Japanese sake, or nihonshu, has become a global success and it is even present in supermarkets abroad. Yet there is much lost in translation, with most people having to gamble on whether to serve a given sake hot or cold, never mind navigating the range of seasonal washoki tableware of cups and jugs that accompany the drinking culture. But in the same way that the enjoyment of wine is about navigating regional vineyards and finding out which varieties match an occasion or meal, so too is the world of nihonshu.
Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of nihonshu is that contrary to red or white wine, it is traditionally almost always drunk fresh within a year of bottling, even as vintage nihonshu is on the rise. That element of immediacy is key, and there are few pleasures as great in the sake world as visiting a region and sampling the freshest local sake, and better yet to actually visit a brewery.
You don’t have to go far either, with many brewers within easy reach of the Tokyo metropolis. One of the most prestigious is the Iinuma Honke Brewery, which has been at the forefront of the sake world for over 300 years. Their signature Kinoene brand is a culmination not just of their own history and the brewers who have been making nihonshu since antiquity, but also of the surrounding fields and farms where much of the fine grain rice used in their wine’s production is cultivated.
A brewery tour takes you through Meiji era traditional brewing methods to the high-tech present, and you can even participate in the brewing process. A tasting is on offer for those wanting to learn the quality of junmai-shu, a pure rice sake, and for the connoisseur daiginjo sake, made from highly refined rice, is a pleasure to savor.
You will leave the tour ready to navigate your own way and from there it is up to you where you take your tastes. With many in Japan finding fruity nihonshu a perfect match for Mediterranean cuisine, and the bolder varieties a hit with meat dishes, there is a whole new emerging gastronomic movement that you can play your part in.