Sake Guide – The Staple Drink of Japan
A trip to Japan is incomplete without having Sake, the drink most commonly consumed in the country. Similarly, my trip to the country included pit-stops at the local sake breweries and experiencing the grand Sake Festival, which is one reason alone to visit the country every year!
Actually, the first time I had the opportunity was take a sip of this sweet yet strong drink was back in 2005. I was in Tokyo for a quick trip, two days. After a group of meetings I was invited out for some lunch, which turned out to be an incredible sushi lunch! But, what is common with the meals is sake. My host asked me do I like my sake hot or cold? I didn’t know what the difference was then and I asked for hot.
The sake came to the table in a small yet well crafted bottle and two small round cups. The waitress poured each of us and we drank.
Wow! First, the sake WAS hot! But the sensation was the liquid rank down my throat was exciting. So to help you out and help to not be the fool that I was then I put together this article.
Sake Guide: What is Sake?
Many English-speaking countries mistake Sake for wine, in due fact, Sake can’t be wine because this alcoholic beverage is not made from grapes, but from steamed-cooked rice. It is an easy mistake to make, as many brands of sake possess a fruity flavor. And that was the first thing I asked when I met my host, if we could have some wine! The look he gave me well… lets ay it wasn’t all too pleasing….
The brewing process of sake is very much like beer where the sugar that is needed to produce ethanol must be first extracted from starch that is present in the rice.
To achieve that process, a special mould called koji is added to the cooked rice. The starch that is present in the cooked rice turns into sugars, which in turn becomes alcohol with the addition of yeast into this mixture. This is the fermentation process, and it will be another month or two when the sake can be distributed for consumption.
Sake Guide: Age-old cultural ties attached
The process of brewing sake is a lengthy one, followed and perfected by generations of Japanese who deemed the brewing of this drink as a form of art and their cultural heritage.
If you wish to have an experience of a lifetime, your ultimate travel destination should be Higashi-Hiroshima city. The city is famous for housing one of the three greatest sake brewing districts in Japan.
The chilly month of October is the best time to visit this city, because it is when the Sake Festival is held around the area of the Saijo Station that accommodates many of the oldest and well-established breweries in the city.
Sake Guide: The Sake Festival
I was fortunate enough to have been part of the festivities that occur every year, to greet the arrival of the new season’s batch of sake.
Along with a group of fellow sake enthusiasts, I took the Nozomi Shinkansen from Tokyo, and arrived at Hiroshima City in a grand total of 2 hours, and a couple of minutes. The train flew like the wind!
The only draw-back was that we had to pay the full fare, because the Nozomi Shinkansen doesn’t come under Japan Railways jurisdiction (Big topic of discussions, there are multiple train companies in Japan, each with there own lines and maps!). We also had to change trains, at Shin- Osaka.
All in all, the bullet train experience wasn’t all that bad.
We took the bus from the station and reached easily enough to our destination. One good thing about travel in Japan is the facilities offered to foreigners in terms of travel, and ways to reach places by themselves. You’ll find this in only the big cities though.
Sake Guide: Tasting and sampling
Like us, the whole neighborhood around Saijo station was filled with people that had come from all over Japan, and other parts of the world to sample fine Hiroshima sake.
The venue was be-decked with vibrant colors and food-stalls where visitors milled about some of the finest of that year’s batch of sake.
We ended the night some hours later, at a quiet sake restaurant away from the festivities that were still in full swing, and said kempai (which means cheers in Japanese) to our last drinking round of the day.
After this awesome experience, I can hardly go to a Japanese restaurant without ordering a small bottle of wine. After trying various kinds of hot and cold (there are many costs factors, too, but unlike wines you can get an excellent bottle of Sake for a couple of dollars) I decided I preferred hot!
And if you’re looking to learn a little bit about it, as I did after my trip to Japan, I’d definitely check out this book and help become a sake expert too!
Which do you prefer?