Tokyo day trip: Earn your sake spurs at a working brewery

Tokyo day trip: Earn your sake spurs at a working brewery

Learn what to drink, where to find it and how it’s made
Well-made Japanese sake is at least as classy as any French wine.

It’s late November, it’s cold as all get-out and the sake season has begun. Sake’s popularity has been on the rise around the world for several years and many people tend to view it as “the new wine.”

Sake is not wine, however, nor is it a beer or a spirit, though it shares many qualities with all three beverages.

If your knowledge is limited to choosing between hot (kanzake) and cold sake (reishu), or if you’re ashamed to admit that you were introduced to sake as a shooter dropped in beer, then it’s time to expand your drinking horizons. We spoke with John Gauntner, a sake guru, and visited a local brewery to do just that.

Choosing your poison

Ishikawa sakeIshikawa Brewery in Fussa is the perfect place to put your sake knowledge to the taste test.

In comparison to wine, sake has a similar texture and range of flavors from sweet to dry. There’s a little something called the nihonshu-do, which is a number between -3 and +12 assigned to each bottle.

Numbers on the higher end are drier, so depending on what you’re after, asking for this value may help you decide what to order. Plus, your friends will be mighty impressed with this knowledge.

Also, whereas wine tends to be in the 10-15 percent alcohol range, sake’s alcohol content can span from 14 to more than 20 percent. And here’s the kicker -- there are no sulfites in sake, and no artificial preservatives, making this national drink a winner for avoiding hangovers.  Furthermore, sake lasts longer than wine. Once opened, and as long as it’s refrigerated, sake can be enjoyed for two to three weeks, though the quality will certainly degrade over time.

It should also be drunk while it’s young, ideally within one year of bottling.

Without going into too much detail, there are four notable distinctions in the sake world: junmai, honjozo, ginjo and daiginjo.

The daiginjo is known as the king of sakes (with ginjo as the prince?), as the process is the most labor intensive, resulting in more complex and delicate flavors -- and a higher price tag.

More on CNNGo: Aizuwakamatsu -- history with a sake chaser

Many people think junmai is the purest of sakes, since no extra alcohol is added during the brewing process. On the other hand, its flavor can seem aggressive and heavy compared to the other varieties.

Honjozo could be a lighter alternative for some, although it does have added brewers’ alcohol to bring out the aroma.

Futsuushu is another word you should know, as this is your garden-variety sake that’s served at most izakaya when a nihonshu is ordered. It’s not heavily regulated and thus you can never be sure of what you’re getting -- treasure or trash.

If quality is a concern, your best bet is simply to choose something with the word ginjo on the bottle and get stuck in.

The brewery

Ishikawa sakeIshikawa's head honcho isn't above pouring a few drams for guests.

To see the brewing process and do some tasting firsthand, a trip to a sake brewery makes a diverting excursion. Ishikawa Brewery is perhaps the closest to Tokyo, located just 45 minutes from Shinjuku, and it offers bilingual tours.

Upon arriving, we were greeted by Mr. Ishikawa himself, who served as our personal guide. The brewery has been a family-run affair for nearly 150 years and the current company president belongs to the 17th generation of Ishikawas.

The grounds are picturesque and calming -- tables and benches scattered around the complex invite you to open up a bottle straight from the Sake Cellar liquor store. Just make sure to bring your coat at this time of year.

The store sells several sake-related products, including sake lees. These are basically the dregs of the fermentation process and can be used for cooking soups and other traditional winter recipes in Japan.

The Sake Cellar also has a special dispenser for fresh sake, where for only ¥1,250 you can get your bottle filled on the spot, straight from the tanks.

This is a type of nama-zake, a term that refers to any unpasteurized sake. You can have very high quality nama-zake, even nama-zake junmai or daiginjo.

Often, in fact, the lack of pasteurization makes nama-zake a popular choice, as it’s generally quite easy to drink, with a light, almost sparkling characteristic.

Beyond the grain

Ishikawa sakeYou can also see the cedar barrels used in old-school sake brewing at Ishikawa.

Ishikawa Brewery is unusual in that it also brews beer on the premises. Four microbrews are available year-round and one or two seasonal varieties are introduced each year, typically alongside their seasonal sake offerings.

The brewery’s proximity to the Yokosuka U.S. Naval base ensures a steady stream of Western customers for the brews and the two restaurants, one Italian and one Japanese.

Prices at both are surprisingly reasonable. The Japanese restaurant, Zougura, features sashimi, handmade soba noodles and other sides.

And of course, visiting these restaurants is an excellent way to sample new varieties of sake that you might not have gotten to try during the tour. Generous glasses cost around ¥650 for both junmai and daiginjo.

More on CNNGo: The joy of sake

Despite some slight disorganization in the English-language tour, the warm staff and tranquility of the place, in addition to the variety of food and beverages available, make Ishikawa a superb day out.

Be sure to look out for special events throughout the sake season -- the current boss apparently has a penchant for playing blues harmonica, which he demonstrates on the annual “Childrens’ Day” national holiday (Kodomo no hi) in late March or April.

Ishikawa is one brewery that’s found an interesting way to combine traditional Japanese elements with Western influences. Kampai to that.

Getting there: Take the Chuo line to Haijima Station and leave by the south exit. There are signposts along the way to the brewery after reaching the Musashino-bashi-minami crossing.

Tours are offered from November to April, and reservations are necessary, especially for English speakers. Both restaurants are open until 10 p.m., with the Japanese restaurant closed on Thursdays and the Italian restaurant closed on Tuesdays.

Ishikawa Brewery: 1 Kumagawa, Fussa City, Tokyo, +81 (0) 42 553 0100.

Brandi has been writing and traveling since a young age, having lived in four continents already. She has a passion for music, dining, and the great outdoors and loves discovering local talent and locations wherever she lands.

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