Go, Feel, Taste: Embark on a Cultural ‘Sakagura’ Tour

February 25, 2019 Updated: February 27, 2019

The creek water tumbles down the high mountains, seeps into layers and layers of earth, ages through the immensity of time, and merges with hundreds of yards underground, all to be extracted later … The churning water along with every kernel of rice, wheat, and various grains are all gathered and brought to a place filled with rich, intertwined history and culture, and, in the 
hands of the expert “kurabito,” give birth to delicious Sake, and Honkaku Shochu and Awamori.

The place described is better-known as a “sakagura” (sake brewery or shochu distillery in Japanese). What are sakaguras like? What kind of stories can we find there? Let’s all embark on a sakagura tour.

sakagura
Outside view of a sakagura. (The Epoch Times)
Outside view of a sakagura. (The Epoch Times)
A sakagura is usually located near a beautiful, natural landscape. (The Epoch Times)

Sakagura Tourism

Due to strict water extraction requirements, Japanese sakaguras are usually located near pristine waters. They may be near beautiful lakes, churning creeks, or the foothills of high mountains. You can expect to find them in all kinds of unique locations all over Japan.

In addition to being in harmony with the natural landscape, and due to the long history of Japanese sake brewing and shochu distilling, almost every sakagura has a history of hundreds of years; their ancient structures hint at the musings of time, ready to whisper stories from long ago.

Sakaguras usually consist of numerous buildings. The most important building is called the “hongura.” Their original architectural characteristics are still very well preserved, and therefore are historically valuable. As a result, many are registered as “National Tangible Cultural Properties.”

Be it spring’s cherry blossoms, summer’s lush greenery, fall’s brilliant red leaves, or winter’s fragrant plum blossoms, no matter the season, these sakagura structures beautifully merge with nature.

(The Epoch Times)
The sourcing of the water used is very strict. (The Epoch Times)
Fir branches (called sugitama or sakabyashi) hang by the gate. The hanging of brilliant green fir brunch indicates the start of sake pressing and fir browning, accompanied by sake maturing. (The Epoch Times)
Each scene inside a sakagura is like a painting. (The Epoch Times)
Several hundred-year-old trees inside a sakagura. (The Epoch Times)

A Kurabito’s Experience

The manager of a sakagura is called the “toji” in Japanese, while the sake brewing or shochu distilling specialist is called a “kurabito.”

Sake, and Honkaku Shochu and Awamori, are called Japanese kokushu—representative liquor drinks of Japan. These two types of liquors have different characteristics. Simply put, Sake belongs to the brewing category, while Honkaku Shochu and Awamori belong to the distilling category. As such, the production processes dictate the differences in daily work between the different kurabitos.

If you have a chance to listen to a kurabito’s experience when you visit a sakagura, you will surely be impressed. Rice is the starting ingredient of sake, which is made through the caramelization and fermentation of the rice. The basic process is roughly the following: polishing the rice, steaming the rice, making koji, preparing shubo, preparing the moromi, sandan shikomi, pressing, filtration, aging, and bottling.

If you hear about the process directly from a kurabito, you will surely be impressed with all the lively stories.

A kurabito discusses his experience in sake brewing or shochu distilling. (The Epoch Times)
Sake always starts with rice. (The Epoch Times)
Sake storage barrels. (The Epoch Times)
Visiting a sakagura. (The Epoch Times)
Visitors taking notes. (The Epoch Times)

Tasting Japanese Kokushu

Sake and Honkaku Shochu and Awamori are the national liquor drinks of Japan. Every bottle comes from the efforts of the kurabitos. When you take a drink, you experience their unique craft.

The unique characteristics of each sake’s aroma are the result of different production methods and ingredients. These characteristics can be classified into four types, based on these aromas and flavors: light and smooth, fruity, full-bodied, and mature. No matter how inexpensive or expensive they may be, they are categorized in this way.

To recognize different types of sakes is like recognizing different types of music, and just like enjoying different types of music, you may also enjoy the tastes of different sakes. In order to know the differences between them, you should taste different types of sakes.

Experience the work of a kurabito. (The Epoch Times)

About Honkaku Shochu and Awamori

Honkaku Shochu (authentic Shochu) is a popular distilled spirit that has been developed over the past five centuries, mainly in southern Kyushu and is now produced all over Japan. Awamori uses a dark alcohol and rice mixture, and it is the authentic shochu in the Okinawa area.

According to the ingredients, Shochu can be classified into some of these categories: Kome (Rice) Shochu, Awamori, Mugi (Barley) Shochu, Imo (Sweet Potato) Shochu, Kokuto (Brown Sugar) Shochu, and Sakekasu (Filtered Sake Cake) Shochu.

Each Shochu distillery utilizes its own unique fermenter with the original ingredients; the resulting mixture is then poured into a kettle for steaming and distilling. Kettles also have their own styles and are made with various materials, from ancient wood to modern stainless steel. Therefore the taste of Honkaku Shochu and Awamori incorporates the flavor of the kettle’s material.

Honkaku Shochu sakagura. (Courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)
Traditional Shochu distillery. (Courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)
Shochu distillery. (Courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

Honkaku Shochu and Awamori incorporate the natural essence of the starting material, giving them a pleasant taste. Kurabitos utilize their own technique in each step of the brewing, fermenting, and distilling, which endows Honkaku Shochu and Awamori with different flavors, tastes, and characteristics.

In the summer, you can put the bottle in the fridge or freezer and enjoy it thoroughly chilled. You can also pour it on ice and enjoy the fresh, cool taste. Instead of ice cubes, you may pour it onto crushed ice—in which case it is called mist. Diluted with hot water is the most popular way to drink Honkaku Shochu in its region of production.

Pour hot water first in ceramic cup or bowl, and add Honkaku Shochu. Natural convection currents allow the hot water and Honkaku Shochu to mix naturally, and a rich aroma is created.

You also can dilute with cold water. Even after dilution, you can still enjoy the distinct flavor.

Understanding Japanese Culture Through Japanese Kokushu

To understand Japanese culture and history, there is no better place to start than from understanding Japanese kokushu: Sake, and Honkaku Shochu and Awamori. Pairing these national beverages with a Japanese meal or a Western meal will make for a wonderful combination.

Pairing Japanese kokushu with a meal. (Courtesy of Japan Sake and Shochu Makers Association)

No matter whether you have experienced Sake, Honkaku Shochu, and Awamori, when you visit a sakagura, listen to the stories of the kurabito, for they contain the harmony of nature, combined with their hard work and rigorous attitude. Because of the unique taste, only possible in its native location, plus with the deep essence of the culture imbued within, you can be sure that you will definitely experience the most unique Sake and Honkaku Shochu and Awamori.

Now is the time to reserve your very own Sakagura tour!

To reserve a Japanese Sakagura Tour, visit:
http://www.japansake.or.jp/tourism/contents/en/?mode=sake
http://www.japansake.or.jp/tourism/contents/en/?mode=shochu

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