Saijo, the sake district that symbolizes Hiroshima as the "Sake Town," is a mecca of sorts for Japanese sake connoisseurs. You should visit the annual Sake Festival held in October, where you'll experience the real Saijo, the world-class town of sake. Could there be any other celebration of sake that overflows with such passion and love for Japanese rice wine? If you can make it to the Sake Festival, you're sure to have an unforgettable experience.
But if you can't get to the Sake Festival, well that's all right. The Saijo district always happily welcomes tourists. And there are sakes to savor in different seasons, with shinshu (new brews) in spring, hiyaoroshi (sake pasteurized only once, rather than the usual two times) in fall, and shikomi (preparing sake for fermentation in a tank) in winter.
While Saijo spreads sake culture around the world with tours and samplings at breweries with tasty offerings, the National Research Institute of Brewing, Japan's only such institution for studying sake, is also here in this district. If you can experience the local character and history, sake will no doubt taste even richer. Let's start with a sake brewery tour.
Saijo has eight breweries, seven of which are concentrated along Sakagura-dori (Sake Brewery Street). It's enticing because you can take a light stroll through a historic district while walking from brewery to brewery to delight in samples of sake.
These breweries are concentrated in such a tight area because of the shikomi mizu, the water that is essential for producing sake. Hailed as a "miracle water" with a medium hardness suited to sake brewing, it only pulsates through the ground of this area in the Saijo district. What's more is that apparently there are subtle differences in the water's components according to a brewery's location. Shikomi mizu is an absolute must for sake. Another pleasure to indulge in here is comparing the sakes available for tasting at each brewery.
Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company
The east area of Sakagura-dori, where six breweries stand, is particularly elegant for the characteristically beautiful white walls and red brick chimneys of breweries that loom over the neighborhood.
The beauty of one of these breweries stands out from the others: Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company, a symbol of not only Saijo but of Hiroshima as well. It has a majestic air, with a splendid ornamentation of white stucco and black namako-style walls.
The visitor's room offers the opportunity to learn much about sake brewing methods, with video about making sake and equipment on display. You'll probably notice that the subtle flavor of Japanese sake is created by the brewers who painstakingly employ traditional techniques in a highly elaborate process. There is plenty of Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company's sake available in the sampling corner, with grades ranging from daiginjo (very special) to koshu (aged sake) for you to enjoy tasting to your heart's content with other traveling sake lovers.
Saijo is called "the home of ginjo-shu" (special brew sake), a premium grade. Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company has been the leader when it comes to ginjo-shu, and is known for being one of the first breweries to ship out daiginjo-shu. Kamotsuru's sake, with its flagrant aroma, rich flavor and refreshing smoothness, is preferred at Japan's famed three-star restaurants and quenches the thirst of VIPs from across the globe. You could say that daiginjo, meticulously crafted at a gorgeous brewery, is one of Saijo's typical sakes.
Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company
4-31 Saijo Honmachi, Higashi Hiroshima
Kamoizumi and Shusenkan
Walk for three minutes or so from Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company and you'll arrive at Kamoizumi Shuzō. Overseas this popular brewery is also known as "Three Dots" for the three small strokes on the left side of the Japanese kanji for sake (酒). Focusing on the junmai-shu (special brew) grade, the company has sought to produce sake with a unique flavor. They use all kinds of Hiroshima-produced sakamai (sake brewer's rice) to brew sake that is truly representative of all of Hiroshima Prefecture.
You can book a tour of the brewery and also have fun leisurely tasting sakes in the Shusenkan next door. (These samplings also require a reservation.) For lunch we recommend the Bishonabe, a hot pot dish from Saijo that includes a plentiful amount of sake. This Bishonabe, a meal the original brewer used to eat, is now prepared to serve visitors, allowing them the opportunity to dine on nabe flavored only with salt, pepper and the wonderful flavor of sake. Nowadays it's a popular specialty from Saijo, and eating it is about more than just drinking sake, but also enjoying some fine seasoning. The brewer says, "Sake you can drink at whatever temperature, hot or cold, with fine Japanese cuisine, is the essence of Japanese culture."
The eight breweries in Saijo work together to preserve the groundwater that supplies the important shikomi mizu for the sake. Because the water comes from the abundant forests, they also maintain the mountains. Protecting Saijo's environment is a part of sake brewing as well. And also, since sake is regarded as a sacred drink, they keenly sense that connection with nature.
2-4 Saijo Kamiichi-machi, Higashi Hiroshima
* Brewery tours require advance booking.
Open Days : Thursdays & Saturdays, plus April 10.
Open Hours : 10am-5pm
* Bishonabe requires advance booking. Only for groups of 2 or more people.
8 Saijo Breweries
Sanyotsuru Brewery, Hakubotan Shuzō, Saijotsuru Sake Brewery, Kirei Shuzō, Fukubijin Shuzō, Kamoizumi Shuzō, Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company, Kanemitsu Shuzō & Co.