In Part 1 of my guide I examine my preconceived notions about Japanese sake, how to order and some rudimentary sake etiquette. In Part 2 I venture a little bit into the sake industry. In my next installment of this ongoing series I will discuss “trying” to go sake tasting.
One of the goals I had for my wife and I on our summer vacation was to try a bunch of nihon-shu (Japanese sake) at actual breweries. Thinking back to my roots in Northern California, I pictured tasting rooms all gathered together and quaint little shops where you can buy sake related items for exceptionally high prices.
After making two attempts to go sake tasting in the Fushimi ward of Kyoto and the Nada district of Kobe I would like to offer some free advice to the sake breweries of Japan. I don’t pretend to be an expert in sake production or marketing. Speaking from my personal experience with tasting rooms here in Japan and my experience selling wine and buying it in America, I’m going to make some suggestions anyway.
Before I start rattling off unwanted suggestions for the Toji (sake master brewers) I want to write a little bit about my experiences so far.
First off trying to understand what sake you are buying in Japan without speaking Japanese is incredibly hard. Even if you can read hiragana and have a dictionary with you, nearly every sake label is written in soushō because its fancy. Soushō is the artistic version of the adapted Chinese character set the Japanese call, “kanji.” Typically with more complex kanji a super-text of hiragana is added to help the reader if they don’t know the character being used. Sadly this consideration is quite rare on sake bottles. It is often times very hard to tell what I am buying. Not only is it hard to read but there is also the matter of actually knowing a good sake versus a bad one…
To be specific, sake is just alcohol, nihon-shu is “Japanese” alcohol. In Japan you can buy nihon-shu pretty much anywhere. Every convenience store and grocery will have a selection. Then there are specialty shops like Yamaya which focus on imported alcohol but also sell a wide variety of nihon-shu. So not only is there an abundance of labels I can’t read that are more than likely low grade, I haven’t the foggiest idea of what to look for in a good sake. Then there are izakayas which are primarily drinking establishments with a focus on nihon-shu. Finally, just like the wine industry you can buy directly from the brewer and find special selections that are only offered direct to the consumer and not sold at stores.
This idea sounded great because at the very least I could ask some questions about what it was exactly that I was buying, get some tasting notes and really do some side by side comparisons.
At nearly every sake brewery we stopped at there was some sort of sake museum also included. This is interesting the first time. But the sake brewing process has changed little in the last 400 years. (Not counting the industrialization of the process for major brewers like Hakutsuru in Nada). The focus of most sake brewery tasting rooms is to educate the customer on sake but not necessarily how it tastes. To really get a wide variety of tasting and izakaya is probably a better bet. Oh, and someone who speaks Japanese to go with you.
Here is how a basic brewery visit goes: Look around for an entrance. After several attempts at finding the appropriate entrance we locate a secret door and find our way into the brewery. Greeted by polite staff and we are then sent immediately into the brewery museum which shows the traditional brewing process and has lots of large barrels and old drawings. Finally at the end there is counter with one or two sakes to try. Usually it was a sweet or light sake, a heavy sake and then some ume-shu (an incredibly sweet plum liquor). After that, it’s exit through the gift shop.
The set up and basic layout is nearly identical to the pleasant tasting rooms of Sonoma or Amador county (apart from the museums). Everything is tastefully decorated, air conditioned and well kept. However the experience is totally different. There is nowhere to sit or relax with your tasting. Tasting notes are “available” but I doubt you’ll get much out of them. There was an urgency to finishing the tasting that I found a bit off-putting.
It saddens me a little to think that there is so much potential here for the sake industry to make a comeback but so little being done about it. To be fair to sake proprietors, this is an outsider’s perspective and maybe sales are off the charts. However, I can’t imagine a situation where these things wouldn’t help increase sales even if they were already strong.
Here is a list of suggestions, improvements, tweaks and other ideas that I think could really change the tourism associated with sake both with Japanese people and foreigners. Probably some of these ideas already exist but if it’s not in English that’s the first problem. The lack of English probably stems from the sheer amazement of Japanese people that anyone outside of Japan would like sake, but I digress…
1) Welcome signs and posted hours – At 7 of the 8 breweries we visited there were no hours posted, signs for entrances or welcome signs inviting the casual stroller to come in and taste. I found this to be particularly bad in the Nada-Gogō, the largest sake producing area of Japan. Nearly a third of all sake is produced there. Some had a welcome sign but no hours, some the entrance was not obvious. Some they simply had signs that were unreadable (unless you can read Japanese). The little map they give out is useless.
2) Collective Tasting Rooms – If you ever get a chance, go Santa Barbara’s “Funk Zone,” to see a tasting done right. There is no need for a car and the wine is fantastic. Plus you can stop at maybe the best fish taco place in the world, “Los Agaves.” A large portion of some of the best wines from Santa Barbara are all neighbors in the same 3 or 4 block radius.
The Nada district is considered by some tourist sites as a great walking tour with sake tasting much like the “Funk Zone.” They are entitled to hold an opinion that is empirically wrong if they are so inclined.
The Nada is district is an underwhelming time vacuum where most of your time will be spent getting from brewery to brewery and trying to navigate poorly labeled or unlabeled streets. The area is not quaint, charming or in any way visually appealing unless you like industrial super structures and concrete. I don’t even have any pictures of it because it was so boring to look at.
The nihon-shu on other hand was mostly great! There was only one that I didn’t particularly care for. If the Nada breweries got together and put all their tasting rooms in the center of the district by the river or the park that runs perpendicular to it they would make it a lot easier on customers to go to and from each brewery by foot. Japan has a zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving. I can guarantee and uptick in traffic if they invested in something like this. The Fushimi ward of Kyoto (while slightly more interesting to look at) suffers in essentially the same way. Its hard to tell where to go and when where you want to go is open.
3) English labels – For a product that is sold in Japan nearly exclusively to Japanese people it is hard to imagine why they would ever need to put English labels on sake sold in-country. Except for one flaw in that reasoning. Nearly every tourist that visits Japan is going to have English as the common language. If you want to sell your premium sake to the German tourist, English labels are the way to go. Do you want the businessman from Singapore to pick up a bottle at the shop in the train station on his way out of town..? English label. If the only obvious difference between three or four bottles of sake is price most people would never buy the most expensive one and would lean towards the frugal side. Price is almost always the deciding factor in a buying decision. The only way to change that is to sell them on why they should spend more.
For sake exports they use entirely different labels than what are used here in Japan. Here are the rules for sake label exportation if you are in to that sort of reading. Over 70% of the sake that is produced is considered non-premium sake and of course an importer in America is going to focus on premium sake but there is little comparison to that and how sake is actually sold here in Japan.
4) Rickshaws & Lockers – Can’t get all the Toji to agree on a place to set up shop? Make it easier on your customers by offering man power transportation for free with any purchase. You buy sake, we take you to the next place for free. Need a place to store your sake while you keep tasting? We can hold on to it for you for only an extra 500円. There is next to nothing when it comes to side businesses that could be supported by a more aggressive tasting tourism industry. Taxi’s in Japan are prohibitively expensive but, given the long distance walks and the zero tolerance policy for drinking and driving, taxis are one of the few ways to tour a sake district without melting under the summer sun. In Arashiyama there are rickshaws that take people across Hozugawa to Tenryu-ji. Why not for sake tasting? It doesn’t even have to be leg power, those bicycles with a bench seat in tow would work too. A group of college students could probably make a lot of money organizing a rickshaw tours of Fushimi, Central Kyoto and Nada-Gogō.
5) Package tours with pick up and lunch – Speaking of organizing a tour. One of the great ways to experience wine country is the guided van tour. In pretty much every wine producing region I have visited (in America) there is something like this: a local picks you up at your hotel along with several other eager tasters, drives you around for the day to four or five spots on the tour and provides lunch for an expensive but not outrageous price. I did find several tours that were offered entirely in Japanese at exceptionally high prices ($80 US per person was the cheapest I found) and only included 1 brewery and museum. However the cost to taste is never more than one dollar and the museum at most was three dollars. A taxi would likely be cheaper. A reasonably priced English tour available in Nada I think would sell out regularly. For comparison a van tour I took in Santa Barbara started at 11:00am, went to four wineries, included lunch, tasting fees and lasted the rest of the day; cost $60 per person.
6) Museum vs Cafe – This isn’t so much of a suggestion as it is an opportunity to set a brewery apart from the rest. There were a couple breweries that we went to that had a restaurant inside, although the restaurant was not open during the day. Nearly every brewery had some sort of museum. A key component of Japanese dining is food pairing. I was really surprised at the lack of this despite all the great things that improve sake and that sake supposedly improves when ingested together. I was also a little bored with the sake brewing process. If you are only going to visit one brewery then the museum is interesting but after that its a little repetitive. If these breweries changed their focus a little bit to small plates that are paired with sake I think they could change the way people buy and taste sake.
Like I said earlier, I am not an expert. These are more casual musings of a slightly disgruntled tourist. Sake tasting in Japan is really hard if you don’t speak Japanese. Beer tasting in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic, wine tasting in Italy, Greece the United States and France are all by contrast much easier to accomplish.
Check out part 4 of my guide where I talk about the sake brewing process and what makes nihon-shu so easy to drink (coming soon).