sake-making process step-by-step, from the fragrant steaming and fermenting of the rice through to pressing and ageing the drink. The ultra-premium Horin Junmai Daiginjo is a star blend, made with rice laboriously polished down to just 50% of its original size. Its mellow taste and light, fruity scent perfectly complement kyo-ryori — the city’s artistically presented, multi-course seasonal cuisine — without overpowering the delicate flavours of each dish.
Elsewhere in the city, the Nishijin neighbourhood is known for its textile industry, and you can still hear the clatter of hand-looms on some of its scenic streets. This is also where you’ll find Sasaki, a 120-year-old sake brewery which is one of only three remaining outside of Fushimi. Using traditional methods, Sasaki produces several seasonal drinks which are only available in certain months, as well as a core collection which tends towards light and aromatic. Taste different varieties at the shop, or be sure to book a tour of the historic brewery.
The region that produces the most sake is Hyogo, west of Kyoto prefecture, stretching from the coast in the north, down to the island-dotted Seto Inland Sea in the south. More sake is produced here than in any other region, and it’s known for the minerality created by its hard water — completely different to the delicate flavours imparted by Kyoto’s soft ‘gokosui’ water.
Among the area’s 40 breweries, Fukuju stands out for its commitment to sustainability. It’s the first to achieve carbon-neutral sake production and has committed to using only renewable energy and locally grown rice. The Fukuju Special Junmai has a slightly nutty aroma and mellow taste and is made from rice grown with ‘konotori’ farming methods which supports the reintroduction of white storks in Hyogo.
Sakuramasamune is one of the best breweries to visit in Nada if you’d like to learn more about the history of sake production. The brewery dates back to 1625 and the family-run brewery continues to pass down methods used over the centuries. The on-site Sakura-en is home to a museum, a shop, a restaurant serving multi-course kaiseki meals, a casual café and a bar serving sake tasting flights.
Elsewhere in Hyogo, it’s worth visiting the atmospheric hot-spring town of Kinosaki Onsen on the north coast to try local Tajima (northern Hyogo) cuisine with sake pairings at Sanpou Nishimuraya Honten. Vegan and gluten-free options are available if you book ahead, and konotori rice has a regular spot on the menu.
Japan’s most iconic symbol stands on Yamanashi’s southern border; Mount Fuji’s peak is immortalised everywhere from woodblock prints to hasty photos from passing bullet trains. At the far end of the prefecture is Hakushu, where Fuji looms large on the horizon and the slopes of the Southern Alps rise up around the town. It is home to Shichiken, a 12th-generation sake brewery which combines tradition and modernity.
The sake here is still produced with the soft, clear waters of the Ojiro River and premium rice grown specifically for the brewery. But the brewery is also known as being a pioneer in the area of sparkling sake, which has become popular only in the last few decades.
Released in 2015, Shickihen’s Yama no Kasumi became the first sparkling sake to have secondary fermentation in the bottle – just like champagne. The Mori no Kanade is aged in barrels from the nearby Suntory Hakushu whiskey distillery, adding an extra depth to its bright flavour. You can try several different varieties (still and sparkling) during a tasting in the brewery, and there are also two cafés, a museum, a restaurant and a shop on site.
There are frequent direct flights from Heathrow to Tokyo. Bullet trains on the Tokaido Shinkansen line connect Tokyo with Himeji in three hours, stopping at both Kyoto and Kobe on the way. From Kyoto, Ine is accessible via a two-hour train to Amanohashidate then a one-hour bus. Kinosaki Onsen is on the JR San’in train line, roughly 2.5 hours from both Kyoto and Kobe. From Tokyo, you can reach Lake Kawaguchi in under two hours by bus or train. For more information on travelling to Japan and sake, visit japan47go.travel/ja