Destinations

A VISIT TO SAIJO, THE SAKE TOWN (ATT.JAPAN ISSUE 51)

Saijo lies in the center of Higashi-Hiroshima City, which is just next to Hiroshima City. The chimneys peering out from the town scene provide evidence of sake production. Surrounded by green mountains and located on a basin at an altitude of 250 meters, Saijo has wildly varying extremes of temperature from day to night and winter to summer, making this an ideal environment for manufacturing sake. With abundant subsoil flow from Mt. Ryuo and many rice farms, the region is widely recognized as being one of Japan's three finest sources of superior sake, along with Nada and Fushimi. This is the story of what I experienced when visiting Saijo...






One remarkable characteristic of Saijo is that eight sake breweries are based in a small, confined area. After exiting Saijo Station, walk through the station square to access the main street, which is appropriately called "Sakagura-dori" (or "sake brewery street"). Pop into the tourist information center to grab a town map and check the breweries that are open.
(Caption: A T-shirt bearing sake brand logos ?such a cool item!)

The street is dotted with sake storehouses bearing reticular patterns. In front of each brewery, there are wells of spring water, which visitors are free to taste. This water is also used in the sake making process and, as one would expect, is very tasty ? even locals bring their own containers to fill with water and take home.

My first stop was the Kamotsuru Sake Brewing Company. Here, after watching a video explaining the sake brewing process, we tasted samples of various kinds of sake. The rich aroma hit my nose, and I could sense warmth gradually rising from the bottom of my body. Each sake has its own level of spiciness and sweetness, so it's best to discover one that fits "your style."

We also enjoyed a great opportunity to see the rice washing/steaming, which is the first step in the sake brewing process. Everybody worked together to wash the rice in this steam-filled, sweet-smelling environment. We followed the cues of the touji, or chief brewer, whose eyes are so serious-looking they seem to be engaging in some kind of ritual or ceremony.

The next brewery I visited was Kamoizumi Shuzou. Kamoizumi was a pioneer who resumed the traditional process of sake manufacturing, using only rice and rice malt. "We wanted to get back to the true sake style," said President Maegaki, guiding us to his company's brewing facility. The scene of giant tanks standing side by side was really a sight to be seen. When peering into one from above, I could smell the sweet and sour flavor. As the fermentation process is under way, bubbles constantly rise to the white surface, making a burbling sound, which I found quite entrancing.

Although they are very respectful of tradition, each brewery is hungry for a new challenge. Kamoki Sake Brewery has a cafe named Waroda, which offers a new and hot sweet called "Ginjo Chiffon Cake." This light cake perfectly complements the gentle flavor of sake (as long as you don't overdo it on the sake). At Kirei Shuzou, meanwhile, udon noodles kneaded with sake are on sale and proving to be very popular. Famous annual sake bottles forming the year's Oriental zodiac are available at Fukubijin Shuzou. These gfancy as decoration, chic when usedh item are extremely popular as gifts.

At night, we degusted a bishunabe hot pot with okan, or warmed sake. To make bishunabe, fry some chicken and vegetables, add some sake, simmer for a while, then add some salt and pepper to season. One of the great effects of sake is that it softens the ingredients and ensures that their flavor is retainedc Mmmc this is really delicious.

This day was all about the charm of sake, which I was privileged to enjoy to my heart's content.



More fun in Saijo

Saijo's annual "Sake Matsuri" festival takes place in October, collecting over 900 brands of sake from all around Japan. Starting with a portable shrine parade from Matsuo Shrine, where the god of sake is enshrined, the festival hosts various sake-related events. If you are interested in liquor by and large, why not visit the National Research Institute of Brewing? (Book in advance.) They mainly conduct advanced analysis and research of alcoholic beverages, and provide classes to manufacturers and distributors; however, visitors are able to look around the brewing facilities and enjoy tastings of alcoholic beverages.



Care and cleaning of mountains
The most important factors in sake manufacturing are water and rice. Some activities are carried out for conserving the environment, which is fundamental for good water and rice. "Saijo Yama to Mizu no Kankyo Kiko" (the Environmental Institution of Mountains and Water), inaugurated in 2001, engages in the brush thinning of Mt. Ryuo in order to improve the mountain's water retaining capacity. The trees chopped down are processed into pulp and are then used as a fertilizer in the fields where the "Yamadanishiki" brewer's rice is cultivated, in turn helping to create Saijo's high-quality sake.



Access
From Tokyo: 4 hrs by Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen "Nozomi" bullet train to Hiroshima. Change to Sanyo Line and take a 35-minute ride from there.
1 hr 20 minutes by air from Haneda Airport to Hiroshima Airport. Take a taxi from the airport (30 minutes).

From Osaka:1 hr 30 minutes by Tokaido / Sanyo Shinkansen "Nozomi" bullet train to Hiroshima. Change to Sanyo Line and take a 35-minute ride from there.



Grades of sake
Sake has a whole ranking system based on the degree of seimai buai (milled rice ratio). Sake with a ratio of between 60% and 50% is called a ginjo-shu (‹). If the ratio is below 50%, it is called a daiginjo-shu (‘‹). Sake made from only rice and rice malt, without adding other alcohol, is called junmai-shu (ƒ•), or pure sake. These grades can always be found written on the bottle.

For more information on Saijo, check http://saijosake.com/

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